5 Ways to Better Engage Small Groups

By Christina Malloy

When I was a Catholic youth minister in California, I was always finding ways to engage youth who came from different faith and family backgrounds. I was constantly trying something new: a new game, a new setting, a Fr. Mike Schmitz video. However, I typically did this in large group settings, and I felt it was safer that way. To talk to a crowd of youth was less daunting than having a one-on-one conversation. I could easily brush off any young person who wasn’t exactly excited to be there. Though group settings can be beneficial for fun activities, it was easy for young people to get lost in the cracks. Not only that, but large group settings don’t create a space for intentional discipleship where youth can learn how to have a personal relationship with Jesus. 

When I became a NET (National Evangelization Teams) missionary in 2018, I saw how important it was to make sure that no one gets left behind, and a great way to achieve this was through small groups. But it wasn’t as easy as it might seem. It was even more intimidating getting a group of youth in a circle staring at you in silence that seemed never to end. However, once I discovered and used the following tools, even if our small group only met a couple of times in a five-hour retreat, it made the youth I encountered more likely to encounter the Lord through me. 

Whether you’re meeting teens for the first time or are 12 meetings in,  these pointers will help reel attention back to the main topic and, most importantly, make the young people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and opinions.  


1. Create a space. 

Creating an environment that’s warm and welcoming is extremely important in making young people feel free to share and engage in the content. Circles might seem cheesy, but they’re a great way for you to get on their level physically and to take in what they’re saying. It will also give you a good read of where they’re at in what’s being shared by making eye contact with them. Especially if you have to use a classroom for your small group, it is essential to get out of the “classroom” mindset. Move some chairs around and get creative with the space you’re given. Feel free to mix it up every so often by going outside or grabbing ice cream before you officially meet. Be careful not to get too comfortable with your space as well. Dimmed lighting and comfy couches are a recipe for nap time. But know your group.  You’ll get a sense of what your group needs to create the physical atmosphere that will allow the youth to engage.


2. Introductions and Check-ins.

Introductions are, of course, a must when starting your group. Name, age, and favorite color are classic, but there are some silly questions you can ask as well to make it fun. What animal would you ride into battle? If you were a window, what would people look through and see? Be creative. You can check out our free e-book, “Play,” for ideas. As your group gets more comfortable, you can also give them the task of asking each other questions, so they can get to know each other better. 

After your group members know each other a little bit and your group begins to meet regularly, do a quick check-in of their week. Something that often works is doing highs and lows: the highlight and the low point of their week. A fun thing to add eventually is an awkward moment that might’ve happened as well. This isn’t just an opportunity to have fun with the check-in; it will show them that they’re not alone in feeling awkward because we all do. 


3. Play a game! 

Playing a game is vital in engaging your small group. You need to allow the youth to have structured time where they have the freedom to be active and be themselves.  Here’s why: In one small group I was leading, the group of young ladies I had were QUIET, which, to be honest, is sometimes normal when you’re just getting to know them. But for the first three small group meetings?! I was getting so frustrated and praying to Jesus about what to do to get them to at least say what they were thinking. Then it hit me: “I didn’t play a game with them in the first small group!” In the third small group, I finally played some silly game which involved laughing, giggling, and then actually talking. Praise God!  Sometimes it just takes one simple, silly game to get them to open up. Remember, it’s not just about them warming up to the people around them; it’s about them warming up to YOU as a small group leader as well. They need to learn to trust you and know that they can be themselves around you. Don’t tell them they are free; show them they can be themselves by playing a game that demonstrates your silly side. I’m telling you, it’s so important to show this side of you. When you are able to let loose, they can as well. Check out our free e-book of easy icebreaker games


4. Be Yourself.

I touched on this in the previous tool, but I cannot stress this enough: The more you are yourself, the person God has created you to be in His Image and Likeness, the more these youth will realize that they are children of God. Just. Like. You. Yes, you can use these tools all you want, but if you want your youth to open up, you have to show them how by being vulnerable yourself. Vulnerability can seem like a scary word and often has a negative connotation. There were many times I asked high school women in small groups, “What does the word vulnerability mean?” They usually answered: “An open wound,” “weakness,” or “availability to get and be hurt.” These answers are answers from wounded young people who desire a deeper understanding and meaning.  It is up to you to reveal the positives of vulnerability. These benefits will teach you and the youth to be the best version of yourself. You see, it wasn’t these tools specifically that made my small groups “warm up to me” or start sharing, though they definitely helped. They opened up because I was my silly self during the game, I was honest about my prayer life, and I shared my personal testimony. I let them see me. And this helped them to know that they were seen, known, and loved. So, be real. Be Authentic. Be You!


5. Prayer

Above all, pray! You are the one giving an example of how to pray to the youth in your small group. The best thing to do is to be simple and show them that prayer is not just reciting an Our Father or a Hail Mary, but it’s a personal relationship with God.  Lead prayer for the first few meetings. Then encourage and invite different youth to lead the prayer for the group. You will set the tone for all the small groups of what prayer looks like throughout your meetings. 


Remember, the Lord is using you as a small group leader to bring Christ to these young people. You are the vessel that will bring Him to your group. They will see Christ in the way you listen to them share their check-in, by your silliness when you play a game, or simply by the way you meet them where they’re at and sit in a circle.

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