How to Build or Invigorate Your Small Groups
group magazine: November-December, 2005
An innovative (and failure-tested), step-by-step plan for planting a small group structure in your ministry
by Scott Austin
In my first sentence, it’s important for you to know that I’m about to offer you the first fruits of my failures—I’ve literally experienced disappointment hundreds of times as I’ve struggled to build a thriving small group ministry.
I’ve always known small groups were a key to healthy youth ministry, but often had no idea how to pull them off. Even now, as I write these words, we’re restrategizing and rethinking our small group ministry.
I won’t spend more space than this short paragraph making an argument for small groups in youth ministry—you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone today who doesn’t agree that small groups are an effective part of youth ministry.(1) All of us develop more deeply in community than in isolation. But you, like me, may need some help getting started or boosting what you’re already doing.
Let’s walk together through a three-phase process for building a small group ministry—blueprint, construction, and connection.
The Blueprint Phase
If your church already has a small group mentality, you probably have a useable blueprint right in front of you. If not, you can pursue your calling as a seed-planter in your church.
1. Begin by asking, “Why?” Sure Jesus organized his ministry around a small group model (he had only 12 in his group, and even split them into pairs when he sent them out to minister). But you need a well-thought-out foundation for building a small group structure in your group or the first stiff wind you encounter will knock it over. With your leaders, answer this simple question: What do we hope to achieve through small groups in
In my experience, small groups have been an incredible catalyst for faith growth as well as a perfect environment for outreach. That’s why we push through the challenges to nourish and maintain them. But small groups will not help you achieve all of your ministry goals, and you should know that before you start to build.
2. Decide what “curriculum” you’ll use. Some churches choose a small group curriculum resource that’s extensive enough to carry the group through a six-year cycle. Other ministries prefer to write their own program material. I say, beware of writing your own curriculum if you’re new to the small group environment—it’s a lot of work!(2) Whatever you do, don’t assume you can get by with no curriculum at all.
The best curriculum is way more than just a Bible lesson—it’s active, interactive, and attention-grabbing.
A good curriculum will give you the raw ideas to offer kids a structured, productive time.
3. Answer the when, where, and who questions. These are bigger questions than they seem at first blush. You must choose a day and time for your small groups that doesn’t conflict with major events in your ministry, that’s family friendly, and that works for your schedule. Once you make this decision, stay with it. Some kids can’t make every meeting—you need to be consistent because they probably won’t be.
At first it might seem attractive to have kids meet in your church or some other public place, but I advise against it. We plant our small groups almost exclusively in homes. Home groups spread out the leadership responsibilities from ministry staffers to the host families. Ask the host to provide snacks or set up a rotation of parents bringing snacks (at the risk of sounding trite, snacks are crucial to the success of small groups). The teenager in the host family can be responsible for calling friends and remembering birthdays and other important dates.
Host homes can also model healthy relationships for your kids—for many it will be their first experience with a functional family. We’re very careful about the homes we choose for small group hosts—we look for well-balanced, intact families. Many of our young people come from broken homes. A home group can become a source of redemption as they witness healthy family interactions.
Finally, home groups offer the kind of warm, welcoming environment that’s hard to replicate in a church meeting space. Often as I sit in a living room listening to kids pour out their lives, I feel a deep connection to the early church. Christianity is literally rooted in home groups.
I have a different-than-expected take on who to include in a small group. You, like me, have probably worked very hard to break up cliques in your group. I’ve tried to do the same with our small groups, but I just won’t spend the energy anymore. Instead, consider exploiting your cliques. You already know about the friend-groups in your church—athletes, artists, musicians, intellectuals, and so on. Since they already hang out together, give them a purpose!
For example, I asked a cheerleader from a solid family to host a small group one night a week. Her parents were thrilled to open their house. The first week we started with a dozen kids—all of them were her invited friends. The group thrived because the kids already wanted to be with each other.
The Construction Phase
Now you have a plan, a curriculum, and a host home—just add water (a few kids) and you’ve got a small group! But how do you get them to show up? Before you start your marketing blitz, remember it’s a “small group”—I suggest you keep the group to less than 12 kids. Some of the best small group communities I’ve been a part of had a core group of seven-or-so teenagers. Twelve is the max as far as I’m concerned. Once you reach 13 start a second group.
