I read through the Gospel of Matthew with the intention of finding a message specifically for youth small group leaders. Here’s my top ten tips for small group leading like Jesus:
1. Don’t be distracted
If Matthew 4, Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread. Jesus responds, “It is written, One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (4:4)
When someone tries to draw the group off course, don’t ignore them, don’t encourage them. Respond to them in a way that is caring, constructive, and relevant.
(Don’t take the comparison of junior high kids to Satan seriously, I am mostly just kidding.)
2. Get something out of the quiet kid
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” -Matthew 5:5
In my experience (which may not be abounding, but has been consistent in this aspect), students that are not talking in small group sessions aren’t quiet because they aren’t thinking things or don’t have things to say. Pretty often, kids who are sitting on the sidelines of conversations are thinking too much and hurting their brains and have so many things to say that they just don’t fit in their mouths. Some kids are nervous to speak in front of a lot of people, but in most small groups I think it is more kids are nervous to be talking about their faith. There is a big feeling of “I don’t want to be wrong,” in faith-community settings, I would argue bigger than in a regular classroom.
One way to get more students participating in conversation are to go around the circle and have everyone answer the question. You end up hearing the same thing a couple times, but it gives everyone a second to see that they can answer something and nothing bad will happen. This kind of breaks some awkwardness and gives some comfort.
3. Give real-life advice that coincides with your message
“Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” -Matthew 7:24
Don’t let students get away with giving you abstract, literally biblical answers. At some point, your conversation has to meander into the realm of life beyond your small group. Ask them how this stuff applies to life at school, their relationship with their parents, how they treat their little brothers. Don’t settle for broad, distant, ‘when I grow up I can do this to live out this’ kind of stuff. You have to talk about how this Message changes who they are and what this new person looks like.
4. Be more than a small group leader
“When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” And He said to him, “I will come and cure him.” -Matthew 8:5
While Jesus doesn’t end up coming to the Centurion’s home, He is ready to do this, and He does heal the servant. Whether you are at a local church, a camp, a retreat, or anywhere, this applies to you. You have to be ready to talk to any student from your small group (or any student who finds their way to you) if they come up to you outside of your sessions. For a lot of kids, it is a big deal if they are going to talk to an adult or student leader about something (especially if they don’t know them). God is bringing this kid to you, give them your full attention and be prepared to respond to whatever it is in a loving and helpful way.
5. Give them something
“Then the disciples came to him and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” -Matthew 13:10-12
I hope that the fact that you’ve been asked (or more likely voluntold) to lead a small group means that you have an excellent grasp on the theological concepts and the biblical examples used in whatever lesson or curriculum you’re using. That’s awesome for you.
But make this affect how well you teach, not on what level you teach.
Keep in mind, some of your students haven’t heard this story, haven’t read the Wesley study notes on this passage, haven’t thought about it as much as you have. You can’t just read scripture aloud and ask them questions. You have to help them out, and you have to do that in fun, relevant, creative ways. (Oh, yes, we might actually have to have fun.)
6. Let your haters be motivators
“‘Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.’ And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.” -Matthew 13:57
When Jesus returns to Nazareth, everyone remembers him as a child and does not take his teaching seriously. This one is especially for student leaders. If people look down on you, or patronize you, or don’t respect the work you’re trying to do…ignore them, forget about them, move on. You have awesome kids that want to learn about your awesome God and, frankly, you don’t have time to defend yourself or prove yourself, because you are called to something much bigger than that.
7. Just keep going
“So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed a strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” -Matthew 14:29-30
You will get super off-topic. You will get tripped up and say something embarrassing. You will give an example that makes zero sense. All of these are going to happen. I’ve already told you that they’re coming, so don’t worry about whether or not they are going to happen. Have faith that God is going to move through this group with or without you and that it’s all going to be alright in the end.
8. Give them what they need
“Then Jesus called the disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat,” -Matthew 15:32
They are hungry, so He feeds them. In that moment, they needed something besides teaching. Some small groups need guidance or counseling on something that is not in your curriculum. Some small groups need to play game and take a break. Some small groups need to talk about boys and complain about life. Don’t confuse taking a break with getting sidetracked. You have to be able to fulfill these smaller needs at least a little bit if you want youth to focus on their deeper, more tiring, spiritual needs.
9. Know that you won’t have all the answers
“An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign,” -Matthew 16:4
Don’t put up a front that you know all the intricacies of our faith. No one does. Be honest. If you don’t live up to a youth’s expectations, maybe you need to help alter those expectations. There are things that we just have to trust, and that might be something that needs to be talked about with your small group.
10. Understand what you’re doing
“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” -Matthew 19:13
Leading youth small groups is one of the holiest experiences I have ever had. Youth have a fantastic energy and awesomely curious hearts. There is something really sacred about teaching and learning with people that are not-quite-ruined by the world yet. Jesus thought that ministry with young people was worth His time because humbled, dependent faithful, energetic, loving children were what He wanted all of his followers to be. You are now part of that kind of ministry. Be open to this experience in a way that understands that your growth is a part of this process, in a way that is ready to have fun, and in a way that is excited to share Christ’s message in the way He shared it.