the power of small

small groupin the little book i published last year called A Beautiful Mess: What’s Right About Youth Ministry, i included a little section where i riffed on the power of small. and a couple weeks ago at the SYMC, i led a half-track seminar (4 hours) called “six values great youth ministries embrace,” and included this idea as one of those six.

actually, now that i think about it, the section in the book and the seminar was actually “the power of small churches.” here was my summary statement from the seminar:

Since small churches often don’t have the resources to develop impressive programs fueled by amazing technology, they are often forced to “settle” for the core of what really works in youth ministry: a caring Jesus-following adult engaging a small group of teenagers.

i’ve seen this over and over again in the past few years, particularly since i’ve moved out of a role that was primarily about “developing impressive programs fueled by amazing technology,” even if it was for youth workers instead of teenagers.

and when we talked about this value in my seminar, we went a step further, and asked people to wrestle with what this means for medium-sized and large church youth ministries. how can they embody a value of small, even though they’re not a small church?

i was struck by this over the weekend in terms of my own practice. sunday morning, as i was making my way into church, a dad approached me. he’s the dad of a college freshman guy who was in my small group as a 6th – 8th grader. the dad said something like, “i was thinking of you just this morning! i was thinking about what an amazing young man my son has become — with strong character, an active faith, personal practices and boundaries that naturally flow out of who he is — and i thought to myself, this all traces back to marko and that small group.”

of course, i was wonderfully encouraged and flattered. and of course i took a minute or two to tell him how he and his wife have had a greater impact on who their son has become than i could ever hope to have had (which, as an aside, was a surprise to him — a reminder to me that we have to keep telling parents that!).

and as i took my seat and waited for the service to start, i reflected on what it was that made that particular small group so rich. and the small group that followed that, with another set of guys i met with weekly from 6th grade through 8th grade. i see those guys — from that second small group — now sophomores in high school, and how active their faith is, how much they’re holding each other accountable, how much they’re stepping into leadership.

and then i compared that to the group of guys i have now, currently in 7th grade. they are awesome guys, and i love them. but, i was thinking, something’s not the same. it feels like our weekly small group has primarily become a christian education endeavor. but i don’t remember many recent wednesday nights when someone really opened up with doubts, or with hurt, or with questions, or with confession, or with a request for help. i realized that i’ve started measuring “good nights” as the ones where we talk about something spiritual and the guys engage to some extent. that’s not the same thing.

it might be that i’m exclusively remembering times from the 8th grade years of those two previous groups. after all, i’ve often felt that leading a small group of middle school guys is a couple years of building relationship and trust, and a third year where the return starts to show up.

but at the end of the day, i can only chalk it up to the size of the group. they guys i have in my group right now have every bit as much potential as the guys in the previous groups. but they’re getting ripped off. that first group — with the son of the dad who talked to me sunday morning — had five guys in it. the same five guys for three years. the second group had six guys in it. the same six guys for three years. but my current group had about 12 guys in it last year (when they were in 6th grade), and runs between 14 and 18 most weeks this year (7th grade). we’ve talked about splitting the group; but there either hasn’t been enough leaders, or enough will power, or enough urgency, or something. i’m not putting the blame anywhere other than at my feet. in fact, there’s probably even been a little ego satisfaction in having a larger group (i get to feel simultaneously self-important, and permitted to whine and expect sympathy).

how can i really create a place of honest life-sharing with 18 guys? how would any but the exceptionally bold and verbal among them ever feel that it’s safe enough to ask a tough question or offer up a genuine hurt or verbalize an honest doubt?

i’ve got to figure out how to re-embrace the power of small. funny, isn’t it, that i have to wrestle with this in the context of a “small group”? my goal: by next fall, i’ve got to find a way to make this two small groups. that will mean loss for me, because i have no interest in not being the small group leader for all the guys. i mean, i’ve invested two years into these relationships, and am stoked about what next year could be for all of them. but i’m ripping them off. we must get small. if i give a rip about the spiritual formation of these guys, we must get small.

9 thoughts on “the power of small”

  1. I’d be interested in how this get’s explored further.

    I also have a group of 7th Grade boys. There is a small core group of really connected kids who know their Bible inside and out and really want to be there. I also have a larger group of fringe guys who are there to talk to each other or the 7th grade girls.

    It’s a real struggle every week, but I think getting small is really near the solution.

  2. Marko, I’m feeling this same tension. My 6th grade guys small group right now has 10 guys in it, and the guys never miss a week. For a while I lost my co-leader and was trying to do it all by myself. Even for a “professional” (whatever that means) middle school pastor, it was a tall task. I finally have a new co-leader who the guys already love, and I’m toying with the idea of staying together as a large group for half the time (30 minutes), and then breaking into smaller accountability groups of 5 students each for the second half of the time. Not sure how it will work, but I know we’re missing some of those deeper moments you also spoke about. I’d love to hear if you come up with any creative ideas along the way.

  3. I agree that the most impact on a students spiritual life comes during small group discipleship. But for some crazy reason it’s hard to get parents and students to see the importance of small group time. Most would rather just show up for the “big show” and there is no deeper connectivity or growth.

  4. Totally agree with the power of the SMALL group. Anything over a family sized unit, say 5 or 6, then the dynamic changes. As a leader you start to become more of a ‘teacher’ and have to organise and manage.
    As an aside, I notice lots of contributors mention guys or girls groups. Do you intentionally split the genders. We currently have one small group which is mixed. What do you see as the strengths or weakness of the single-sex group. Interested as I am thinking it might be a way to go.

  5. hey jason — i’m a fan of single gender small groups. i just find that they dramatically increase the safety of the group and the likelihood that teenagers will talk about what’s really going on in their minds and hearts. that said: i think each group should discern what’s best for their own context.

  6. Great post MarkO! Your stories about your 2 previous small groups really show and emphasize the importance of being consistent with a few for a significant period of time (2-3 years). Being there for them, walking through life with them and talking Christ really helped develop those boys into godly men. Great stuff!

  7. @David, that’s what we do and it works pretty well.

    I’ve found that 8-10 is a really awkward number to work around. Small enough that the students all really know each other and enjoy each other’s company. Too big for everyone to share in an hour-long conversation.

    So we all hang out, then break into two smaller groups for discussion. It’s also nice that on a slow night (basketball tryouts!), we lose three or four kids, but still have enough for a good group.

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