Shaping Your Youth Group Gatherings

When it comes to our student ministry gatherings we should be intentional with how we shape them. Whether it’s a Sunday morning, a week night, or special event, we should critically think through what makes it something students will want to come to and be a part of, and how can our gatherings can intentionally bring students closer to Jesus. Our times of gathering together are highly important as they are opportune moments to pour into our students and help them mature in the discipleship process.

As we look at our gatherings we should be thoughtful not only in thinking through why we are hosting them, but also in how they are structured and designed. Is the goal of the gathering reflected in its scheduling? Do people understand what the purpose is? Is the gathering intentional and focused so that people can clearly see Jesus throughout it? As we wrestle through these questions, they will ultimately allow us to craft gatherings that are focused, intentional, communal, and oriented toward the priorities and hearts of our students.

Make it intentional.

Whenever we host a gathering, it should never be to just have another event, nor should it be a competitive response to something we have seen. Trying to compete with a bigger church or program, trying to reflect what we see influences do, or trying to be the next “big thing” is not what attracts students over the long term. You may see numbers go up for short periods, but it is not a sustainable approach to ministry, nor are we reaching students with the life-changing power of the Gospel. We should focus on crafting gatherings that have a clear intent and are designed to build community, engage with students, and point them to Jesus. You don’t need to be the biggest and best but being intentional and focused on your students will bring more students out over time because they see you truly care about them and their faith.

Have a focus and purpose.

Whenever you gather your students together there should be a focus and purpose that not only shapes how the event looks, but also has a focused outcome and desired results. If it’s about building disciples then shape the gathering with adequate small group time. If it’s about worship and singing praises, shape the time to give prominence to those moments. If it’s simply to be relational and build community then seek to have opportunities that reach people across the spiritual spectrum and make it easier for newcomers to step in. By knowing your focus and purpose, it will allow you to create programs and elements within the program that will best reach your students with the desired outcome.

Bring in elements that build community.

Whether it’s a Sunday morning, a small group gathering, or outreach event, think critically about how you can make the space more inviting, intentional, and community-focused. By doing this you will help students to lower their walls, build trust, and be willing to continue coming, and prayerfully, invite their friends. There are various ways to do this, but even subtle changes can make huge differences in how students engage and respond. Here are a few quick ideas for what to incorporate to help with this idea:

  • Food. By bringing in food you are automatically creating an opportunity to build community because people naturally want to converse when there is food. Food can look different across ministries as well. It could be a café, it could be a full meal, it could be light snacks or breakfast treats, or it could be a hot chocolate bar. It doesn’t matter what the food is, but that we use it to help amply community.
  • Environment. It is important think about our environment and if the environment reflects and encourages community. Do you have tables set up where students can sit together and converse over their food? How many tables do you have set up? If you set up too many tables it may allow for students to spread out and not engage with each other, but if you have the right amount of chairs, you are leveraging the area that students must use for community. Do you have lighting that is welcoming? Do people know where you gather by the signage you have? Do you have comfortable seating? Is your gathering area reflective of your purpose and vision for community? This is all conditional upon space, budget, and ability, but let me encourage you to think about how you can shape and utilize the spaces you have to encourage community and fellowship.
  • Games. This one area can either drastically help your ministry or drastically hurt it. If we seek to do games that only appeal to a small subset of students, we alienate the others who are attending. Often times youth workers default to games they enjoy, something they saw online, or some crazy idea that they came up with while perusing the supply closet. While those ideas and games may all have a time and place, consider utilizing your games to reach a large swath of students. Put out board and card games. Consider utilizing group games like GaGaball or 9 Square that generate community. Or if you are hosting a themed gathering, think through how all your games and activities could reach the widest range of students. Invest in activities that incorporate more than a couple of students and will allow for conversion and engagement for a larger number.
  • Music. Believe it or not, music can actually enhance community and engagement. Think about this: have you ever walked into a space that was silent? There was no music or even background noise, maybe just a few hushed whispers here and there? Did it feel awkward and uncomfortable? The same is true for our youth spaces. Utilize music to bring people together. Consider crafting playlists in Spotify to build playlists that reflect the atmosphere you are desiring. If you want a chill area, build a coffee house playlist. If you want a more energetic atmosphere for activities and games, build a contemporary playlist with upbeat and engaging music.
  • Conversation. Now you may be asking yourself, why do we need to generate conversations? Doesn’t that naturally happen when people gather? Yes, it does, for most people. Some students struggle with social anxiety or may have difficulties knowing how to engage with others. You could think about posting a couple get-to-know-you style questions on your screens. You could put printed out questions designed to help people interact with one another. Or you could put engagement questions together for your small group leaders that are designed to build community within their groups. These options will help your students and leaders engage better with one another overall.

