Over the past several years, I have worked in a variety of settings where I helped youth ministries make the shift to small group discipleship. I have helped parishes transition from a youth group structure to a small group structure. I have helped a small parish build a small group youth ministry from scratch with volunteers. I have run my own small group in a Catholic School environment and assisted the school’s campus ministry in their development of a small group structure. Small group discipleship can work in a variety of settings.
1. Start Small, Grow Big
When I first started small group youth ministry, I would think programmatically. I wanted to have ten small groups with two leaders in each small group. So, I recruited twenty adults (which was a difficult task), I had a training day, we made a plan for launch and we assigned teens into the groups with the leaders.
The plan failed miserably.
It is too difficult to “program” something that is supposed to happen organically. When I have focused on starting one small group at a time and I can give the attention that is necessary to the leaders, the forming of the dynamic of the group and communication with parents, the small group almost always succeeds.
I give the same advice to every parish that is seeking to shift to small group based ministry – start one group at a time. Start small and grow big.
2. Same Gender Groups
Boys and girls mature at different paces. When transparency is the goal, I have found it is much easier to achieve transparency within a group if boys are with boys and girls are with girls. What’s more, I strongly believe that boys learn to become men from the example of other men and that girls learn to become women from the example of other women.
Co-ed groups can work, but I believe that same gendered groups is the ideal setup for a small group. Generally, I also recommend that groups start with 5-8 members in the group. Less than 5 can be tricky to achieve the right dynamic, and more than 8 can overwhelm the discussion in the group.
3. Critical Thinking Questions
Critical thinking discussions generally come naturally for adults when they are respectful of one another and they are mature enough to self reflect. For young people, critical thinking discussions don’t always come naturally and neither does self-reflection. This is why it is imperative to have small group mentors who know how to help others engage in critical thinking.
Programmed questions don’t generally work well in a vacuum. It would be difficult for me to give a small group leader a list of questions, have them follow the plan exactly, and to have excellent discussion. Excellent conversations happen organically – and small group leaders should feel free to use tools/programs to help facilitate discussion – but not to follow it so tightly that it kills a discussion.
4. A Comfortable Environment
I believe that a comfortable environment is crucial for small group discipleship to be effective. In order the create an environment where people feel that they can be transparent with one another, a person needs to feel comfortable. A living room, a coffee shop, a fireside room, a public hangout, or the outdoors are all conducive to creating an environment where trust and transparency can be developed.
The worst environment for a small group to meet is the parish or a classroom. Parishes are some of the least welcoming environments for teens (or anyone for that matter). I don’t enjoy hanging out in the ugly, all-purpose parish hall nor would I bring my friends there to hang out. Classrooms are an environment that are not associated with sharing – and teenagers won’t be transparent in this environment.
My favorite place to do small groups is in the home of the teens. This can be considered taboo in some dioceses where safe environment policies prevent meetings in homes. I would push back on these policies (but still comply with the safe environment regulations in your dioceses). The Vatican and our bishops have been stating for some time that faith formation starts with the domestic church in the family. What kind of message are we sending if we state that small group discipleship can’t happen in a home? The home is where we want faith formation to happen – and we need to be willing to bring formation to where the teens are at. I have found that leading my small group in homes also presents a tremendous opportunity to engage parents and to build trust and transparency with them as well.
5. Small Groups Throughout the Week
Today, teens and their parents are overcommitted and too busy. There is no day or time in the week that every teen in the parish is going to have available to meet at the parish for a youth group program. By programming youth ministry on one night of the week, we inhibit the growth of the youth ministry because we immediately eliminate the teens who are not available on that day of the week and adult volunteers who cannot volunteer on that particular day. Good youth ministry provides flexibility so that every teen can participate.
In the parishes where I have run small group discipleship, the small groups meet all throughout the week when the teen’s schedules allow for it. My small group meets during the lunch period on Thursday at their high school. Another group meets with their leaders on Friday evenings. Others meet after Mass on Sunday mornings. By providing flexibility, I have more teens engaged and more adults willing to volunteer. I would never recommend having all small groups meet at the parish on the same night of the week. This strategy inhibits growth.
6. Place Teens in Small Groups with their Friends
I once attended a Diocesan Youth Rally with a small group of middle schoolers where the teens were split up and put into small groups with kids from other parishes. They were not allowed to be in small groups with their friends. I expressed my displeasure to the person in charge and he responded, “It’s good for them to get to know kids from other backgrounds and to share and learn about what they have in common.” The problem with this statement is that the kids didn’t share – they were not going to be transparent about their life with total strangers.
If you grabbed a whole bunch of adults who were complete strangers and put them in a room together, chances are they are not going to share about the deep and intimate parts of their lives. We shouldn’t expect teens to do this with one another. Teens need to be with people that they feel comfortable with. Small groups should be formed with the intention of putting teens in a group with all of their natural friends.
7. Engaging Parents Every Week
Parents need to be involved in the discipleship of their own teenager. I don’t tell the parents of my small group what was said in the group, but I do tell the parents the topics that we are covering and I try to connect with them every week. With all of the tools and resources available for small group leaders, it is easier than ever to use tools to engage parents as part of the discussion.
I have been asked by many people if I recommend having parents lead a small group with their own teenager in the group. I think it would be difficult for the parent to establish transparency with their own teen in their small group. As an alternative, if parents are engaged weekly in discussions with a small group leader, the small group leader becomes a bridge for the parent and the teen, so that parents are informed and can continue ongoing discussion about the faith once their teen comes home.
For more information about Discipleship Groups and Youth Ministry, read The Theory of One.