My first attempt at discipleship, years ago, was a bit rocky. My small group was made up of 7th grade girls. They were great kids, but they couldn't sit still to save their lives.
One particular girl was notorious for bringing some type of toy or gadget to each group meeting.
I specifically remember the week she brought bright colored duct tape. Throughout the course of the meeting she continued to add this touch of flare to the chairs, the walls, and even to the other girls. Toward the end of the meeting (about the time I'm feeling like a total failure), she proceeded to tape her mouth closed. Because this obviously limited her breathing ability, she panicked and ran out into the hallway with all of the girls chasing her and screaming.
I finally managed to regain some sort of control, and we closed the night in prayer . . . one of the only spiritual elements of the entire hour! Though this particular incident was somewhat isolated (and extreme), the students' limited attention span and lack of focus was fairly common from week-to-week. What I learned with experience is that this is, of course, common in most groups of teenagers, especially younger ones.
What are some key approaches for us youth workers to keep your group "dialed in"?
The following suggestions are by no means the only answer, but simply a few of the principles that have helped me rein a group back in.
1. PRAY, PRAY, PRAY
Never quit praying for your group. So simple, but so effective. My opinion is the more spiritually prepared you are to meet, the more able you will be ready to handle their inattentiveness.
2. BALANCE KINDESS AND DISCIPLINE
It's important to have discernment in knowing when to crack down on students and when to exercise patience. This can be a tricky balance. But as you get to know your group, you'll have a better understanding of where this line is.
3. HAVE A STRUCTURE
Preschool students, children, teenagers, and adults all need consistency in learning. After a few weeks of meeting with new groups, I usually fall into a pattern of learning. This sometimes includes sharing about their week, prayer requests, Bible Study, accountability questions, icebreakers, crafts (with girls), silent prayer, etc. When your group knows what to expect each week, they will become less and less resistant—for example, at 6:20 we start Bible Study. They know this is the structure, and they are more inclined to pay attention at 6:20. While switching it up every now and then is important, consistency is crucial.
4. HAVE "STRUCTURED UNSTRUCTURED" TIME
The current group I lead starts every session with "HIGH-LOWs." Each girl shares their highest point in the week and the lowest. It allows them a way to catch-up with each other, and the LOWs usually give us a starting point for prayer requests. I plan on the first 20 minutes of the small group hour to be "unstructured structure." If they are sharing their HIGH-LOWs and it leads to a funny story about the week, then that is great! This planned time of freedom allows them to get some unfocused, tangential energy out before we hone in on Scripture and accountability. I would also encourage icebreaker games, "would you rather" questions, or just opening the floor to most embarrassing moments, etc. Often times, some of the best conversation stems from a "random story".
5. DO WHAT YOU SAY
Aim high with the students. Expect a lot from them. Don't sell them short. Explain your expectations for the time at the beginning, and hold them to it. You have no control over whether or not they read the curriculum or participate in conversation—but you can be faithful in your commitment. If you've asked them to memorize a verse a week, ask them about it each week. If you've asked them to read a chapter of the Bible, ask them what they learned from that chapter. If you say you're going to hold students accountable, and then you don't, they will pick up on that fast and will have less incentive to do what you've asked.
6. GIVE YOURSELF SOME GRACE
You are SO important in these students' lives. You are investing in them on a regular basis, and what you do matters. However, it's so easy to get down on yourself when the group is not going as you'd hoped. Just remember that you're in partnership with the parents under the leadership of the Lord. While your role is integral—don't beat yourself up if students get a bit distracted. They are teenagers after all! Simply continue to be faithful.
These are guidelines I've learned through trial and error. Hopefully they will help you as you lead students, as well.