How to Start and Maintain Small Groups for High School Students

"I shudder at the thought of having to go into a group of some 30 to 40 teenagers to try to elicit some kind of enthusiastic participation," says Tony Campolo. "To get them … genuinely involved in a discussion would require a charisma and talent that only a superior species might possess."

I agree with Campolo. Even many who work with teens regularly feel the same way. That's why small groups are such a great way of reaching and teaching teens.

Small groups can be used in a youth ministry in at least two areas: as a primary system of care, support and discipleship for the youth of the church and as a method of outreach for teens who do not know Christ.

Types of Groups
The first question you might ask as you plan small groups for youth is: What types of groups are we gong to utilize? Actually, this decision involves several levels of choices. The first choice is whether you want to have student-led or adult-led groups or both.

Student-led groups are facilitated usually by juniors or seniors. Student leaders are recruited and trained in the summer. Permission for use of school facilities should be sought from school, if necessary, also during the summer. A great "kickoff" event is "Meet Me at the Pole" in September. Take the "pole" inside to launch small groups. These groups are usually designed to reproduce new groups when the number of participants reaches about twelve. An "apprentice leader" in the group prepares to launch a new group at some time during the year. Student-led groups can include at least four types.

  • Prayer Groups — Christian students meet before or after school to share and pray for their school and one another.

  • Share Groups — Christian and non-Christian students meet before or after school to discuss concerns. Students encourage and support each other and open and close with prayer.

  • Seeker Groups — Students who want to learn more about Jesus Christ come to these before- or after-school groups. They may also meet in a student's home in the evening. Start with three or four Christian friends who then go out and invite unchurched friends to the group. Because the group is built on friendships, great dynamics are going to happen. Studies have shown that one-on-one evangelism is not very effective with teens. But small group evangelism works with positive peer pressure. Teens love to hang out in groups, so use that to reach them.

  • Club Groups — Students meet to discuss issues that concern them. It's not necessarily a "Bible study," but the Bible is used to filter discussions and find solutions.

Adult-led groups can be led by any adult from the church: parents, youth ministers or coaches, or others. New groups can be launched after a retreat or some other big event, at the beginning of the school year and as needed. Adult-led groups also include at least four types.

  • Investigative and Inquirers Studies — Teens come and explore what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus. They learn how to become a Christian and what it means to be part of the church. These are often led by parents of teens who invite their school friends. Another twist is the "Bible-debate party." A teen invites unchurched friends to his or her house to talk about whatever they want to discuss. The only rule is that the parent leaders get equal time at the end to show what the Bible says about the topic of discussion. The teenagers have freedom to express themselves, but in the process, they get the opportunity to dig in, think and see what God says about the issues they are concerned about.

  • Growth Groups — These groups are for new and growing Christian youth. They meet in the evenings either in a home or at the church building.

  • Support Groups — Christian and non-Christian students who need encouragement or support in a particular area attend these groups. They may focus on a particular issue, such as divorce recovery, addictions, abuse, how to share one's faith, even school subjects several students are interested in or need help with.

  • Leadership Groups — Students who are challenged to grow as disciples and leaders can be part of these groups. Those who "graduate" often go on to lead student-led groups.

Another choice concerns whether single-sex groups or mixed groups work best. For teens, groups of all guys or all girls seem to be best. In fact, some youth ministers observe that once teenagers are in a same-sex group, it's difficult to get them into a co-ed group. Why? Teens will not be as embarrassed to open up in a same-sex group as they would in a mixed group. There's also the distraction factor. And then there's the idea that "If I say what I think, that girl (or guy) I like will think I'm a dork."

Single-sex groups can meet every week in the month except one. Once a month, bring together two groups to make a large co-ed group. Also, plan a celebration once a quarter. Serve a meal at the church building and invite the parents (either same-sex, opposite sex or both parents). (Of course, be sensitive to kids from one-parent families.)

Ingredients of a Great Small Group
Small groups for youth generally work best with three to fifteen teens. Smaller groups are good for high-accountability while larger groups are great for fellowship. Beyond fifteen students, communication is hampered and usually only the most talkative will share.

Keep the seating close and in a circle so every person can see everyone else's face. Leaders must assure that group members are accepting toward one another; that there is mutual respect in the group; that there is confidentiality, particularly when deeper issues are raised; and that members are committed to the group, to attendance at the meetings and to being on time. The leader sets the pace of the meetings — modeling what is and isn't appropriate sharing, being vulnerable when needed and accepting everyone in the group. The leader may also need to arrange transportation for those who don't drive.

The leader is usually more than just a facilitator. He or she is a shepherd, checking with members between meetings, caring for them, modeling Christlikeness, discipling them and training those who may someday lead other groups.

What should you study in your groups? That depends, of course, on what type of group it is. One way to decide what to study is to ask your teens what they are interested in. Find out what concerns them.

Topical studies are OK for short-term studies, but they are not enough. We need to get students into the Word. Research by the Gallup organization found that only 13 percent of teens, most of whom attend church services regularly, say they read the Bible often. Teens need to see the Bible is relevant to their lives. They are deeply concerned with big questions about life: Who am I? How do I get along with others? Where do I fit in? What do I believe? When teens search the Scriptures with these questions in mind, and when they begin to formulate the answers to life's biggest questions by an understanding of God's Word, the Bible becomes relevant.

Here are a few other ideas. Do an occasional service project as a group. Try an overnighter, a short trip or a retreat together. Keep a list with each participant's name, address, telephone number, e-mail address, personal web site, birthday and other relevant information. Find reasons to celebrate whenever you can. Take photos of your group. Adopt a grandparent for your group.

Both Large and Small Groups Needed
In youth ministry, both large and small groups are needed. If students are involved only in a small group, they will not feel part of the entire fellowship. Teens like being part of something big. They enjoy big parties, and they like being in big crowds. They need big church groups too. But they also need small groups, where they can be the individuals they are and where they can express themselves and learn from others. Only in small groups will they really feel connected.

Especially today, teenagers have a need for intimacy. Many teens do not receive much attention at home, but they will get it in their small groups. In an age of ever-distancing relationships, small groups provide friendships and a source of caring, encouragement and support. With the increasing pressures on teens today, they need a place to be refreshed, a place where they can see God active in their lives and the lives of others.

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