How to be a Small Group Guru by Kurt Johnston


Let’s spend this month talking about small groups! Small groups are nothing new, but many youth groups are just about to kick off a new season for the school year. And the beginning of a new small group run is a great time to remind yourself of some basic principles that may help get things off and running on the right foot.

Small Groups Take Big Effort!

Depending on your small group strategy, it may be the highest-maintenance thing your ministry does. Finding leaders, training leaders (and training, and training and training), assigning groups, finding host homes or ample space in the church, encouraging leaders (and encouraging and encouraging and encouraging), creating a calendar, sending out lessons, holding leaders accountable (and holding them accountable, and holding them accountable and holding them accountable), building relationships with the parents. And on and on and on. It’s tempting to wonder if all the effort is worth it. The answer, and I think most youth workers would agree, is a resounding YES!

* Small Groups Are Messy!

While it’s certainly true that some models are messier than others, small groups are messy stuff, And that’s the way it’s supposed to be! Small groups are largely about the idea of sharing life together, and life is messy.

* Small Groups Are Scary!

Sometimes because we are so convinced in the power of small groups, us youth workers forget how scary they can be. Being attacked on the church patio by an over-eager (read desperate) youth worker asking if you’d be willing to commit meeting weekly with a dozen 7th grade boys is scary to most adults. The idea of letting your teenager spend prolonged time under the influence of another adult (whom you probably don’t know very well and possibly have never met) is scary for most parents. Sitting in a circle with a group of peers wondering when you will be asked to share your deepest, darkest sin is scary to most teenagers. Of course, we’ve all learned that most of these fears are put to rest once a small group is off and running, but remember: Every year there are a whole bunch of volunteers, parents and teenagers entering the small group journey for the very first time. Acknowledge these fears instead of trying to minimize them.

* Small Groups Are Golden!

Big effort? Yep.  Messy? Check.  Scary. For sure.  But small groups are the “mother lode” of youth ministry! I’ve often said that if we were told our youth ministry could only do one thing (which would be kinda nice!), it would be small groups. Very little happens in the other areas of your youth ministry that can’t happen better in small groups. And because of this, they are well worth the effort, mess and fear that often comes with the package.

Part 2

Maxwell has said, “Everything rises and falls on leadership”.  And while I’m not sure that everything rises and falls on leadership, I think it is true when it comes to youth ministry small groups. The adults you entrust to lead your small groups will make or break your efforts. We’ve had amazing small group leaders “make” a wonderful small group experience despite gaps in our organizational skills, curriculum choice, etc.  And we’ve had poor small group leaders “break” a small group despite our best efforts.

Here are some characteristics to look for in your small group leaders:

* Shepherds Not Chaperones

You can make a pretty strong argument that nobody is pastoring your students more than their small group leader. Because of this, you need leaders who have a pastor/shepherd heart; men and women who truly have a desire to walk alongside a teenager on their messy journey. A chaperone mentality that simply desires to keep teenagers in line, straighten them out, etc. can do much more damage than good.

* Mature Not Milk-drinkers

Okay, maybe I wanted those two words to start with the same letter a little too much…but you get the point! Think about this: You are going to put a group of 10 fourteen year old girls under the care, leadership, teaching, life-modeling of somebody who is neither you nor their parents for a prolonged period of time each week. Do you want a mature, seasoned, follower of Jesus who understands the faith journey or do you want the 20-year old who is on break from touring with her punk rock band who is chomping at the bit to “pour into” a group of girls so she can help them avoid the numerous mistakes she made….just last month. Am I actually saying one of those is a better small group candidate than the other?! Yes, yes I am.

Followers Not Leaders

Wait, isn’t this an article about small group LEADERS? It is. And while you want men and women (of all shapes, sizes and ages BTW…just mature instead of milk-drinkers) you also want (need) these men and women to know when to lead, and when to follow. Over the years I’ve seen lots and lots of small groups go off the rails, and it’s almost always because the small group leader isn’t a good follower. They decide not to follow our guidelines. They ignore our coaching. They don’t follow the cues of parents. They take the mantle of leadership we’ve given them too far; and it causes problems.

It’s hard work to find the right people to lead your small groups. But small group gurus know that doing the hard work on the front end saves a lot of much harder work later on.

