I’m convinced that there is a sequence to building a great small group experience. One step leads to the other. Unfortunately, many small group leaders, teachers, youth pastors, etc. try to jump to the last stage in the process (content) without working through the first four steps. I’ve categorized them into 4 C’s (and yes, my team is always teasing me about my C’s and R’s and acronyms…but hey! they work!).
You may have heard the old phrase, “They don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” I’m not always sure that’s entirely true, but in a small group setting care certainly does precede content. If the kids think you don’t truly care about them as individuals, I really think they just tolerate you, mentally check out, or stop showing up. Care starts with knowing their names, looking them in the eye like you really are interested in them, and asking them questions. Not just during small group time, either. This has to happen before and after…in the hallways…outside of church, etc. If you don’t show that you care…you really won’t get very far with your small group.
Once they know you really do care about them, your next step is to show that you are in control. But you can’t demand control, you have to gain control. You have to be gracious but firm. You are the adult. It’s interesting how many adults are so afraid to be the adult. They don’t want to hurt any feelings or scare the kids away. I think it’s just the opposite. Kids get scared away if the group is always out of control (especially the kids who really want something out of the group). I think they want you to be in control…they want to grow and learn…they want you to be the adult. They want you to be a kind, caring, and gracious adult…but the adult nevertheless.
To help our small group leaders stay in control, we’ve implemented a four step process for behavior management: 1) Request, 2) Reset, 3) Remove, 4) Release. You can read more about this process here.
Once students really understand that you genuinely care about them and that you cant truly control the group in a healthy way, you need to begin intentionally building a strong sense of community. Give students clear rules about confidentiality and constantly remind them about these rules. Model acceptance to the students by never shaming or embarrassing a student in front of the group nor in private. Never express surprise or show that you are shocked by what they tell you…you should always be accepting of them no matter what they say. Have fun with some icebreakers questions like “Would you Rather…?” or “Have You Ever…?” Teach your students how to pray for each other. Avoid “popcorn style” as much as possible until they really get it. Start with who’s comfortable with praying out loud, then try sentence prayers, then pray for the person on your left or across from you, then assign students to pray for certain requests, then do popcorn prayer. Take the kids out for a small group night out. Go bowling! Have a game night, a sleepover, or a salon night!
I am convinced that the best small group discussions (content) come out of a group that knows that their leader genuinely cares about them, feels safe because the group is under control, and experiences caring community with each other. Then you can get to the good stuff…the bible study, the deep discussions, the challenging lessons. See, this is your goal. If you take care to follow the steps, you’ll have a great small group!