The most effective way to reach today’s kids is through small
groups. Here’s how Eastside Foursquare Church in Kirkland,
Washington, is doing just that!
“I didn’t want to go to another church to make a dumb craft,
listen to a story about a guy named Jesus that didn’t make any
sense to me, and be with kids who didn’t like me,” said 10-year-old
Ryan. He had recently moved from Minneapolis with his mother and
sister after his parents divorced. That’s how Ryan said he felt
before he came to our church.
Ryan’s first memory of his classroom at our large church outside
of Seattle, was a huge, handpainted mural of a jungle scene
covering an entire wall. Reluctantly he entered the room filled
with kids his age playing Foosball, talking, reading Sports
Illustrated for Kids, and making leather bracelets. He recognized a
familiar song by Jars of Clay playing on a CD player. An adult
leader greeted Ryan and asked him if he wanted to shoot basketballs
into a small, portable hoop.
After about 15 minutes, kids moved into small groups of five to
seven kids and an adult leader. The groups then had Piggyback Races
and quickly discovered that speed and mobility were difficult to
achieve with 80 pounds on your back. For some the challenge was
impossible, while others struggled forward. Each group then
gathered with their small group leader to discuss the activity:
What was it like to be carried by your partner? Can you remember a
time you needed help? How is your experience in this game like a
friend who helps you through a difficult situation?
After the discussion, the kids and their group leaders moved to
a room arranged for many small groups. They were joined by other
kids as the room filled with first- through fourth-grade small
groups. Kids intently watched a music video about friends in
trouble, recently created by one of several adult support teams.
Then a team of musicians and background vocalists led children in
praise and worship. As the last words of the final song appeared on
the overhead, the lights dimmed and a facilitator introduced a
drama. Four kids and two adults presented the story of friends who
lowered a paralyzed boy through a roof to be healed by Jesus.
The facilitator, who guides the small groups in activities and
debriefings, posed questions regarding the drama for small group
leaders to discuss with the kids in their groups. These questions
are designed to allow the small group leaders to encourage kids in
the discovery of the biblical point and its application in their
lives. This process also provides the leader with insights into the
individual group members as they seek to build relationships with
The leaders in this program aren’t teachers. They’re relational
role models who facilitate the learning experience through
discussion questions, prayer, and encouragement. The intimate
setting of the small groups-and the interpersonal relationships
they create-allow kids to feel safe and accepted and have a general
sense of well-being.
Small groups give kids the sense of security to say what they feel
without fear of belittling or intimidation. Leaders are sometimes
surprised by the depth of kids’ love of Christ and the sincerity
and thoughtfulness of their questions. Some kids are very concerned
about difficult family situations while others are ready to focus
on challenging theological concepts.
A fourth-grader told his group about a close adult friend who
liked to take him fishing in the Cascades. The boy then started
crying when he said his friend had suffered a heart attack and
died. He asked for prayer and wanted to know what happens to people
when they die. The discussion and prayer that followed were deeply
emotional and sincere. That morning he realized how deeply Christ
and his friends cared for him.
“We seek to instill Christian values and an understanding of
biblical truths,” says Cyndie Steenis, the church’s director of
children’s education. Cyndie leads a team of four, and collectively
they serve nearly 300 adult volunteers who serve 700 kids.
“Educational programming without the benefit of relationship can
cause kids to feel like the targets of someone else’s beliefs. The
relationship with their small group leader is the foundation on
which kids receive the message. We believe that the leader’s
relationship with the five to seven kids in his or her group is
both biblical and crucial to learning.”
Understanding the unique needs and interests of the Millennial
generation, the kids born after 1982, as well as other generations
represented in the church, is a critical challenge. This Millennial
generation will gather and assimilate information, form values, and
make decisions based on their relationships. Kids who find
themselves disconnected from any relationships inside the church
will be dissatisfied. They’ll hear what we say, but they’ll also
want to see our words in our lives. A vibrant community of
believers must be committed to being relational role models for our
kids just as Jesus was for his disciples.
Christian education faces the question of relevance from this
generation saturated by information and knowledge. Void of any
relationships, our attempts to instill Christian values or educate
children in the basic doctrines of our faith may prove to be
Authentic life change happens in the context of relationship, not
education. We can’t deny that programs initiate and promote some
interpersonal opportunities, but most often they’re
information-driven, frequently causing our volunteers and children
to feel like a product, a target, or even an object that
experiences little life change.
However, the relational interaction between two or more people,
such as in a small group, is what causes genuine change in the
lives of children.
“When I first started here,” says Rachel Bartlow, a small group
leader of third- and fourth-graders, “it was ‘cattle in and cattle
out.’ There were 32 students and one teacher so I didn’t know many
of my students’ names or backgrounds. I think the small groups have
had an impact because now you can sense bonds building within the
Judy Jeppesen, a first- and second-grade group leader, agrees.
“The 20 kids I know will come in, hug me, and climb on me while
asking questions and fixing my hair,” Judy says. “I’m here to give
them some direction and to share God’s special love.”
Small group leaders such as Judy have realized that the value of
relationship takes priority over the methods used in education.
While a contemporary delivery of the biblical story is vital, the
relationship between the teacher or small group leader provides the
foundation for the story to be understood and applied.
A recent trend in Christian education is the desire to return to
the core beliefs of the church. It’s important for kids to
understand these basic beliefs. However, some have interpreted this
movement as a call to “simplify” or to return to the teaching
methods of the past, rather then recognizing the need for
relationship. That’s a mistake.
Finding suitable curriculum using contemporary communication to a
large group while remaining sensitive to the priority of small
group relationships, presents a challenge.
“Curriculum for this type of program is difficult to find,” says
Cyndie. “In addition to using Group’s
Hands-On Bible Curriculum™, we also spend a considerable amount
of time writing or adapting scripts for dramas and puppets,
creating videos to enhance the point, and forming questions for
small group leaders. The program requires us to be very
A creative curriculum with a relational base requires small group
leaders to appreciate the value of building relationships and to
know that a high level of commitment is necessary to nurture
discipleship. The criteria for teachers within children’s ministry
often requires experience and skill. However, a small group leader
may have little experience or few teaching skills, yet understand
that investing time, effort, and understanding is vital to building
relationships with kids.
The Scriptures reveal to us that from Creation to the coming of
the Messiah, relationship is the central theme of our faith. God’s
purpose in sending his Son to die on the cross and be resurrected
from the grave, was to build and restore intimacy with us. The
process of communicating his message of eternal life necessitates
relationship. The Millennial generation will absorb the reality of
the gospel, primarily through relational experiences. This is
enhanced in the context of the small group. Ultimately, these
relationships will foster authentic life change.
Sharyn Spradlin, a children’s minister, and David Spradlin, a
freelance writer, live in Kirkland, Washington.
STARTING SMALL GROUPS
You can develop a relational small group approach in your church.
Here are practical starting tips:
•Recognize the value of relationships. God’s purpose in sending
his Son was to build and restore intimacy with us. Our faith story
is to be lived out in the community through relationship. Effective
evangelism and discipleship are dependent upon relationship.
•Understand kids’ culture. Read magazines such as Nickelodeon or
Sports Illustrated for Kids for insights about what communicates to
your kids and the attitudes and issues that exist in their world.
Watch television with them or listen to their music. Discover what
they like or dislike and why. Go to their homes or schools. Walk
into their world. It’ll show them that you care.
• Commit to investing time in building relationships. Does your
personal calendar reflect your investments in relationships? Do the
programs and activities in your church provide opportunities for
building relationships? Review your curriculum for kids. Does it
provide for relationships to be enhanced in a small group