The word “durable” is defined as “able to withstand wear, pressure, or damage; hard-wearing.” I would say that wearing and pressure are good descriptors of our time. In the midst of all the challenges of the pandemic, what emerged in my own ministry was a desire for the basics: simplicity, accessibility, and community. I tried a lot of things to connect with our young people, and what stuck was something we simply called “Lunch.” We met for an hour each week on Zoom, played some silly games, talked about our highs and lows for the week and funny things that happened, and then we prayed. That was it. It wasn’t really meant to be a small group, but with regular meetings of the same people each week, it sort of became one. It kept us afloat in the depths of the pandemic.
Small groups are a powerful tool for connection — a perfect fit for our time. Here are six reasons why:
Pandemic or not, flexibility is always valuable. Small groups function well online and in person and transition between the two is easy. In the last year, my parish hosted two Youth Alpha courses and a Confirmation program that spent part of the year online and part in person. This flexibility allowed us to take advantage of every opportunity we had to gather without missing a beat. Small groups that consistently meet in person are spatially flexible too.
Small groups can be more affordable than larger gatherings of young people. For example: resources, books, and supplies for games can be reused in smaller quantities across a great number of sessions; spaces needing to be reserved are smaller; the burden on volunteers who provide food can be less; and you can begin with the teens you have while looking to the future large group you have yet to attract.
There’s abundant support.
You will never run out of ideas or resources for small group ministry. There is a plethora of programs that are designed for or can be tailored to small groups — YDisciple, Youth Alpha, and Life Teen are just a few examples. Most programs will provide games and icebreakers to help your group relax and connect, content to read or watch together, and meaningful discussion questions. This makes running a small group more manageable for you and your volunteers. If you’re unable to access these or you’re looking for something different, you can easily go back to basics! Read through a book of the Bible together bit by bit and share your thoughts or learn new prayer forms as a group. Whatever route you take, there is very likely a book or program that can assist you.
Recruiting quality volunteers is one of the more difficult tasks in youth ministry. Finding someone who is willing and able to commit to regular attendance is hard enough but finding someone who is excited about public speaking or leading large group activities can be even more challenging. Small groups, however, are well suited to a greater variety of personalities. Many of the skills needed for a great small group leader are also the skills needed for a great parent, team player, coach, professional, and friend. If you have never worked with teens before, you can be a great small group leader. If you have never volunteered before, there’s still a good chance you can be a great small group leader. Knowing this will help in your recruiting process, and it will give your potential volunteers more confidence to say yes!
They’re family friendly.
We know that parents are the most influential people in the life of a teen, and it is vital that we minister to and connect with the whole family. Because small group ministry can be tailored to any age group, it provides a great opportunity to host a parent group at the same time. The smaller number means that gathering everyone — families included — and providing space, hospitality, and volunteers for your gathering is much more manageable. This opens more opportunities for the whole family to be connected and involved!
The heart of ministry is relationship — to walk as brothers and sisters, and to make disciples of Jesus. Small group ministry allows for more intentional relationship building and discipling. Fewer people allow group leaders to give more time to each person. Sending cards, making phone calls, or having dinner with families becomes viable for the average volunteer. Members of the group connect more deeply as they have more time to share, listen, and respond in discussion. Small groups are often marked by a flexible schedule, which allows for a certain level of “carefree timelessness” within a meeting: time to play games, get sidetracked, joke, and develop a sense of identity as a group.
Small group ministry has the simplicity and flexibility to withstand the pressures of a pandemic and post-pandemic world. It can provide connection for a generation riddled with loneliness and help us as ministers to dive deep into making lifelong disciples of Jesus Christ.
Emily Showler is the Youth and Young Adult Coordinator at St. John Neumann Parish in Canton.