For most of the last 15 years or so, I've taught the Bible to teenagers in a small group environment. And even when I've had a group as large as 15-20, I still taught it as a small group, putting a ton of emphasis on interaction and guided study. While I enjoy preaching to large groups, and understand that this works for a lot of church settings, I much prefer to teach the Bible in small group settings. I personally think it offers a better environment for learning and application.
There are some real advantages to teaching in small groups. But there are some challenges, as well.
Here is a list of what I think are the key challenges and opportunities to teaching teenagers the Bible in a small group setting.
- You Can’t Hide—If you're not prepared, it will show. You might say the same is true in teaching in large groups. But the point here is that there is so much more interaction in small group. Most of our unpreparedness begins to show when we engage in discussions that may or may not go exactly like we planned. In a small group, mistakes and a lack of preparation can often be magnified.
- Dependent On Participation—In large groups, you can just do your thing. (Which, granted, is a pretty crummy way to think about it, but it's true. Maybe this is a challenge of large groups?) Maybe you lecture for 20 minutes or so (or more) and the discussion and application happens in breakouts. No such luxury in small groups. In small groups, you're much more dependent on your students engaging.
- Balance—It's easier for one or two students to dominate a discussion in small group. (Of course, it's just as easy for YOU to dominate the discussion, as well, which is not great either!) You have to fight a little harder for balance.
- Numbers Matter—In a large group, if you have a handful of students who aren't “tracking” with you for any reason, you can still do a pretty good job of teaching the rest of the group. In a small group, if 2 out of 5, or 4 out of 10 kids are out in left field, it's going to affect how you teach. If you “lose” a few kids for whatever reason, it's much harder to be effective.
- Prime Opportunity For Interaction—This may be the number one opportunity teaching the Bible in small groups presents. I said in the seminar to spend most of your energy on interactive teaching and personal application.
- Uniquely Relational—You can couch lessons in very personal terms, because you have strong relationships with the students.
- Focus On Individuals—This relates to the first point, but it's different. This specifically speaks to the thought that you could work with what specific students might be dealing with. If it comes up that a subject is affecting a student personally, in the course of the lesson you can actually carve out some space to focus on how the scripture you're studying affects him or her in the moment.
- More Opportunity For Ownership From Students—Small groups are a better environment for prayer. They're a better environment for students to read aloud. They're a better environment for personalized application. A better environment for tough discussions. And so on, and so on . . . It's just a better environment for spiritual growth in general.
There is certainly a place for large groups in your youth ministry. And small groups definitely present some unique challenges. However, I think this list shows they also present some tremendous opportunities. And the opportunities, at least in my book, far outweigh the challenges.
What are your thoughts? What are some small group opportunities you've encountered over the years?