Category Archives: Small Groups

5 Tips to Lead a More Effective Small Group

Chances are, if you’re in youth ministry you have at least some kind of structure of small groups provided for your students.  At the onset of the year, I decided that we would start crafting our small group questions a little more intentionally this year.  Everybody’s small group times look differently.  Maybe you open the floor for students to discuss the topic with little moderation.  Maybe you play devil’s advocate to get your students thinking for themselves.  Maybe you have a series of question that require you to pry the answers out of your students.  Regardless of the depth, length, or format of your small group time, the questions (or prompts if you have a more open format) could probably use some help.  In today’s post you’ll find some helpful hints on crafting your small group questions to be more intentional about your time together.  If you think of any other tips, we’d be glad to hear your feedback!

1. Ask questions that begin with “how”, prompts that begin with “explain”, and follow up with “why”s.  Questions and prompts like these take a lot more thought, time, and effort.. but they’re worth it!  I found at the end of this year that most of the small group questions I was writing begin with “what”, or something else that only demands a quick or short answer.  I lead our middle school girls’ small group, and I found that we were taking 75% of our time up with “rocks and rubies” (highs and lows from their week) and a meager 25% on content.  It wasn’t because they wanted to talk forever, though they often do.  It was largely because the questions only demanded one to maybe five word answers, so I didn’t feel the urgency to spend the majority of our time on questions.  Our students didn’t have to think hard to find the answer and would only go deeper with lots of prompting and craftiness.  Rather…

  • Ask questions that require a “paragraph” of an answer instead of just a word or two.  Craft your questions to get your students to think deeper than surface level (i.e. “How do you think/feel…” instead of “What is…”).  No “Sunday School” answers here!
  • Get your students to explain themselves.  This not only let’s them know it’s safe to express themselves, but it also cultivates an environment conducive for relationships.  Your students will know you care and you will learn a whole lot more about them and the way they think.
  • When you ask “why”, you’re not necessarily looking for a right or wrong answer!  You’re once again getting your students to think deeper.  Just remember not to leave them hanging – we’ll get to that in a little bit (see sub-points of #5).

2. Shut up and listen!  If you’re anything like me, it’s easy to simply explain the concept to your students, especially if it’s a hard concept to come to simply with prompting and if you are quite familiar with it.  But your students will never learn this way.  The things I remember most from when I was their age in youth group were the things that my youth pastor, Dave Farwell, pushed us to figure out on our own (with his guidance, of course).  Why?  Because we had to think.  We were forced to talk through it.  Silence was not a way out.  This is one of the reasons I love the devil’s advocate method: you get in-house training on how to defend your case and figure out the truth where it’s still safe!  Remember, silence is okay!  You have to learn to be comfortable with silence instead of acting awkwardly like one of your students might act.  If you need to, tell them you’re not going to move on until they discuss it.

3. Manage your time wisely, even if that means you have to schedule it or set alarms for when you need to move on to another question or segment of your time.  Like I said earlier, it’s easy to take up most of your time discussing everyone’s weeks.  Whether laziness (not wanting to talk about deeper things) or genuine interest in your students, this needs to stop.  Yes, find out about their weeks, but keep it at a minimum.  Chances are whatever happened that was so exciting this week will be forgotten within another week’s time.. or soon enough.  Day-to-day things are very important to show how much you care about your students and build relationships, but the things you have to discuss about God’s truths are infinitely more important and need all the time they deserve.  So make your “rocks and rubies” quick or even cut them depending on the time you have at each given small group meeting.  And who’s to say you can’t talk about these things outside of your small group time?  This also means…

  • You may need to omit questions.  Yes, I know this may be hard if you’re a very thorough person and don’t like to leave things unsaid.    I’m with you.  But you need to learn to assess the time you have and the amount of time your discussions will take in order to hit the hardest points.  If you find extra time at the end of your time together, feel free to go back and address any skipped questions.
  • Flexibility is not an option – it’s a must.  Maybe you get to small group one night and you realize that your students don’t need to sit and talk about apologetics and how old the earth is – one of their classmates died in a car accident this week and they need some comfort and counsel.  Needs such as these need to be addressed and could be much more pressing than the lesson that were prepared a week ago.  Maybe your students have questions about something said during this week’s lesson or at school.  You be the judge – if it needs talked about, then use your time there!
  • If there’s something that needs extra time or extra confidentiality, make sure you make the time outside of your small group time to talk with that particular student.  Our relationship with our students should not be contained.  Get together over coffee or a meal if you need.

4. Time management brings me to my next point: BE PREPARED!  There’s nothing worse than a small group leader who shows up to youth group with freshly printed questions and reads them for the first time as you’re asking them.  This is something I am really working on helping our other small group leaders with.  It’s easier for me because I write the questions.  But we have a bad habit of not getting the questions to our leaders until Saturday or Sunday, and our youth group meets on Sunday nights.  Do everything in your power to get your questions early and study them yourself at least a day or two before small group, if not more.  Sure, you could wing it.  But what if you don’t know your own stance on one of the questions?  What if you don’t understand what the question is getting at?  This also allows you to tailor the questions a little bit more to your group.  For instance, we have the same questions for middle school and high school, and both genders.  Maybe your questions need to be altered a little to make it more relate-able.  Besides, you know your students best, right?  Being prepared beforehand allows you to go deeper and lead with ease.  Not to mention it will command respect.

5. Last, but definitely not least: take authority and lead.  You are the leader.  Not your students.

  • Don’t allow them to monopolize or waste your time.  With middle schoolers, this can be especially hard because of the seemingly off-topic rabbit trails they tend to take (it doesn’t help when you’re like me and get on rabbit trails as a leader too).  Make sure your students know you’re in charge and that it’s not okay to interrupt or disrupt your time together.  But also be careful not to become a drill sergeant of your group – you need a healthy balance of loving firmness here.
  • Guide your students to correct concepts.  This also needs a good balance.  Don’t bash your students or embarrass them if they are wrong, and also don’t walk so lightly with the truth that it seems ambiguous or option.  That’s why I call it guiding them, not simply correcting.  Give them ample time to discuss their view on the topic, and even open it up for your other students to discuss that view, before swooping in to save the day of undeveloped opinions.  Teens can be very vulnerable and fragile, but they are also tougher than you think.  So try to find a good balance of truth and love that works with your group.  I’ve found that sometimes it’s as simple as not understanding because of a misconception based off of how something is worded.
  • Be an example.  The best leaders lead by example, not with instructions and a dos and don’ts list.  Be mature, honest, and open with your students.  This not only establishes trust, but also shows them what it’s like to be a true Christ-follower.  It allows you to be on their level, while still maintaining the respect of an adult leader (not merely a friend).  They need to know that you’re not perfect.  You have struggles and feelings too!  Letting them see how you handle things like these will show them how to handle things when similar stuff comes their way.  “People don’t always remember what you say, but they will always remember what you do.”

I hope these tips from my personal experience will help you as you continue to prepare the small group time for your students.  If you want a quick read for some more (expert) advice, check out the book Help! I’m A Small Group Leader on Youth Specialties‘ website.


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