1. Begin with recruiting the right leaders. You need three strong leaders to fuel your small group ministry before you ever put the word out about it. It’s impossible to run a healthy small group structure on your own. Recruit one person to partner with you, and two others who will wait in the wings. In every small group you need a leader and a leader-in-training. As long as you keep to this principle you’ll be ready to multiply when growth happens.
Great small group leaders come in all stripes—in fact, some of my most effective leaders have been grandparents! Look for men and women who love God, love teenagers, and show an ability to be consistent and organized. Go-getters are like gold because kids don’t simply show up at a small group—the best leaders reach out to kids and invite them. Consider recruiting from your congregation, not just your current circle of ministry leaders. Once you have your leaders, invest some time together looking over the curriculum, praying for the kids who’ve signed up for your groups, and discussing how to lead them.
2. Next you’ll need to “net” some kids. We’ve failed so often at this step that I’ve listed some of our disasters in the box “What Didn’t Work For Us” on this page. What has worked for us? We’ve built all our successful small groups using a simple two-step strategy.
First, consider a target. Let’s say you want to reach out to boys in their junior and senior years of high school. Make a list of 15 to 20 boys you hope will join the group. Ask a family with a junior or senior boy to host the group. Then invite your target group to join you for the first meeting—send a personal invitation to each boy on your list; then follow up with a phone call. Ask your host teenager to talk up the group at school to those same boys.
Finally, bring them to the group! The greatest tool for building a small group is your car. Divide the target list between your two leaders; then have them call the guys the day of the small group to ask if they can pick them up.
I’ve been amazed by how simple and effective this two-step strategy is! For the first three weeks, one of my groups was hobbling along with just two girls and me. One of the girls was my host teenager. Three is a small group, but it was a little below what I’d been hoping for. So I called four boys the next week, picked them all up, and increased my group attendance by 200 percent. I drove those same four boys to small group for two more years. It took about 30 minutes to pick everyone up and get them to the group. I used the drive time for building community. Every week I made a mix CD and introduced the guys to some new music. Those boys are all seniors in college now, and they’re still connected to the church!
The Connection Phase
After you’ve done all the prep work to build a healthy small group ministry, make sure you don’t drop your hammer when it’s finally time to start building community! Some leaders think of small groups as an inviting new pulpit. But we’re building small groups, not small lecture halls. Bible study is a critical element to spiritual growth, but so is connecting in a community of Christians.
An effective small group is characterized by an interactive environment that nurtures accountability, prayer, study, and encouragement. We use the C.E.L.L. acronym as our model—it stands for Connect, Equip, Listen, and Love. We train our leaders to define their success by these four standards.
1. Connect—As adult leaders, we’re often far too quick to assume the role of a talking head in our small group communities. When this happens, “community” is defined by one person talking and everyone else doing their best to sit still and listen. But a small group is first and foremost a place to build relationships.
So the first thing our groups do when they meet is practice a simple exercise—we call it Best and Worst. Simply ask each person to tell you something good and something bad that happened to them during the past week. So many times I’ve mentally rewritten a planned Bible lesson as I’ve listened to my kids’ hearts. Here’s the key: Teenagers are far more likely to engage your questions about biblical truth when they know you’re plugged into their lives.
Sometimes the Best and Worst segment takes up the entire group meeting. When that happens everyone wins because kids experience what it’s like to live out their relationship with Jesus in everyday life. Your kids may be years away from an in-depth study of Colossians. The way you get there with them is to connect them with each other in real community—that will lay a relational foundation for taking the next big step into deeper study.
2. Equip—When you prepare your Bible lessons for small groups, make sure you make real-world application a priority. An interactive community is an ideal setting to apply scriptural truth to actual situations. To make sure we make the connection, I almost always follow my kids’ answers by asking: “What does that mean?”
For example, when a teenager answers a Bible-study question by saying, “You should glorify God with your life,” I respond by asking, “What does that mean?” Often they have no idea! The goal is to use the small group time to flesh out what it really means to glorify God in everyday life. That means your small group leaders must learn how to ask good questions.(3)
Find ways to move the conversation from a rhetorical exercise to an active exercise. For example, if you’re discussing the importance of service, offer kids real opportunities to serve. Once your kids are comfortable praying for each other, take them outside to walk the street where the host home is located, praying for the families who live in each home.
