Getting any group to discuss content, much less a group of teenagers, can be so agonizing it’s no wonder most student small group models fail and volunteers leave. Small group participants are prone to one-word answers forcing the leader to keep talking while everyone else tunes out. But I can tell you from experience; it doesn’t have to be that way. You can set your small group up to steal the conversation. Five tips:
1) Start discussion before content is delivered.
I always do this as the last part of announcements. “There’s a ski retreat, sign up for mission trip, and get together with two or three other people and answer this question.” I give them two minutes to answer an opinion or experience-based warm-up question in their own groups while the timer counts down on screen.
For most students there is no fear of getting it wrong both because we haven’t given them any answers ahead of time and because they are almost always purely opinion questions. So both first timers and long-time attendees get an opportunity to lead a discussion without the pressures of being right theologically or committing to talking for the next twenty minutes (because this question is only given two minutes). The question should be a great segue to the message, or at least the first part of the message.
The key here is to offer a question to which anyone either already has or can quickly form an opinion. And don’t get too serious – that time will come later. Keep it light. It is, after all, a warm-up question.
2) Stay away from trivia questions.
Here’s what I mean: a discussion question is approached with a spirit of advice-seeking or solving a problem together, thus setting them up to steal the conversation. A trivia question does the opposite: the answer can only be 100% right or 100% wrong and is typically only one word long.
You can easily figure out if your question is trivia or discussion by what your own answer might be. If it’s at all possible you could grunt out a one or two-word answer, it’s trivia: trash the question. If you’re left telling a personal story or building a complex opinion, it’s a discussion question. Enjoy watching your group discuss.
*Note: While trivia questions don’t generate conversation and fun times, trivia night environments do. But if you’re not offering 50 different kinds of beer on tap, killer wings, and playing an awesome song between each question, it’s best to avoid trivia. I don’t know why you’d do the beer thing at a youth group anyway.*
3) Aim for application.
The more your students get a chance to talk about bridges between the lesson and their personal lives, the more they will remember and apply the lesson and create meaningful bonds with the rest of the group.
I’m not suggesting questions like, “How can you be more ________ (humble, prayerful, disciplined, whatever) at ________ (school, home, lunchroom)?” Please (PLEASE!) stop boring your students and yourself with these questions. The answers are always going to be the same no matter which words fill the blanks: “Be nice. Pray more. Read the Bible. Invite them to church.”
What will help is asking dynamic application questions that beg the listener to think, both individually and as a group, about the answer. An easy way to do this is to start the question with what would you do if, or tell us about a time you (theme from the talk). Nine times out of ten the answer to this type of question will naturally lend itself to conversation and interesting follow-up questions from the whole group (and hey, that’s a discussion).
4) Give every personality type a chance to shine.
Not everyone in your group is going to be able to lead a discussion in the same way. But they can all lead. Most groups have some social/feeling-oriented members, some task-oriented members, some who know their Bible really well, one or two cut-up funny types, and some who want to explore ideas outside of the way they were presented. Some people will fit into more than one category, but the group as a whole will definitely all be leading out of different strengths.
Give every kind of kid the opportunity to lead. Offer a spectrum of questions that matches your group: serious questions, theological questions, questions that set up funny kids for a slam dunk joke, and, again, questions that focus on application for those whose strength is social – knowing how people work.
5) Keep it fresh.
I hereby give you permission to flee from the ever-present temptation of asking the same questions every week. When a group is asked the same questions every week, it A) tells the people who came back that they shouldn’t have bothered and B) tells newcomers that they weren’t expected because everyone else already knew all the answers. Spend the extra half hour it takes to come up with new questions. It is absolutely worth it.
Need some example questions? I have you covered here.
Is your group still quiet? Here are some more tips on creating discussion.
Want to design and implement a better plan for small groups or student ministry? That’s totally my thing. Let’s talk.