There may be times as a small group leader that you don’t have pre-scripted questions, or your students aren’t vibing with the questions you have. While it may not always flow seamlessly, those are times when I like to move to what I call “self-guided discussions.” These are discussions facilitated by a small group leader, but essentially led by the needs, responses, and thoughts of the small group. Here is a basic look at how to lead your group using a self-guided discussion.

If you can, do a little pre-discussion prep.

The longer you spend with your particular small group, the more you will learn about them. You will be able to identify key areas that impact their lives individually and collectively. As you learn these things, you will be able to identify key topics or themes from weekly lessons that will be most relevant to them.

If you know the lesson topic prior to youth group, you can prep beforehand. Otherwise, you can take notes and write questions during the teaching time. Look for ways to connect the topic or key points of the lesson to the lives of your students. Come up with some questions that will lead students to make these connections on their own, rather than simply spoon-feeding them the answers.

Ask, “What stood out to you?”

If I can tell my students are engaged and thinking through to the topic, I want to hear what is standing out to them. Often I like to ask this question first to see what spoke to them, what they are thinking about, and what they might need to spend extra time talking through. Sometimes this will dictate the entire direction of our discussion time, especially if it is a topic I know will benefit the entire group.

When asking this question, you may get answers (or comments) that don’t exactly relate to the lesson topic. Sometimes your students might go entirely off topic. If it’s something worth talking about, I would encourage you not to completely shut down the discussion. Some of the best conversations I’ve had with my small group originated from what seemed like a tangent. It’s okay to deviate from the intended topic and let conversation grow organically as long as it’s beneficial and not an attempt to distract the group. This can be one of the best aspects of self-guided discussion.

Ask follow-up questions based on students’ answers.

After asking the students what stood out to them, use their answers to guide your questions. Pick a key word or topic from their answers to hone in on. Ask follow-up questions that will steer the conversation in a helpful direction. This is a great way to help students connect broad topics to real-life application. It also allows you to spend more time on things that are important to your students, rather than glossing over them to move on to the next question.

Apply questions and answers to specific life circumstances or issues.

As I mentioned before, it’s important for us to assist students in connecting the truths of Scripture to their lives. They need to be able to see the relevance of lesson topics for their lives. These connections may be easy for them to make, but other times they may struggle. This is where you as a leader can guide them into making these connections with the questions you ask. The more you know about your students, the more you will be able to connect topics to their specific life circumstances.

Within this, it is important not to disclose things you have been told in confidence by students. Use discretion in how you address topics, keeping student privacy in mind. If a student has shared an issue previously with the group at large, I recommend speaking to them privately before bringing it up again in the group. This can be as simple as pulling them aside and asking for their permission to bring up the topic, or asking them if they would be willing to share about it.

Encourage your students to ask questions.

Self-guided discussion truly becomes self-guided when your students start asking questions. This may start with them asking you things, but eventually they will hopefully begin to ask each other follow-up questions. Even if you don’t know the answer to a student’s question, encourage them by affirming their question, and if needed, doing some research so you can follow-up with an answer. Be honest and open with your students. You don’t have to share everything, but you will be able to connect with them on a deeper level if you let them into your life. This will help to build rapport between you and your students.

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