Leading meaningful discussion with teenagers is a big part of any youth ministry experience. Whether in Wednesday night small group or during mission trip processing, make the most of the time you have in a circle with students. See if any of the following tips will help you be a better small group leader.
1. Have a plan, and be ready to change it. If great discussion and interest flow from your introduction question, do not force the group to move on to the next question just for the sake of the agenda. Go with your youth and dig deeper into the areas with which they connect. That’s what processing is all about.
2. Give students permission to talk. Emphasize that this is a safe place to share. Students don’t have to share their deepest things with the entire group, but encourage them to talk with someone with whom they feel safe.
3. Allow time to answer. Our tendency is to answer the questions we ask. Two seconds of silence can seem like an eternity. A good practice is to ask a question and then mentally count to five. It will seem awkward at first, but it will allow for people to think and answer when they are ready.
4. Rephrase effectively. If you wait several seconds and it seems no one understands the question, then you can rephrase it, but do so carefully. Keep the question open-ended. Do not answer it or change it to a “yes or no” question. Questions with one-word answers do not promote processing. For example:
If the question is, “After what you saw today, how do you feel?”
- Do not rephrase it to “Do you feel sad about what you saw?”
- Instead, rephrase it to “What do you think about what you saw today?” (This helps students transfer abstract feelings to concrete thoughts and keeps it open to a wide range of possible answers.)
5. Redirect when necessary. While abandoning your plan when youth are engaged in great group discussion is important, stay keenly aware of the tone of the conversation and redirect if the group wanders into unhelpful territory. As the facilitator, you should pull the conversation back by gently jumping in (trying not to interrupt but waiting for a break) and reframing the conversation.
6. Listen. You can only know where your youth are at and understand the direction of the conversation if you are giving full attention to the group. Do not plan your next question or your next announcement while students are sharing. Let your students’ responses shape the movement of the discussion. Be a good and compassionate listener, and be ready to care for students who express hurt, uncertainty or strong emotion related to their own journey.
7. Don’t force conclusions or answers. There is a time to teach and a time to listen. Before you or your fellow leaders jump in with the right answer, let students grapple with hard questions on their own. Injecting your answers into discussion will silence productive conversation.
8. Show respect. Set boundaries for listening to one another. For some groups (especially junior high students), it is a good idea to have an object represent which person has the floor. For example, a stuffed toy can be passed as people share. If you do not have the toy, you are not talking; rather, you are listening to the person with the toy.
9. Dig deeper. Listen for underlying beliefs/opinions/feelings and help bring them out. Give permission for questions to be discussed. Help students go a bit deeper by asking, “What are some reasons for that?” or “Can you explain why?” Repeat answers. Turn conversation towards others: “Did anyone else see/notice that?” or “What do all of you think?”
10. Follow up with students. After the discussion is over, don’t miss your opportunity to follow up with students about what they said. Ask a student if he still has questions. Invite further conversation. Tell a student that you appreciated what she said. Small group discussion can lead to incredible one-on-one conversations.
Sam Townsend helps write training, programming and marketing materials for YouthWorks mission trips. When he isn’t hanging around teenagers at church or digging into seminary homework, he is generally looking for a good conversation and a hole-in-the-wall restaurant to have it in. Sam still considers his first couple summers working for YouthWorks in Virginia and Pennsylvania communities some of the most transformative times of his life.