What Kind of Youth Group Could Benefit from a Small Group Centered Youth Ministry?
A foundation of small groups is not ideal for all youth ministries. Some ministries do not experience any of the problems listed at the beginning of this article. Some larger youth ministries have extremely effective evangelistic large groups and effective small group discipleship as well. What characterizes a youth ministry that might thrive on a small-group model?
Small-to-Medium Sized Churches
Mark DeVries places youth ministries in one of two categories. The first category is a “Fortune 500” ministry, one which functions at a high level in all areas: evangelism, discipleship, mission, student leadership, etc. The other category is “Stick To Your Knitting.” This ministry chooses a focus for the ministry and does it very well. The drawback of the “Fortune 500” model is that it tends to occur in larger churches, churches with the human and financial resources to support such an extensive ministry. Such a church may not want to downplay many of the successful existing programs in order to focus solely on small groups. But a smaller large-group focused church that may be spreading itself thin with too few resources spread over an ambitious list of programs, might want to consider focusing on small groups.
Also, some youth ministries have a certain number of students right around that subjective threshold that makes the difference between good energy and a lack of enthusiasm. For such groups, a small number of visitors makes your group seem enormous, but if a few regulars have another engagement, the room seems empty. If your group has about 15 regular folks, you may have had a night where 20 people showed up and your large group meeting had incredible energy. Conversely, you may have had 8 people show up one night and the room seemed empty. If the program is based on a smaller number of people, it’s not devastating when only a small number of students show up. In fact, some of the best nights, those in which you really see God working, can be those with a smaller group of students. And as a bonus, it can still be really exciting when you have a big night.
Your church should consider basing its ministry on small groups if you have a pool of potential leaders with the following qualities: 1) They are relationship oriented and desire to spend the majority of their ministry time engaging in intimate relationships with teenagers. 2) They recognize the value of consistency and the necessity of prioritizing youth nights. Consistency is essential for building significant and trusting relationships, and is pragmatically important so there is not a small group without their leader on a given night. 3) They are grace-oriented, meaning that they are able to create and facilitate an environment in which students are able to speak frankly about their temptations and struggles without being intimidated, preached to, or made to feel unwelcome in any way. 4) They are able to teach a lesson and lead a study of some sort. 5) They demonstrate their commitment to students through regular prayer and interaction outside of church activities. 6) They are trainable in any of the areas listed above.
These qualities are essential in leading adolescent small groups. A small group based youth ministry requires a great amount of time, energy, and effort on the part of leaders. Therefore, success or failure depends largely on the leadership. Those adults wishing to chaperone rather than minister need not apply.
The Mother Church is Itself Based on Small Groups
Many churches today make small groups their primary method of intimate ministry. If this philosophy of ministry describes your church, why not get on board with the church as a whole and adopt the same methodology for your student ministry? In this way the youth ministry functions in the same way as adult small groups, as a subset of the church’s corporate worship service.
Your Gifts and Passions
People are different. Some people are energized by putting on a large group meeting. Because their passion lines up with the central focus of their ministry work, they often become successful in creating a large group ministry meeting. On the other hand, many youth pastors have a temperament that much prefers the intimate workings of small groups, and dread the fact that they must put so much energy into a weekly large group meeting. Dom John Chapman, in speaking of prayer, encourages us to “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” I believe ministry should be the same. God has given us specific gift mixes and passions to enable us to do ministry, and we should follow those gift mixes and passions. If your heart is crying out for you to focus on small groups, focus on small groups. If you find that evangelism is easier for you and more effective in a smaller group context than a larger group, do your evangelism in small groups, not large ones. It is important to note that we will always have tasks that are uncomfortable or difficult for us; I am not advocating neglecting those simply because we do not want to do them. However, if you feel as if your ministry would be more effective by lining up your actions with your passion and gift mix, I think the presence of those gifts and passions is a good indicator that God is calling you to do so.
What Does Small Group Based Youth Ministry Look Like?
The primary vehicle of ministry for most youth ministries is one gathering which gathers as many adolescents as possible. This is the first stage of the youth ministry-it’s the primary place for teaching, outreach, evangelism, and discipleship, and it’s the first event to which visiting students are invited. It is the one thing throughout the week that the youth pastor puts the most time into and promotes the most. Consequently, it is the most consistent and well-attended event on the calendar. Small group based youth ministry shifts the weight of all these things to small groups.
This could end up looking like several different things. It could mean simply that the time during the traditional Wednesday night youth service set apart for a corporate talk is substituted for small group time. Small group night could still start with a corporate gathering with time for a brief game or icebreaker. Sometimes worship could be done before breaking into small groups. On the other hand, it could mean that small groups meet at different times and different places throughout the week and come together only once per month for something corporate. However, enough time must be allotted for real discussion and study. At least one hour is usually needed for each student to share a little about their lives, pray, and go through some sort of teaching.
It should be obvious that this method involves a significant shift from traditional thinking about small groups. Most assume small groups are primarily fit for discipleship. Small group based youth ministry necessitates that small groups are the primary tool for discipleship and evangelism. It is imperative not to hide behind small group based ministry as an excuse to hunker down and focus on discipleship in a Christian ghetto. On the contrary, it takes the existing model of discipleship ministry-a small, tight-knit group of students led by an adult leader-and expands it to be the platform for all ministry, not just discipleship. It is born out of a desire to see evangelism and numerical growth (as well as other ministry purposes)-just out of a different setting. The natural temptation for some who engage in large group settings is to only be focused on growing numbers. The natural temptation for some who engage in small group settings is to neglect the importance of growing numbers. Do not fall into either trap.
What is advocated in this article is a method. Many people are constantly on the lookout for a new method of doing ministry that will cause attendance to balloon or spiritual growth to surpass our wildest expectations. It is important to remember that method never substitutes for ministry. DeVries quotes S.L. Parker reminding us of the importance of not placing all our eggs in the basket of method.
“Reams of material are written and taught with an approach to reaching an end by effortless means–and more will be written. Advertising messages continually promote methods of achieving end results with little or no effort. And this material and these messages are so effective that in many cases people will work harder to avoid the extra effort than actually applying the extra effort that will produce the originally desired outcome.”
Re-focusing energy on small groups instead of large groups will not do anything if we are not actively building relationships and meeting new students. If true evangelism and discipleship are not happening within small groups, then the method is nothing more than a “clanging gong or a crashing cymbal.” The best a good method can do is increase the effectiveness of genuine ministry. Ironically, I believe that this particular method requires more work on the part of the youth pastor and leaders, not less. But I do think that if the work is put in prayerfully, a small group-based youth ministry can increase effectiveness and quality of ministry and in doing so, glorify the name of our great God.
 DeVries, FBYM, 106-109.
 Richard Foster, Prayer (New York, HarperCollins: 1992), 7.
 DeVries, SYM, 140.