How to Lead Effective Small Groups

by Jeremiah Stone 8/13/19

Establishing small groups can be one of the most challenging, yet fruitful aspects of your ministry. Whether you are at a very large church or a small church, small groups will impact your students in ways you may not see immediately. But the discipleship that happens is something that will stay with them throughout their faith journey. It’s easy to sometimes get caught up in the “fun” aspects of youth ministry: the games, lock-ins, big event nights, and retreats, but sometimes the most life-changing moments happen in tight-knit circles.

You might be asking yourself right now, how do I even start creating small groups and how do I lead them effectively? Here is a step-by-step guide that will help you. Know this is not everything you will need to know about small groups! You will grow more as you experiment with small groups and learn what works best for you and your context.

1. Take a Closer Look

Examine the needs of your ministry before you begin to craft what your small group ministry will look like. Are you at a large church with multiple grades and a lot of students? Maybe you are serving at a smaller church with just a few students scattered across different grades and different phases of life. As you work through this step ask yourself the question: Who is my youth group and what do they crave on their spiritual journey?

2. Find Leaders

You have to remember that you cannot do everything in your youth group. And your students need other adults in their lives to pour into them and minister to them. Take a look at your congregation and try to find adults from all walks of life (college students, young adults, working adults, retired adults, etc). Take these individuals out for coffee or lunch and get to know them and let them know that you think they might be a great fit for small group leadership. You will definitely get some “no’s” and that’s okay! When you talk to them also have an outline of your expectations for small group leaders and the time commitment they might be agreeing to, this really helps potential leaders have the ability to make the best decision.

3. Form Small Groups

I have small groups created in a variety of ways. However, remember that small groups are intended to be small, intimate settings. It is crucial to keep your numbers relatively low in order to accomplish your desired outcome for them. The true sweet spot is around six to eight students, but you might feel comfortable going as large as ten. Your groups could look like:
-Mixed grades and genders small group
-Same gender small groups
-Same gender and same grade small groups
-If you are in a small setting it could even be all of the students in your group
-Something completely different from these suggestions!

Deciding how to create your small groups is also crucial because small groups are meant for people who are ready for and want to take a deeper step in their faith journey. You cannot force a student to join a small group. They have to be ready. So, you also have to think about how you want students to sign up for the groups. Are they going to:

-Be placed in a small group by you?

-Form their own small groups with their friends?

-Sign up for their own small group after looking at options?

4. Time, Place, Curriculum

Work with your small group leaders and students and let them pick the time and location (at the church or a public place) that works best for them or it could be that you have a designated time for all of your small groups to meet.

Curriculum is really up to you and what you feel like God is calling your students to learn.

-Do you want them to walk through a book of the Bible like a Bible study?

-Is there a certain topic you want them to cover like love, pride, service, etc?

-Sign up for their own small group after looking at options?

-Maybe you want to check with the students to see what they want to learn.

-You also might be asking yourself where to get curriculum. There are all sorts of options for where you can look. Your local Christian bookstore is a great place, but sites like Right Now Media also have tons of books and resources that your small group leaders can use to facilitate their discussions.

5. Now, for the really fun part… how to lead an effective small group.

My first piece of advice on this is to be patient. Whether you have adults leading your groups or you are leading your own small group, patience is the key to working with students in this area. In your groups you will likely have the talkative student who always wants to answer every question; you’ll probably have the quiet student who you know is listening and learning, but won’t say a word; and there’s a good chance you will have the student who is bouncing off the walls and hasn’t heard a word that has been said. All of this could definitely happen, but once again I say, be patient.

Get to know your group and know who is in it, so you can lead them effectively. It’s also good to establish from the beginning that small group is a commitment and to challenge them to be present and to participate within the group.

You are definitely going to have days where you question if any faith formation happened at all. That’s okay. I specifically remember one small group I lead where the first two sessions were awful, but the third session lasted for over two hours because they didn’t want to leave!

Remember you are working with the Holy Spirit in these situations, and you are serving as a vessel to lead the group. Let the Spirit do the transforming, you just lead the group the best you can and have spaces for questions and learning to happen.

Leading a group also requires you to be prepared to lead the group effectively. Spend time each week preparing for the small group lesson and in prayer that God will work through you during your time with the students.

Whether you are reading a book of the Bible or another resource, have questions ready to discuss with the group, but also be ready to throw those questions out if another question arises that takes all of the time you have that night.

Small groups are not easy and I have changed how I do them several times over the years. You have to find what works best for you and your context. You will grow so much as a leader through trial and error. The best advice you will ever receive is through your own experience. When it comes to small groups my best advice is: be patient, take a deep breath, and remember that you are working to allow room for the Holy Spirit to do transformational work in your students.

About Jeremiah Stone:

Jeremiah Stone is a current CYMT Graduate Resident and the Pastor of Student Ministries at Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church. He is an experienced student ministry professional with organizational and planning skills and hopes to bring a sense of community and spirituality to create Jesus-centered and thriving student ministries.