Why We Changed How We Do Small Groups

This is a guest post by Jeremy Mavis. Jeremy is a fantastic pastor to children and middle school students, and a personal friend (he was even in my wedding!). I encourage you to read his blog at JeremyMavis.com and follow him on Twitter. Enjoy!

Photo by waitscm at Creative Commons

Photo by waitscm at Creative Commons

By all accounts we were doing well. Most would call our middle school ministry successful. The preceding 8 years our group averaged 65 students each Wednesday night (and we live in a small, rural town). Many were consistent and faithful. We had a handful of outreach events throughout the year which got new students connected. Students were enjoying themselves. Each week there was an intentional effort to teach biblical content, not necessarily topical and relevant content (like dating, peer pressure, etc.), but those issues came to bear when we came across them biblically. We also played lots of dodgeball, which middle school students love (especially boys), while most of the girls talked and socialized on the sidelines of the gym.

So if things were seemingly going well, why was I so frustrated and bummed?

Well, the students were having fun and being exposed to good content, but they weren’t changing. From year to year, students seem to be stuck in the same place they were when they first came. The longer I ministered in our community the more I see students as they truck through middle school, then high school, then on to college or the workplace. When I came across students who had graduated from our middle school ministry (and even high school youth group), there wasn’t much difference in their faith from when they participated.

There was a few exceptions to this trend, but it was very marginal compared with the amount of energy, time and involvement in running a medium-sized youth ministry. There were students whose faith was alive and growing. But it seemed like those students were connected to either myself, or our high school pastor.

I knew something needed to change, but I didn’t really know of a better way. Besides, no one else was telling me things were broken. Quite the contrary. On the surface of our middle school ministry things were successful, remember?

I think it’s important to note this particularly unique ethic in the kingdom of God: Things are never going as well as you think, and it’s always important to ask the “under-the-surface” questions that are usually very uncomfortable and often disconcerting. It’s usually these deeper questions that cause us, and by extension, others, to grow in the Gospel.

These uncomfortable questions we asked about our middle school ministry led us to restructure our Wednesday nights around small groups, rather than a large group. In our program room, instead of rows of chairs facing the stage and one person, we placed 6-8 chairs in a circle and placed one of our youth leaders there. While we still did “large group” programming, like games and teaching times, but the locus of “face time” was focused on the circle group leader, and not one guy: me.

We had tried doing “small groups” before, but they never worked. Why? Well, because we tacked it onto the end of our teaching time and before the students went to snacks and hangout time. These weren’t really small groups, but tacked on discussion times. And it wasn’t always consistent, leader or students.

The difference between what we are doing now versus then, is night and day. We’ve been focused on small groups for a year and a half now. And it’s going well! We still have fun in the large group (but in small groups). We still do teaching times with deep, intentional biblical content (but in small groups). We still play lots of dodgeball. The biggest difference is that I am not discipling 65 students anymore. I’ve got a small group of 4-6 grade 7 boys that I’m responsible for. And I’ve got 10 other incredible small group leaders who are intentionally discipling their respective small groups, in and out of Wednesday night. We are intentionally connecting students with Gospel / Christ-centered adults who are responsible to live life, be present and available, and goof off with these squirrelly middle school students. These students are becoming more known instead of just a face in the crowd, or a number and an entry in our database and a source of pride for good numbers.

We still have a long way to go in order to be even more effective in discipling in small groups.

  • There is discipleship training that needs to continually happen with the small group leaders.
  • There is infrastructure that needs to support and resource the small group leaders better.
  • There are the families of these middle school students that need to be connected with and resourced.
  • There are more small group leaders we need to recruit and train in discipleship because there are 400 some odd students in grades 6, 7 and 8 in our school system.

I firmly believe that the Gospel is best transferred amidst relationships and not programs. Sure programs provide the structure or the framework, but relationships is what makes the house a home. The Gospel is rudimentary, very human, and simple, and happens through intentional relationships.

When a group gets large it has to work harder at being small, otherwise the relational-ness of the Gospel can be lost. We are much more successful in a “Gospel-sense” now in ministering with middle school students than ever before!

Question: What changes have you made in your small group strategy?  How have they helped you be more effective?  To add to the conversation, click here.

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