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Think Small Score Big!

Laurie Copley

If you look back over your childhood, you can probably remember one adult who really took an interest in you -- who made you feel special. Maybe it was a Sunday school teacher, a little league coach, or an elementary school teacher. For me it was a close family friend. She always remembered my birthday. She made it a point to include me in conversations, and she made me feel as though my thoughts and opinions were important. She spoke into my life.

Developing relationships with kids earns you the right to speak into their lives -- just as my close family friend did for me. One of the most effective ways to develop relationships with kids in the church is through a small group ministry -- a fairly recent trend in children's ministry.

Before You Begin

The building blocks for a small group ministry for children aren't much different from those for adults, according to Mikal Keefer, editor of FW Friends, Group Publishing's new small-group-focused midweek program. Kids -- like adults -- thrive when they're known and loved and feel that people are interested in them.

Here are six steps to take before you start small groups for your children's ministry.

1) KEEP SMALL GROUPS SMALL. A ratio of 5 children to 1 leader has proven to work well. If you want to use your small groups as an outreach tool, you want kids to be able to bring their friends. You don't want your group size to already be at the maximum level of what a leader can reasonably handle.

2) DETERMINE GROUP TYPES. Decide what type of group best suits your children's needs. You may choose mixed-ages, same-age, gender-based, or mixed-gender groups. While some leaders feel that same-sex groups cut down on distractions and the competition associated with genders trying to impress each other, other leaders feel that building friendships and developing understanding toward others should cross all lines of gender and age.

3) CLARIFY THE PURPOSE OF YOUR SMALL GROUP MINISTRY. Make your purpose meaningful to kids. While developing FW Friends, Mikal discovered that parents want a small group midweek program that's focused first on Bible learning, then on relationships, and then on fun. For kids the focus is primarily fun and friends.

"I'd never tell kids that they're coming to learn God's Word and hide it in their hearts," says Mikal. "Those are terms we use as adults. If it's an effective small group, they'll get that when they come. You need to be careful how you define a small group's purpose because kids can vote with their feet." They can simply choose not to come.


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It's in the context of meaningful relationships that authentic life-change happens. And that's where Christian growth and faith development flourish.

James Buchanan is a children's minister at Shiloh Community Church in Phoenix, Arizona, who has transitioned a large and small ministry into a small group model. James explains the purpose of small groups in his ministry. "A common misconception of small groups is that you're giving up strong Bible teaching for relationships," he says. "The truth is that both go hand in hand. We still teach God's Word through a large group setting, then use small groups to emphasize relationships, Scripture memory, prayer, and relevant application of God's Word."

4. DEFINE THE GROUP LEADER'S ROLE. The leader's role is critical in the success of a small group. Most adults who teach children's Sunday school are used to leading small classes of kids. Small group leadership, however, requires a different style. A small group leader's role is more of a facilitator or a coach than a teacher.

"Bear" Bryant, the winningest coach in football history, understood the basic principle of effective coaching. If you truly love and care about the kids you coach, you'll bring out the best they have to offer. The same is true of coaching kids in a small group. The primary concern is making sure that kids feel loved, accepted, and connected.

5. SET GROUND RULES. Make children and their parents aware of expectations and guidelines before your groups meet. Set meeting times, and honor those times.

Confidentiality is also critical to your group's success. Children aren't likely to open up and share without knowing that what's been shared remains within the group. Be clear with kids, however, and let them know that if any information is shared that indicates possible harm to themselves or another individual, you'll need to talk to the appropriate people.

6. FIND SPACE FOR YOUR SMALL GROUPS. Where are the small groups going to meet? "The ideal situation is to have a room for each group, but that isn't realistic for most churches," says James. "You have to think out of the box. We had small groups meeting in hallways, foyers, courtyards, playgrounds, and anywhere else we could fit. Small groups aren't confined to a classroom and can be flexible to fit most situations."

Timely Tips

Use these small group tips from the FW Friends midweek program.

* Learn kids' names immediately. Greeting kids by name lets them know they're important to you.

* Praise in public; challenge in private. If you need to talk to a child about a behavior issue, do it apart from the group. Doing so communicates respect and lessens the likelihood for a child to feel the need to "save face."

* See a child's world from his or her view. There's no such thing as a trivial problem. Even if you know it's something that'll blow over in a couple of days, give it the proper attention. Ask questions and help the child explore potential solutions.

* Celebrate kids' successes. Make a big deal out of kids' successes. Applaud kids frequently, and be their cheerleader.

* Communicate with kids. Call kids when they miss a meeting to let them know you missed them. Frequently send postcards. Be specific in your message so kids know it's directly to them and not the same message to everyone else.

* Give kids opportunities. Expect kids to do and be their best, but don't expect perfection. Kids learn by leading. Giving them opportunities to lead encourages them. You'll also find they listen to each other better after they've taken turns in some sort of leadership capacity.

* Relax and have fun. Let kids know you care by being yourself, but don't try to be "one of the kids." Kids are relying on you to be their leader, not their playmate. If you relax, you'll have fun -- and so will they.

Making Connections

Adam came into our children's ministry two years ago, and he was probably the shyest boy I'd ever met. His family had just gone through a rough divorce, and he was coming to church every other week when he visited his dad. Adam was very uncomfortable coming into our ministry, so much so that at times he would stand in the hallway in tears until I could explain to him exactly how the morning would go.