Think through how the gathering reflects your vision and purpose.

As you craft your gatherings it is extremely important to think about how they are presenting your purpose and vision to your students, leaders, and families. We shouldn’t do something just for the sake of doing it. What we put together should be focused and intentional because that helps us to better minister to our students and it allows us to purposefully communicate our heart and passion to everyone involved. That is not to say you cannot have spontaneous gatherings or that your leaders can’t gather their small group for ice cream. But it should be imperative if spontaneous gatherings happen, that they also reflect the heart and vision of the ministry. That means a trip to get ice cream is more than ice cream, it is a time of care and discipleship. It means a Mario Kart tournament is more than just video games, it is a time of connection and community. When we allow our vision and purpose to be a part of all we do, it shapes our program and our students.

Create a rhythm.

Having a rhythm and flow to your gatherings is highly important as it provides consistency and stability. In a world that is ever-changing, providing stability for families is huge. They can build their schedules accordingly. They can begin to prioritize gatherings and youth events. They can think through what they can and cannot commit to. An established rhythm also allows your leaders to know what to expect, which helps them focus and hone their skills and gifts during gatherings because they are already in the flow of the ministry.

How do you intentionally shape and structure your gatherings to better reach your students?

How to Make Small Group Time Intentional and Purposeful

Small group time is incredibly important for our students to grow and mature as young adults and as disciples of Jesus. We should be looking to incorporate this into our programming and making it a part of our normal rhythms. This will look different depending on the size of your program, the number of leaders and students that you have, and even the layout of where you meet. But this is something that regardless of hurdles, is exceptionally important.

Small groups provide a space for students to process and engage at a personal level, and to think through with a smaller peer group about what it means to live with and reflect Jesus in their spheres of influence. These spaces are truly where transformational discipleship happens, therefore we should critically think through how we are utilizing this time to best impact and challenge our students. Today, our hope is to provide some insight into ways to embrace small group time to best impact your students.

Know your material.

This is one of the best things you can do to make small group time intentional, focused, and beneficial for your students. If you know the material and are prepared, it will allow you to curate discussion and insight that will help your students process and apply what was shared. It also keeps you from scrambling or trying to think through things on the fly. Instead you are able to think about what will best relate to and challenge your individual group because you know them, their desires, their strength and weaknesses, and also where they need to be stretched. These moments will only come about if you prepare for the discussion in small group.

Now it is important to understand that your preparation can only go so far, especially as it depends on your leader getting you the content you need to prepare. Pastors, leaders, and speakers let me say this to you: do your best to equip and provide your leaders with the necessary materials for guiding their small groups. The sooner you get information into their hands, the better prepared they will be to pour into and shepherd your students. But if a leader or speaker does not get you all the information ahead of time, that does not discount you from preparing. Listen to the speaker. Take notes. Think about questions that will engage and challenge your group. Utilize the Bible passages that were shared and use them for further and deeper study with your group.

Know your group and be relational.

Part of having an intentional and purposeful small group time comes from knowing the group and being relational. When you carve out time to get to know your students and for them to know one another, it allows for the conversation to become more intentional and personal as they become comfortable with others in the group. You are helping walls to come down and in the same moment, growing authentic relationships within the group. Through these moments your students will grow to trust you and see you not just as a leader but as someone who cares about them and about their relationship with Jesus. As you relate to them personally, you are making yourself real and authentic to them which will help these times together to be even more intentional and focused.

