While I remember thinking - and still think - that there’s more complexity and nuance to the differences in youth ministries, Pete’s words have stuck with me over the years because they do seem to sum up the vast majority of youth groups.
When thinking of small groups in youth ministry, it’s important to know why you exist and why you bother meeting together. You might come up with your own description or some combination of descriptions, but here are four approaches to small groups I’ve seen most often. Which one resonates most with you? Which one is most reflective of your approach?
Traditionally, youth ministries sprung up out of the Sunday School movement, which often became the Christian education department of a church. That name summarises the approach well: small groups with this focus are primarily concerned with educating teenagers in the Christian faith.
If you’re not sure whether this is your approach, consider the content and form. In other words, if the content (or at least what you hope the content is!) is focused on transferring truth to students, helping them to increase in knowledge, then this is probably your approach. If your small group times are primarily teacher-centric or focused on the information being given by the leader, it’s a strong indicator that your group has an education focus.
That’s not a bad thing. It can, however, end up feeling a lot like school to teenagers and be a turn off. The dark side of this approach is that it can tend to focus only on the minds of students and the information they can grasp. But living as a follower of Jesus is a whole-person activity: mind, heart, emotion and behaviour.
A Bible study focus is mostly educational. But, instead of relying primarily on instruction about beliefs, this purpose is more interested in helping teenagers discover and understand biblical truth by actually digging into the Bible.
Here’s what’s great about this approach: the Bible is God’s primary means of revelation to us, and most Christian teenagers today are fairly clueless about the Bible, the truths of scripture and even the stories that speak to us. Bible reading among Christians has declined significantly in the past few decades. One study found that only one in five churchgoers say they’re getting the help they need understanding the Bible.
A Bible study-focused small group has the opportunity to reverse these damaging trends by offering biblical engagement. This focus can be amazing, particularly when it helps teenagers engage with scripture. But most small I’ve seen groups that say they are Bible study-focused are really an educational model, with a teacher dispensing information and very little actual interaction with scripture for the teenagers.
Community / therapeutic
This is probably the most common focus for youth ministry small groups. The hope is to create an authentic community, a place where students can be honest about the real stuff of their lives, including the integration of their faith into daily life.
I added the word ‘therapeutic’ to this description to indicate that these kinds of groups often provide a kind of semi-therapy for the trauma teenagers experience. There’s great value in this approach. It’s probably the purpose I most closely align with in my own small group leadership style.
The caution for this approach is that it’s easy to get lazy and have the group time amount to nothing more than shooting the breeze. Without some intentionality, particularly in bringing up spiritual subjects, the group could end up enjoying each other but not accomplishing more than a fun night of hanging out each week.
The mini youth group
Most youth ministry small groups focus in on one purpose (like those listed above). But the mini youth group approach throws the net wider. This approach views the small group as a youth ministry of its own, with the small group leader acting as a youth pastor, of sorts.
Most small groups that say they are bible study-focused are really an educational model, with a teacher dispensing information and very little actual interaction with scripture
Think of all the functions and purposes of a youth group: worship, teaching, evangelism, discipleship, fellowship, serving and more. Well, the mini youth group approach to small groups embraces all of those.
This is probably the most rare, but it’s worth considering. Think of the impact of going on a mission trip as a small group. Or what if worship (not just singing, by the way) became a regular part of your small group? In a sense, this kind of small group attempts to live out what it means to be the church in the context of their small group. That can be very powerful.