Essentials in Youth Ministry: Small Groups

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In my eight years as a small group leader to students (and their leaders), I’ve learned much about what to do and what not to do. About what works, and what doesn’t. So what makes small groups successful? How (if it is even possible) do you measure their success? I’ve made lots of mistakes and had a lot of victories, but they all seem to surround this one idea: safety. 

At the beginning of every school year, each of our small groups is given a small group covenant. This agreement lists various rules of “small group”, and has a place for each member to sign. The rules are generally meant to teach respect, love and care of each other, but the last rule is the most important. It simply reads: What is said in small group, stays in small group. The small group covenant seeks to create, provide, and protect safety. 

Our students have many options of where they can give their time and get their information, but few of those places can actually be considered “safe”. A safe small group is one where students see and hear conflict resolution. It’s a place where all questions are welcomed, whether answerable or not. It’s a place where fears come to be voiced, shame and sin come to be confessed, and grace is given, lived, and talked about in abundance.

A safe small group goes through the Bible Study and prays afterward, yet it also can get through only one question from the study and end with everyone in tears because of what was shared. A safe small group puts the lesson aside for a night because a student’s mom was just diagnosed with cancer or someone has to move because of a dad’s job or a family is leaving the church because of strife, or simply because it’s the first day of 65 degree weather and the students simply cannot sit still, so you opt to walk over to the nearest ice cream shop. 

A safe small group is a place where leaders show up to live life with students, not just to get them to memorize scripture. When discussing the essential parts of what a small group needs to be…it needs above all to be safe. 

But in order to create a safe small group, it must be led safely, by safe leaders. And I believe you can only become a safe leader by being willing to go into unsafe territory with your students. By “unsafe” territory, I mean going to places within our own hearts, minds, and souls about which we don’t tell people. It’s the places we find the hardest to allow God’s Gospel of Grace to enter. The places where we judge others on how they dress, live, or raise their kids. The places where we struggle with sin so dark that only a trusted few (if any) know it’s there. It’s the places and things in our life where we have a hard time remembering that Jesus actually loves us there, not only in the prettier parts of ourselves. 

Unsafe territory is that internal place we treat like the junk drawer in the kitchen. We rarely open it, except to throw more stuff inside so it, too, is “out of the way.” Until that one day we need to find something and have to spend hours digging through the mess.

In order to be a safe leader, we don’t have to have a clean junk drawer, we just need to know its location and contents. In leading a safe small group, our students should know about our junk drawer, and, when given the chance, we should let them see inside of it. This can, and should, take place during the set small group time, but it also needs to take place outside of it. 

The third key to a safe small group is making sure your students see you outside of that group time. Live life with them, by showing up at their basketball games. Invite a few of them over to play video games, or to have dinner and watch a movie with your family. Let them meet your friends, and make sure you say “hi” on Sunday mornings. Get permission to take them to a midnight showing of the newest Star Trek movie. Creating a safe small group takes intentional time to develop and, therefore, sacrifice and vulnerability accompany it. But once a safe group is created, you’ll be amazed by the depth of relationship, conversation, and personal growth that you may witness. 

Jesus constantly taught his disciples as they lived life: Along the road to Emmaus, around a campfire, and almost always during a meal.  He lived enough life with them, to call them his “friends”. Paul continued to minister to his friends through letters, though he went years without seeing them. His letters to the churches are ones that encourage and inspire unity within groups, to help create safe places for sinners. 

The most successful small groups are not the ones with the biggest numbers, the more popular kids, the more spiritual scripture readers, or the ones that tend to produce more student leaders.  The most successful small groups are ones where a leader decides to become a safe leader, and strives to create a safe group, so that our very unsafe (and yet most safe) Jesus can come and do His restorative work in our students’ lives. 

*Scripture references for “Living Life Together” – Luke 24:12-34; John 21; John 15:15; Colossians; Philippians; Ephesians; Romans.

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