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
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
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
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
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.”
Use these small group tips from the FW Friends midweek
* 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
* Celebrate kids’ successes. Make a big deal out of
kids’ successes. Applaud kids frequently, and be their
* 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.
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
“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
“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
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
Starting a small group ministry requires careful planning. When
Sharyn started small groups in her church, it took time and
“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
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
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
* 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
* 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
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.