At the same time that Adam came to us, we were making a transition to a large group/small group model. We hooked Adam into one of our small groups, and within three months he began to connect to his group, his shepherd, and the other 60 kids attending that hour. After a couple of months of Adam plugging into his small group, his dad came to me after church and asked what we were doing with the kids because, for the first time ever, Adam had begun to ask his dad and his shepherd to pray for him and his family.

That was a huge step for Adam. Just two weeks later, I walked into the room, and Adam was on stage in front of everyone, talking on a microphone, and leading a review game.

For Adam, and many others like him, the small group model allows them to become connected to a specific, consistent group that leads to significant ministry in their lives. I'm convinced that we need to focus in on building relationships with our kids, find out what's going on in their lives, and minister to their needs. This can be effectively done by using small groups in our ministries.

"We are still making this transition, but I'm sold on this model and its effectiveness in connecting kids into our ministry, leading them to a relationship with Christ, and allowing them to build healthy relationships with others. We have many 'Adams' come through our doors, and it's our vision that we not lose them out the back door. For this we've chosen a small group format as a tool to connect these kids to the church," Buchanan says.

Making The Transition

Several years ago while serving as pastor of Christian education and family ministries at Eastside Foursquare Church in Kirkland, Washington, Sharyn Spradlin started a small group ministry for her kids.

"Small groups as a foundation for ministry to kids has provided several benefits," says Sharyn. "The intimate setting of the small groups and the interpersonal relationships they create allow kids to feel safe, accepted, and have a general sense of well-being."

In a small group ministry, lives are changed. Sharyn found that it's in the context of meaningful relationships that authentic life-change happens. And that's where Christian growth and faith development flourish.

Starting a small group ministry requires careful planning. When Sharyn started small groups in her church, it took time and patience.

"At the beginning of this journey, we were treading on new territory," says Sharyn. "After months of vision-casting, planning, and training, we began to take our first steps."

Start your small group ministry with these steps.

1. Pray. Pray for God's guidance in setting up the ministry and that God will raise up leaders for specific groups of kids that he intends to be together. Enlist prayer support. If you have 15 kids and three leaders, ask six people to be prayer partners and commit to pray daily for three people by name. If you have more kids and leaders, enlist the help of more prayer partners.

2. Cast the vision. Start with a clear vision of God's direction and leadership. A football coach would never enter the big game without a plan of action specifically detailed in the play book. You, too, need a play book. Prayerfully discern God's path for your group, write a mission statement and goals, and make a list of anticipated problems and their potential solutions.

3. Enlist solid leaders. There are people who'd never stand up and teach Sunday school, but they'd be great small group leaders. Look for people who love children and are able to connect with them. Watch how potential leaders interact with kids. Do they make eye contact and get down on a child's level so they don't tower above a child? Are they drawn to kids and kids to them? These are the people you're looking for.

4. Find your curriculum. Select a Bible-based program that fosters interactive discussion and is easy for leaders to use. A good curriculum enables the leader to facilitate -- rather than "teach" -- the group.

5. Train small group leaders. One of the biggest pitfalls in small group ministry to kids is the lack of leader training. Leaders need to know basic safety issues such as to never be alone with a child. Yet, small group leaders need specific training beyond the basics, such as the following:

* Leading a discussion -- Leaders need to be taught how to facilitate discussions with open-ended questions. Asking questions such as "How?" and "Why do you think that?" engages kids. Questions answered with "yes," "no," or pat answers will kill a discussion. It takes time for kids to trust that they can share their ideas. They're a little unsure about thinking aloud, and they're even more unsure about telling us what they feel. Kids will begin to trust their small group leader when they see that person cares about them, their thoughts, and their feelings.

* Providing consistency -- "We live in a very transient society. Our kids are not in church every week," says James. "We haven't solved this problem, but we can emphasize to the parents how important it is to consistently come to church. The other thing we can do is provide consistent leadership that's always there so when our kids do come to church, there's a familiar face to connect with."

* Creating a trusting environment -- Don't put a child on the spot to contribute to a discussion. Children will open up and share when they feel comfortable. Once a child starts to open up and contribute to a discussion, don't ever tell him that his answer is wrong. Be sensitive to the child's feelings.

* Allowing a group to become a group -- Relationships don't happen overnight. During the first six weeks of a group, focus on the relationship-building aspect. "A litmus test for the effectiveness of a small group isn't how well kids can recite the Bible information you've tried to communicate," Mikal says, "but it's what happens the next time a child is transparent about a difficulty or a challenge. Do the other kids leap on that, get uncomfortable and ignore it, or do they offer reassurance to the child?"

* Understanding kids' invisible world -- "Kids don't treat other kids the same way when an adult is around. They have a whole different pecking order," says Mikal. The world of elementary and junior high kids becomes invisible when adults are present. So adults getting into a child's life is all the more difficult without a positive and authentic relationship.

6. Kick off your ministry. Have a large kickoff event for kids and their parents. Or each small group can have a special gathering to celebrate the group's new beginnings.

Starting a small group ministry may be much easier than you think, and the benefits are limitless. Small groups provide kids opportunities to engage in healthy relationships with adults and their peers. Knowing they can count on others for support and prayer will impact kids for a lifetime. Experiencing Christian community firsthand will strengthen their faith and change their lives.

Give your kids the opportunity to experience life-changing relationships through a small group ministry in your church. They'll experience the body of Christ in action.

"A litmus test for the effectiveness of a small group isn't how well kids can recite the Bible information you've tried to communicate, but it's what happens the next time a child is transparent about a difficulty or a challenge."

Laurie Copley is a former assistant editor of Children's Ministry Magazine. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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