Part 3

Week three of this series may be a good time to come clean. I’m not a very good small group leader…a small group guru I ain’t! But I’ve observed some of the best (because I’m so bad I always partner with somebody really good!). I’ve asked other small group leaders for tips and I’ve tried to learn from my own mistakes and relatively few moments of success! Where I struggle most seems to be during the formal, weekly, 90-minute group time…which to me seems like a fairly important part of the small group experience! Below are a few “Guru Skills” I’ve learned over the years that, when I remember to implement them, have proven successful every time!

* Small Group is for the Small Groupees!

In other words it’s about them, not me. Having this mindset as I head into small group each week is a game changer. Sometimes the guys in my group need to jump on the trampoline for a few extra minutes, sometimes they need to have the freedom to head down a rabbit trail instead of the curriculum, sometimes they need extra prayer time, and sometimes they need to skip it altogether. The small group I lead isn’t for my benefit (although there is a TON of benefit in it for me), it’s for theirs. A small group guru must recognize this and become skilled at leading well but doing so with a loose grip.

* Experience is the Best Education.

In our youth ministry purpose statement and paradigm, we designate small groups as the place students “EXPERIENCE Christ, his kingdom, and the purposes of his church.” We have built into our philosophy of ministry the expectation that our small groups aren’t to be a lecture-driven, classroom-feeling, adult knowledge-dispensing atmosphere. Instead, our small groups are designed to be experiential in nature, because we know that what is experienced is often what sticks the longest. As a guy who likes to teach, likes to hear himself talk, and thinks he has pretty good stuff to say, this one can be tough for me. But when I get it right, it is downright Guru-ish! Need one easy way to make your small group more experiential? Read on!

* Big Ears; Small Mouth.

I’ve learned that there is a direct(ish) correlation between the amount of time I spend talking in small group and the success of that particular gathering. The correlation: The less I talk, the better things go!  Small groups are the perfect setting for creative learning experiences, case studies, role playing, etc. A small group in which everybody has an opportunity to respond to one or two good questions is far better than one in which the adult leader pontificates on the topic for 30-minutes. Here’s what happens when you talk less: They talk more! And if you are listening, good stuff bubbles to the surface! Teenagers are starving for adults to truly listen to them and to take seriously what they have to say. So when they speak, listen. Then, instead of giving them the answer of sharing your infinite wisdom, ask a follow up question and listen some more.

Yep, you are reading a small group Guru series from a non-Guru. But I’m learning, and hopefully you are, too. And the quest for knowledge and wisdom seems very Guru-like to me!

Part 4

To wrap up our series on becoming a small group guru, I’d like to prepare a little guru goulash; a delish mish mash of thoughts.

* Don’t forget the parents!

Leading a small group of 5-10 teenagers also gives you an incredible opportunity to minister to 5-20 parents! As parents witness you going above and beyond for their child, they become much more likely to open themselves up to the possibility that you have something to offer them, too! Look for ways to provide hope and help to the parents of your small group.

* Run at their pace, not yours.

Every small group has a different spiritual “pace”, and a big part of your role is to figure out what that pace is, and then figure out how to run your group at that pace….while nudging them forward a little bit, too. When I encounter frustrated small group leaders in our ministry, the reason they are frustrated is often because they are pushing too hard, or out-pacing their students.

* Your small group is like a mini “Kingdom Experiment”!

Small groups are a great, mostly safe, way to experiment and experience some of the stuff God has intended for the body of Christ all along. Celebrating the diversity of gifts and life journeys, praying for, encouraging and supporting one another, holding each other accountable, serving the globe, etc.  So much stuff that is sometimes hard to figure out how to accomplish in the larger youth group setting becomes very attainable in a small group.

* Enjoy Yourself.

One of the reasons you got into youth ministry in the first place was to spend time with students, to do relational youth ministry. I have a very simple formula that I share every time I talk about youth ministry; and it’s never failed:

Teenager + Caring Adult + Jesus = Good Stuff!

Take some pressure off yourself! Enjoy the ride. Have fun. The simple fact that you are spending time with teenagers, and walking alongside them on their Jesus-journey is guaranteed to have good results.

Now that you’ve read all four weeks of this series, and as the new school year starts, it’s time to get your small group guru on!

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