She rolled her eyes, explaining she didn’t want to go to small group and I couldn’t make her. I was puzzled. I thought she was in a great small group, with outstanding leaders and a cool group of girls in her grade. As we talked, I realized she had never fully engaged in her small group. Each week, she would go into the bathroom instead to wait out the small group time.
Small groups have become a mainstay element of youth ministry strategies. Middle years students, like this young girl, however may not understand the value of small groups, or immediately engage. There are three areas that will help in engaging your 5th-9th grades students in the things that they benefit from being engaged is small groups.
Excitement. Students coming into our ministry from the children’s ministry or outside our church should sense the excitement about being part of a small group. Younger students will not automatically be excited about small groups. Our ministry’s opportunity and challenge is get students excitedly engaged. Leaders need to lead the enthusiasm about small groups. Engaged, authentic leaders with a positive spirit will create engaged students that look forward to small groups each week.
Connection. Living in a digitally, disconnected world, small groups offer something rare: face-to-face connection. A positive guideline for small group times is “devices off.” Whether meeting on Sunday mornings or mid-week, inside the church building or in a home, amazing things can only happen in small groups when students are allowed to truly connect. Students experiencing true conversation engage in something that digital experiences cannot offer: real connectivity.
Faith. Big faith is found in small places in the small circles of small groups. The most positive thing about a small group is walking the journey of faith with others of similar age. Students will be drawn into being in a group that is positive to their faith, while living in a world surrounding them with negatives.
Safe. Middle years students living guarded, overprotected lives will willingly engage in a setting when there is an element of privacy. This age group is transitioning from the protection of childhood into independence of the tween years, and need to know that a small group environment is a safe place. It is somewhere where they can be open, honest, and find a trusted group.
Trust. What happens and is said in small group stays in small group, with a few exceptions. Even in the cases of the exceptions, students need to know they have a secure place to share and find needed help.
Openness. Getting students to open up in a smaller setting does not happen immediately. Plan for the first month of each year to work slowly from the small things into the big things. Planning a small group-focused activity is a great way to move along the process of trust and openness.
Ongoing. If a small group is a positive, private environment for students, they will engage in big ways during the regular gathering times and throughout the week. Committed leaders going beyond the regular times, to follow up when a student is missing and show up in their student’s world will gain ongoing trust.
Partnership. When it comes to 5th-9th graders, the most important people in engaging students may be the people not even present: parents. Young students still depend on parents for rides, scheduling, and permission. Just like any other area of ministry, partnering with parents will enable engagement.
Communication. Clear, intentional interaction with parents, along with students, will build parent support and confidence. Like a teacher that has ongoing contact with parents, small group leaders should seek to also be in regular contact. An open line of communication will also equip small group leaders with information about issues or circumstances that will affect student’s engagement.
Priority. Students’ and families’ lives and schedules are full of things that are marked as a “priority.” If students are going to be able to attend regularly and fully participate in small groups, parents must see it as a positive, priority. One of the best ways to see big things happen in the small groups is getting parents onboard with what small groups are, why they exist, and how they can be a great thing in the lives of their children. This will only happen if small groups are done in spiritual partnerships with parents.
While there is a need for thought-provoking questions and helpful resources as a part of a great middle school small group ministry, a small group will never get to those if there is no leadership of excitement, sense of privacy, and partnership with parents first.