(Download this discussion as a PDF)
While doing youth work in Geneva’s huge international community, there were a couple of patterns we noticed among the kids. We have noticed similar patterns back in the U.S., leading me to believe that the nature of youth work should be changing in some critical ways.
It was relatively easy to get younger kids to come to large group activities. Middle school and early high school (9th grade) kids not only love the energy and excitement of a large group; it may be that small groups are sometimes too threatening and too dull. Worst of all, if the event has only a few kids, it may be that it is not cool to come.
However, the more the younger kids want to come, the less the older kids will choose to be there. Where a club activity might be wildly popular in 9th grade, by the 10th grade kids begin to stay away. The numbers of 11th and 12th graders (and 13th graders, in our system) who attend dwindle to virtually nothing.
Another pattern is the fracturing of the sociology of the school into tiny “friendship clusters” defined by musical preferences, as well as by extracurricular activities. Small groups of kids essentially isolate themselves from other groups, choosing to listen to the same type of music, and pursue the same activities. It is almost like a small family, particularly in the U.S., but nearly as true in the international community. The result again is that if one group of kids comes to an event, not only does this not mean that other groups may not come, it almost ensures that they will not attend.
Though large events and weekly clubs will probably continue to be useful, there will be a growing number of kids who will be disenfranchised by the process, whether by age or by group exclusion. A methodology needs to be developed and used to enable youth workers to reach kids who will never attend an event or a club meeting.
The concept follows: if our interest is in building meaningful relationships with these disenfranchised kids, and if a club would not work, then perhaps we could involve them in a small group. The new philosophy of small groups is to use them to build deep relationships with kids by creatively opening opportunities for dialogue at levels of intimacy which can be determined by the kids themselves.
An excellent example utilizes 3″ x 5″ blank cards and pencils.
Give each kid a card and a pencil and ask them to divide one side of the card into six roughly equal boxes. Ask them to draw a picture in each box which best represents to them each of the following:
- Their feelings about their family.
- Their room.
- A difficult time in their lives.
- Their friends.
Tell them they will only have to talk about three of their boxes. After they are finished drawing, ask them to talk about the following:
- Which was the hardest to draw and why.
- Which one would surprise us.
- Choose one of the remaining four to tell us about.
There are key aspects to this approach:
- Being allowed to draw a picture accesses their real feelings, and allows them to put some distance between themselves and those feelings.
- Being given a choice to talk about three, rather than all six, allows them to determine the level of intimacy they want to reach in front of the group.
Evaluation and Follow-Up
By using ideas like this one and others available in the resources listed below, you will be able to build relationships with kids in a non-threatening way which still allows for discussion about matters of faith, but in a way over which the kids themselves have some control. You will be able to start on a more superficial level, and watch the depth of relationships increase as the year progresses.
At one point we had 50 TCKs coming weekly to these groups, and few of whom came to any other event we held. It is worth noting that the size of the groups which normally came to our large group events was 30-50, and the ages represented did not go much above 15. The groups ranged in grade level from 9th to 13th, and the tone of the group matured as the age of the kids increased. What was intriguing is that after we started the first one with a group of church kids, unchurched kids from other friendship clusters and grade levels came to me demanding that we do a group for them. We instigated only one; the rest were started at the kids’ suggestion.
This is an unusually effective tool for TCKs. TCKs are eager to discuss some of the complex questions with which they grapple. Many times TCKs are denied deeper levels of friendship and intimacy by their nomadic lifestyle. The opportunity for a youth worker to become an extremely important person in a TCK’s life is most fully realized in this small group format. As well, the question of faith must often be broached with extreme care in a school community which can be antagonistic toward open discussions of faith. Within the small group such discussions can occur spontaneously or with a well chosen question or comment. As each person shares what is important in his or her life, it is appropriate for the youth worker to share equally from his or her heart.
A final note: in the international school community, friendship clusters will include both boys and girls. Do not attempt to separate the sexes when creating these groups. You may find yourself trying to defend an arbitrary and particularly American moral value. Yes, many kids within the international schools are sexually active. But there frequently is a maturity to boy-girl friendships that does not include sex. Be wise, but do not be doctrinaire.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Why would it be useful to have a small group which was not a discipleship group?
- How might you get kids interested in such a group?
- Why is it necessary to let the kids determine the level of intimacy and the frequency with which matters of faith are discussed?
- Many different groups of kids can be involved weekly in small groups, greatly increasing the depth of relationship possible between leaders/volunteers and kids.
- With less time spent planning large club-type events, leaders and volunteers can focus on relationship-building with kids.
- Although a comprehensive small group is leader-intensive, overall it is a much more effective way to reach kids.
- This is a volunteer-friendly methodology, easy to learn, low pressure, and with no need to have a great “up-front” personality. In fact, those leaders who talk less and listen more will be much more effective in this small group format.
- Ultimately, a leader can become a part of the neo-family unit, the friendship cluster, in a way that might not be possible in a traditional club format.
- By starting small groups using friendship clusters, all of the kids within those groups will already know each other pretty well. The opportunity for real depth will arrive quickly.
- You will be able to do things socially outside the small group as your relationships deepen. Take advantage of these opportunities to further deepen the friendships. Be available to become a part of the group’s spontaneous activities.
© 2018 CYS