We implemented children's ministry small groups when our church started as a new plant in 2006. It's absolutely one of the best decisions we ever made and we have seen so much fruit from it. This is over-simplifying it, but most children's ministry fall into one of 3 models:
- Class Model – think Sunday School or similar
- Camp Model – think big large group experiences
- Groups Model – a distinct large group and small group strategy
I grew up in the class model and even taught students in that model when I was a young adult. I've experienced the camp model as well, but not nearly as much as the other two. Having experienced all 3, I can say that children's ministry small groups with a consistent leader and group of peers are definitely the hardest model to implement.
But, it's totally worth it!
If you don't currently use small groups in your children's ministry, this post will give you a plan to implement children's ministry small groups in your church. Orange has made the small group model much more common and the phrase Lead Small was created as a way to label the model. You can read more articles on my site about the Lead Small strategy here.
First, let's look at why small groups are a great model and what some of the challenges are to implementing them.
Why have children's ministry small groups?
- Small groups where kids are placed with a consistent, weekly leader and group of peers have the greatest potential for relationships to form. Relationships between kids, between leader and child, and between the leader and parents.
- A small group leader may be the best partnership your church will have with parents. At the end of the day, partnering with parents is mostly about a relationship. You can't have that with every parent, but small group leaders can.
- Small groups allow leaders to really get to know a specific group of kids, and can better speak into their lives and help them apply the truths they learn each week.
- Leaders – children's ministry small groups require a greater commitment from leaders.
- Administration – small groups require more administration to lead and manage.
- Parent Consistency – parents have to commit to attending a specific service (if you have more than 1) in order for their child to be in the same group each week.
- One service – If you have one service, leaders can't serve every week because they'll never be in the service. You may want to create a scaled-down volunteer service for them to attend, or have 2 small group leaders per group, who rotate every other week. It's not as great as an every-week leader, but you can do other things to boost the relationships in the group.
Step 1 – Prepare Leaders
The first thing you need to do is prepare leaders to make the switch. They must buy into the WHY before the WHAT. Here are some things to do as you prepare them:
- Cast vision to leaders about what you're hoping to create. They'll likely have reservations, so be prepared to address them.
- Tell stories that illustrate how powerful a relationship is in helping kids follow Jesus.
- Get commitments from them about serving weekly (aim high!) and what service (if you have multiple).
- Be prepared to lose some volunteers. Raising the bar always shows you who isn't ready to measure up to it. That's okay because being a small group leader isn't for everyone.
- Recruit new volunteers as well. You're looking to have 1 leader for every 8-12 kids.
- Ask for leaders to commit to serve for one year, or one school year (if you supplement with a summer team).
Step 2 – Analyze Attendance
You'll want to analyze attendance to get an idea of how you'll group kids, how many leaders you need and where you need them.
- Run attendance reports for the last 6 months (probably excluding summer).
- Record how many kids come 2x/month or more, and which service they come to the most (even if by a small margin).
- Record how many remaining kids come less than 2x/month.
- Keep numbers from each of those 2 sets and have the numbers divided up by grade level.
Step 3 – Promote Choosing a Service
If you have more than 1 service, parents probably bounce around between them if nothing ties them to a specific one already. For children's ministry small groups to work best, you want parents to pick one service and be consistent with it.
- Identify multiple ways you can cast vision to parents about the importance of the small group model, and why consistently attending one service is critical to take advantage of it. You can write a letter, call parents, send an email, talk about it in service and/or leverage social media.
- Have parents sign up for which service they plan to attend regularly. They can sign up by filling out a card to indicate which service, sign up online, or email it in (if you can provide all of those avenues).
You'll use the parent signups, along with the analyzed attendance, in the next step.
Step 4 – Determine Groups
- Start with the service choices you got from the parents. Divide kids up by service based on those choices.
- For parents, you didn't hear from, use the attendance information you analyzed. Assign them to a service too, even if it shows they bounce around.
- Divide all of those students up by grade.
- Use that information to form groups, targeting 8-10 kids per group.
- We like to group older kids (3rd-5th) more by gender than by grade.
- If some services are more full than others, groups could look different at each service if they're combined grades or not.
- If your church is really large, you could consider having specific groups for new kids and inconsistent attenders. Only leaders will know how the group works, and it would otherwise look the same as the other groups. Visitors who come with friends could still be with friends, however.
Step 5 – Reinforce Your Small Groups
Once groups are set, you'll want to continually reinforce your children's ministry small groups model overall, and your specific groups. Here are some tips.
- Use consistent language. Call them “small groups” and not classes or rooms.
- Have an event at the beginning of each school year to help parents get to know their child's group leader. Get our process and great resources from Orange here.
- Have leaders send home birthday cards each year. We have a volunteer who runs a monthly report to see all birthdays and puts the cards and envelopes together. Small Group Leaders have a month to sign them, and we mail them out.
- Give small group leader contact information out to parents.
- Craft a general email for small group leaders to send to parents quarterly, and provide them with the parent email addresses.
- If your Church Management System allows it, give your leaders access to their group's contact information. If not, provide it regularly so they can stay in touch with parents.
These are the 5 steps we used to implement children's ministry small groups at our church. I hope they can help you implement small groups as well. It's hard work, but it's definitely worth it.
One of the challenges I’ve found in adopting this model has been sporadic attendance. Some of our children attend church 2x a month, so building those relationships is challenging. How does your ministry help those children who don’t attend weekly stay connected?
We totally have the inconsistent attendance as well. Those kids obviously don’t connect as much as kids who come primarily 4x/month, but they’re still in a specific group the whole time. I can’t say there’s anything additional done for them, but they get the same as kids that come more often.