Small group leaders should study the Bible, and they should study their teenagers. What magazines do they read? What television shows are their favorites? What movies are they dying to see? Where do they buy clothes? What’s the last CD or iTune they bought? Once you know what they’re into, use that stuff as a discussion starter.(4)
3. Listen—You never know what baggage your young people may bring with them on any given night. Effective small group strategy values the relationship over the lesson. In other words, listening is the most crucial aspect of small group ministry. As you hear kids report on their best and worst of the week, stay focused and pursue what they put out there. If it’s clear a teenager needs more time to explore an issue, make sure your leaders follow up.
4. Love—Train your small group leaders to take the next relational step to support their kids. A five-minute
call during the week to follow up on a prayer concern
can literally transform a teenager’s life. Make sure your
leaders have birthdays and special events recorded somewhere. If possible, have them attend one student event once a month. And don’t limit the support to your leaders— expect other small group members to support one another. You’ll be amazed by the connections these students establish.
Now that I’ve shown you our entire small group menu, I’m encouraging you to “order” only what you want. Don’t feel pressured to create a perfect meeting every week. If all you really do is tune in to your kids and listen, then you’ve had a great meeting. If you begin with a solid plan and adhere to the basic principles I’ve outlined here, you can build a life-changing small group ministry.
Scott Austin is the pastor to students at a church in Texas.
What Didn't Work For Us
by Scott Austin
Here are a few small group recruiting ideas that fizzled for us. Because every church responds differently, feel free to try these ideas anyway. But our team has analyzed these strategies and determined they never produced growth in our small groups.
1. Rally Week/Night
We tried blowing the doors off with a citywide concert followed by a big kickoff for our small groups the next week. Our adult leaders walked around the concert venue shaking hands and inviting kids. We passed out business-card-size invitations with maps and contact information on our small groups. And we took down names and numbers so we could contact all the students before the next week.
2. Small Group Tailgater
Our church is in Texas, where tailgating is akin to a religious activity! So each of our small groups created a theme and decorated a car. Then they set up for tailgating in the parking lot on the way into the church on our youth group night. Each car had different food—kids talked about their group and invited everyone who stopped by to attend.
3. Churchwide Mailing
We used our congregation’s master roster of families to mail all the kids in our church an invitation to the opening night of our small groups. We gave the groups cool names—we called one of them MIA, for “Men In the Attic.” The group actually met in a home’s attic space. We sent out invitations with MIA printed on the front and a simple note on the inside: “Young men, join the revolution. Thursdays at 7 p.m. The Parkers’ attic.”
4. Personal Invitation at Youth Group
We’ve had our adult small group leaders all show up on youth group night and set up special booths to pass out information on the groups.
We invested a lot of time in each of these ideas, and I’m sure they raised the profile of our small groups with some kids. But they didn’t produce the results we’d hoped for, and we no longer do them.
1. By the way, if your student ministry is a “small group” even on its biggest nights, God has given you an excellent opportunity to make a deep impact in the lives he’s entrusted to you. The tools I’ve included in this article are valid no matter how big or small your ministry is.
2. Group has several small group curriculum resources, including the newly released Friendship First youth ministry kit. This innovative program builds deep relationships around the “hook” of shared food—just the way Jesus did. It’s a powerhouse way to build community. To learn more about it, go to www.groupmag.com and click on Youth Ministry Resources at the bottom of the Home Page, then click on the Friendship First icon. While you’re there, check out the FaithWeaver and Faith 4 Life Bible study series—they’re perfect for small groups.
3. For some great ideas on pursuing kids with passion, check out group editor Rick Lawrence’s Youth Ministry Minute column “Passionate Pursuit” from the March/April 2003 issue. Just go to our Web site at www.groupmag.com and click on the Archives link at the top. Then enter your subscriber number (found on your mailing label) and you’re in. Go to the March/April 2003 issue and click on the “Youth Ministry Minute: Passionate Pursuit” article. If your small group leaders would benefit from hundreds of kid-tested discussion-starting questions, pick up a copy of Tough Questions by Josh Warren (Group Publishing). Check it out by going to www.groupmag.com, then click on the “Youth Ministry Resources” link at the bottom of the page.
4. group Magazine editors created our MinistryandMedia.com Web site to give youth leaders the tools you need to turn kids’ cultural influences into biblical discussion starters. Thousands of subscribers use it every week to train kids to think biblically about the films and TV shows they watch, the songs they listen to, and the news they read. Take a free tour of the site by going to www.ministryandmedia.com, then click on the Take the FREE Tour link at the top.