I have had the privilege and the challenge of leading student small groups in three different churches. At two of the three churches, the students were the only group within the church who had small groups. These churches had Sunday school classes, etc. but nothing in terms of small groups that met outside of the church building.
My present church fits into this category. After two years of groundwork, I recently launched small groups in our student ministry. As I was doing so, I wrote down the process that I used. If you like it, feel free to run with it, tweak it, whatever. If you don’t, this page can be used as a great starter for fires on your next camping trip.
Pray – Discern the mind of God for your small groups. What is the primary purpose? How will they be structured? Will they be gender-based? Geographically-based? Grade-based? Age-based? When will they meet? How often will they meet? Will they be adult-led? Student-led? What will your role be? (As the lead youth worker, I do not actually run a small group. Instead I visit a different small group each week so that I can observe and interact with the leadership teams.)
Choose – Select your curriculum. Will you write your own? Will you purchase it? Will you study books of the Bible? Will you do character studies? Will you use topical curriculum? Will you use discussion guides based on the messages in your large services?
Invite – Invite leaders. Ask potential leaders to prayerfully consider being involved. Explain the general requirements and expectations you will have of them, and give them a period of time to pray and discuss the requirements with their families.
Commit – Leadership commitment. Once the leaders respond, be sure to secure a commitment from them. We use a small group leadership covenant form and have them to sign it. This is especially important if you are using students as leaders. If you are using students, be sure that both the student and their parents sign it—that way you can ensure the parents are in agreement.
Train – Leadership training. After you have secured your leadership team, you need to take them through training so that everyone is on the same page in terms of the purpose, philosophy, guidelines, procedures, etc. If you are looking for a good resource to help you do this, check out Simply Youth Ministry’s Small Groups From Start to Finish.
Promote – Get the word out. How will you accomplish this? Announcements? Sign-ups? Sermon series? Bulletins? Mailings? Phone calls? E-mails? Web site? e-vites? I would recommend all of the above. Do a media blitz! Important: Be sure that this is not just logistical information. If you are convinced of the importance of small groups, and you are serious about them being more than just another thing to keep kids busy and off drugs, then you need to be sure that you are casting vision and communicating the “why” behind the “what.”
Launch – Start your small groups. You’ve done all of the ground work, now go for it! Set a launch date and have a small group kickoff night.
Monitor – Establish a reporting system. You need to have a system of communication in place so that you can keep your eye on how things are going and your finger on the pulse of your leaders. Regular, consistent feedback will help you monitor the health of groups and make any mid-course adjustments that may be needed. Another important thing to do would be to have regular small group leadership meetings to assess, adjust, and offer ongoing training.
Celebrate – End with a bang! If your small groups meet year-round, then find strategic points during the year during which you can celebrate what God has been doing in your small groups. Our small groups meet during the school year and then we shut them down for the summer. So at the end of the school year we have a small group celebration bash! We invite everyone to bring their friends for a day at the beach, a huge party, etc. and we just have fun. One crucial thing that happens during this celebration is that we have a time for students to share how small groups positively impacted their lives and helped them grow spiritually. This encourages those who were in small groups, and it inspires those who were not to get involved in the upcoming year.
Evaluate – Honestly assess. What is success in small groups? Answering this question is determined in step one when you ask God what He wants to accomplish through your small groups. Now that you have run them, it’s time to take a good look at how you did. How were lives impacted? How did the individual leaders do? Did you provide them with everything they needed to be successful? If not, what do they need, and what can you do to empower them to be great small group leaders? What worked well? What didn’t? What should you keep? What should you kill? (What should you kill . . . not who!) Ask questions that will help you evaluate and determine how you can make your small groups even more effective the next year.
Repeat – Do it again. Now take all that you have learned, implement the necessary changes, and go for it again!
If you have small groups, I hope that these steps give you some food for thought. If you don’t, I pray that they will inspire you to go for it! Small groups take hard work, commitment, and passion. They can be frustrating at times. They are challenging. But I absolutely love seeing students transformed through small groups. They are totally worth it!
Kevin Mahaffy Jr.