I stumbled upon a youth ministry small group strategy that works really well with the 7th-grade guys group I lead. My 20+ years of youth ministry experience tell me that it will work with all ages: preteens, middle school, and high school.

This new approach has been a game-changer for our group. It’s an opportunity for 1-1 discipleship with students, helps focus a rowdy group of boys, keeps girls on track, minimizes distractions, opens up a great conversation, and so much more. 

First, here’s how I stumbled upon the idea. You’ll relate if you’ve ever struggled to manage the chaos of leading a junior high boys small group. It all started back in the fall of last year. Although I had been with them since the beginning of their sixth-grade year, as seventh graders, they were still navigating the recent transition into our junior high ministry. Everything was new, and this was the first time we were doing a 30-minute small group every Wednesday night.

The first couple of weeks were pretty rough. They were much more interested in throwing each other’s Crocs and hats around the room than participating in a group discussion. When I managed to get their attention, it wasn’t for very long. There was one boy, sort of new to the group, who would routinely distract everyone. I was frustrated and discouraged.

Keep in mind I was really close with most of these guys. I showed up to their sports games, knew their parents, took them out for pizza outside of youth group, and spent a solid year of relational ministry with them.

Furthermore, this was not my first rodeo. I’ve been doing youth ministry for a long time and am good at overall crowd control. But this 30-minute small group thing on Wednesday nights was new to all of us. We were all figuring it out together.

So, I got an idea. I asked one of the boys who had a good amount of influence with the others to kick off our next small group. I had a quick phone call with him a few days beforehand to discuss what to talk about. I asked him to share a personal experience or story related to the topic of the night. I also asked him to share a Bible passage and talk about how it related to the topic, its meaning, and its application to his life.

I was in awe of what happened the night of the small group. As soon as he started talking, you could hear a pin drop.

Everyone was very interested in what he was saying. No Crocs or hats flew in the air. The distracted ring leader was momentarily subdued. When he was done, a bunch of boys shared their experiences as well. It ended up being one of our best small groups up until that point. Whew. I was relieved, excited, and hopeful that the group had taken a turn!

From that night on, a different guy in our group kicked it off just about every week. It continues to work really well, and I’ve learned a lot along the way.

If you do small groups in your youth ministry, I encourage you to experiment with this approach. 
  • Students relate to the experiences of their peers
  • Provides a natural onramp to discussion among the group
  • Creates an opportunity for 1-1 discipleship between you and the student kicking off the small group (more about this below)
  • Allows students who kick off the small group to process and share what God is doing in their lives
  • Helps the group focus and minimizes distractions
  • Models what it looks like for students to share openly and honestly

So, the next thing you’re probably wondering is how to actually do it, right?

Here’s how I go about it. You might find something that works better for your context. And if so, great. I came across this process through a bit of trial and error. You might have to do the same.

1. Make the ask.

I typically ask one of the guys about a week in advance if they’re up to doing it. Most of the guys are excited to share. I rotate, asking different guys to kick off the group each week. That way, everyone has an opportunity to share.

Other than schedule conflicts, I’ve only been told no once. He looked at me with fear in his eyes and flat-out said, “No thanks, I’ll pass.” It’s pretty funny because he’s the distracted ring leader I mentioned above and obviously loves to be the center of attention. 

As a side note, he is now one of the most engaged students in our small group, has no discipline issues (most of the time), and God is doing some really great stuff in his life. But that’s a story for another day (and it’s a good one).

2. Touch base with parents beforehand.

Because my guys are middle schoolers & can’t drive themselves to youth group, I check in with parents beforehand. I make sure their son will be there and ask if it’s okay to have a quick phone call or FaceTime with him a few days before. You might be able to skip this part with older high school students, especially those who drive. But I encourage you to keep the parents in the loop. If nothing more than to give them a heads up or brag about how good of a job their son or daughter did.

3. Meet with the student beforehand.

For months, I had a quick 5-7 minute phone call with the student beforehand, guiding him in the right direction. That worked great. 

But recently, I started FaceTimeing with the student and have doubled down on my intentionality and preparation beforehand. As a result, the conversation typically takes 20-35 minutes and involves a deeper level of reflection and discussion with the student. Let’s face it: anytime you can have that long of a conversation with a middle school guy, it is a win! Especially when they’re doing most of the talking.

Basically, the conversation morphs into a 1-1 discipleship moment with the student, and that has a big ripple effect on what they share and how students respond to it.

Our time together allows him to identify what God is doing in his life, articulate it, and prepare to share it with others. 

I prepare a few questions to get him thinking and processing the topic. My goal is to find one or two that resonate with him and get him talking. Then, he’ll say something that piques my curiosity, and I’ll ask him to tell me more. We have a solid blueprint of what he will share when we’re done. 

I think FaceTime works better because junior high guys, for the most part, aren’t all that great on the phone. Something about seeing each other opens up the conversation so much more. 

You might prefer to meet in person with the student, and that would probably work really well.

We usually wrap up with a time of prayer.

4. Send the student a recap of the conversation.

After the convo ends, I text him (or his parent) a summary of what we talked about. I usually do this by including the questions we talked about and a quick recap of his responses. This gives him something in writing as a guide.

In my experience, following these four steps helps the student be prepared and ready to share in small group.

A couple of weeks ago I had a FaceTime with a student about to kick off small group. That led to a deeper conversation about something he was struggling with, and that led to a follow up conversation at youth group. And that gave me the idea to meet up with him and one of his friends from youth group on Monday nights for a few weeks.

You never know what opportunities for further ministry will flow out of these conversations.

It really is amazing to be a part of what God is doing in the lives of students!!

Written by Nick Diliberto, Ministry to Youth

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  1. Sherry
    • April 30, 2024

    WOW!!! I have a pre-teen boy and a couple early teen girls that are almost wild in our Sunday morning class. I can very much relate to your experience and I am going to try your technique THIS SUNDAY! Even if I can get them to focus for 20-25 minutes, that would be fantastic! Thank you!

    Reply 2 Response
    1. Nick Diliberto
      • April 30, 2024

      That’s awesome Sherry!! Let us know how it goes.

    2. Annette
      • April 30, 2024

      Nearing the end of a school year spent with boys and girls 5th & 6th grade and weekly Wednesday bible study has me at my wits end. Struggling with the idea of excluding the age group from attending next school year due to the chaos of flying objects, inconsiderate behavior & no attention spans. Maybe this is the answer!

      Reply 1 Response
      1. Nick Diliberto
        • May 1, 2024

        Yeah for sure! Worth giving it a try.

  2. Latonyia McDuffie
    • April 30, 2024

    I tried this strategy this past Sunday. I was amazed by the conversations students were having amongst each other. I was overjoyed that they felt comfortable enough to share their experiences and give each other advice. Thanks for sharing. This will be a continued practice, for sure!

    Reply 1 Response
    1. Nick Diliberto
      • May 1, 2024

      Woah! That’s so great. Thanks for sharing and praying that the momentum continues!


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