Balance the time well.

The key to a proactive small group session is to know how to balance the time. Small group time shouldn’t be 90% jokes and 10% discussion. This won’t allow for adequate sharing, relational depth, or spiritual growth, and instead it just becomes another place to hang out and not be serious. Now this is not to say that you can never have a small group time like that. We all know that students sometimes just need a place to laugh and decompress. What I am suggesting is that this isn’t the normal flow and function of the group. Look to balance the time between relational, spiritual, and personal growth. Here’s an example of what I mean, and the timing is malleable to your small group schedule:

  • Relational: Time in the beginning spent sharing highs and lows. Think 10 minutes.
  • Spiritual: Talk about the lesson, what challenged the students, and personal application. This should be the bulk of the time at 20+ minutes.
  • Personal: This is where the rubber meets the road. This can contain prayer requests and a time of prayer for each other, it can incorporate a time of deeper application, or perhaps it is more focused on confession and life change. This would be anywhere from 10-20 minutes.

Talk less.

This may seem counterintuitive to some of us. We may ask, “Aren’t leaders supposed to talk? Isn’t that part of leading the group?” And the answer is yes. Yes, you are supposed to talk, but no, you are not to dominate the conversation or answer every question before the students can speak. While many leaders have tons of wisdom and insight to bring to the table and share with students, we need to remember that people (especially students) need the space to process, think, and talk for themselves.

I have often heard leaders say, “My students don’t talk in small group.” To which I often reply, “Are you giving them the opportunity to do so?” In our small groups we must intentionally allow our students to talk for at least 70% of the time, and allow for our times of talking to be focused on guiding and shepherding them to think through application and their personal walk with Jesus.

This isn’t to say that you set up a timer and only talk for an allotted timeframe, nor is it saying that this balance must always stay the same. There will be times you talk more and times you talk much less. But what we must do is find a balance that allows our students to grow, wrestle with, and apply Biblical truths to their lives. They don’t always need another speaker, but instead need someone who will guide them, ask helpful questions, listen to their answers, and give meaningful insight when needed.

Ask open ended questions.

This goes right back to the previous point about thinking through how we engage and direct conversations. And one the best ways to do this is ask open ended questions instead of “yes or no” style questions. Ask questions that will cause students to think through and process what they heard. Ask a bunch of “why and how” questions. Don’t settle for a simple answer; ask a follow-up question that encourages a student to explain how they arrived at that conclusion. Doing this not only allows for students to continue to talk, but it also challenges them to think through why they believe what they believe and how it relates to their present reality. Another way to ask open ended questions comes in the form of application. Asking students how the topic, truths, or certain points relate to their lives and how they can implement them will give you multiple responses and opportunities to challenge and guide them in their walk with Jesus.

Pray with and for one another.

Spending intentional time praying with and for your small group will make the time with them all the more special and unique. This will not only bring your group together but it will strengthen the bonds you are building. It will help your group to grow and pour into one another and it will help to develop their faith and relationship with Jesus. Prayer is an intimate time and creating an intimate, sacred, and safe space for your students will bring a fresh and personal dynamic to your group.

Follow up and additional connection.

If something important or meaningful is brought up in small group time, make sure to follow up with the student or students. For instance, if a student shares about a struggle they are having, text them during the week to see how they are doing and how things went. If your group commits to a daily devotional time, do a group check in during the week to see if they have been able to keep up with their commitment. By following up and checking in with your students you will allow for relationships to deepen and become more than just a youth group connection. It will be something that unites your group and allows you to be a strong voice for truth in their lives.

It is also helpful to realize that these moments of connection don’t have to be only from things we hear about in small group. Intentionally connecting with your students outside of youth group is important. This doesn’t have to be an every day and every moment type of thing, but something where you are intentionally doing life with your students. Consider taking students shopping with you. Frequent places where your students work to connect with them. Pray for them. Reach out to them to go grab a small group dinner or dessert. These types of connections will enable you to continue pouring into them and helping them grow and mature.