As a former youth minister, I remember how my Edge core team dreaded small group time.
At a point, it became such an obvious frustration that I decided to investigate the cause of this hatred by leading the small groups myself. One Edge Night, I donned my “Small Group Leader” cap and headed into the wild. What ensued was a night of hilarity. For some reason, the word “slime” kept creeping into the conversation. No matter how I phrased the question or initiated a conversation, the teens were relentless in conversing about it. That night, the teens also gave me unsolicited advice about who I should date and their preferred ice cream flavors. Nothing seemed to grab their attention, and I struggled to have a conversation remotely related to the topic of the Edge Night.
The Challenge of Small Groups
Perhaps you have had a similar experience in your small groups. Engaging teens in a conversation can be challenging — especially when they have been conditioned to rapidly consuming small bytes of information through social media. Their attention spans are naturally short, so it is critical to remain calm during small group time and practice patience as you continually re-direct the conversation to the main topic.
It is also important to be aware of the fact that teens are coming to Edge with full plates. Today’s parents want their kids to have a bright future, so they begin pushing them to excel at a young age — filling their evenings full of homework, sports, dance recitals, and school clubs. Being aware of this should help you approach ministry with fresh eyes. An Edge night should be a moment where teens feel safe and can unplug from day-to-day pressures. As a core member, you can help them feel at home the minute they walk into the youth room.
How to Help Middle School Youth Engage
1. Set Boundaries.
In an adult-to-youth relationship, youth should know where their perimeters are. At the beginning of each semester, it is essential to state rules or expectations for small group time. For example, youth should respectfully listen to whomever is speaking. What youth share in the small group should stay in the small group.
2. Make small group time a “no pressure zone.”
It is always helpful to ensure middle school-aged youth do not feel added pressure during small group time. Reiterate that small group time is when they can express themselves. There is no right or wrong answer to small group questions. The purpose of small group time is for further reflection, to build community, and to engage with the material.
3. Discern how much to challenge.
Youth are always up for a challenge, but as you challenge youth to engage during small group time, pace yourself as to how far you push the teens to share. Although some teens will have an easier time than others sharing in small groups, be aware of the quieter teens or those who struggle to express themselves.
It may also be helpful to allow the youth, from time-to-time, to speak about whatever they want for the first five minutes of the small group. This provides youth time to decompress before engaging with the subject matter.
4. Redirect the conversation.
As teens lose focus or disconnect from the topic, redirect the conversation to the original question or issue. One easy way to do this is to share a personal experience or story relevant to the topic.
5. Rephrase the question.
If you have tried everything and your small group is having trouble getting started, feel free to re-phrase the question. For example, if the question is, “Have your experiences with your earthly father changed your view of God the Father?” Instead, you could ask, “Is there something you wish God the Father would do for you?”
6. Analogies can go a long way.
Teenagers love a good analogy. Making an analogy to a popular TV show or Disney movie may capture their attention. In addition, linking Edge Night’s topic to a current trend or interest may help teens understand or apply the subject to their daily lives.
Holy Spirit, Be Our Guide
As you lead small groups, remember the Holy Spirit is always ready to assist you. God is already laying the groundwork for a more profound encounter with Him. Invite Him into your small group and let Him do His work.