I’ve been a youth pastor, or next gen pastor, for 15 years. Usually, I or someone on my team are the ones hosting our student events. In that role, it’s my main priority to make sure that every student is having a good time, connecting with others, and feeling seen.
Recently, though, I faced what many parents do when they drop off their kids at a student event. That day, I only cared about one kid. One kid that I hoped would make new friends, feel accepted, laugh until his belly hurt, and most of all, have a significant conversation about faith and following Jesus with a caring adult or peer.
The weirdest part about this new experience was being able to see the other side of it, as “just” a parent. I’ve always had a leadership role in the ministries my kids were involved in. But dropping my new middle schooler off at a trampoline park, even though the event was hosted by a long-time friend who is also a youth pastor, I had to fully trust. Fully trust that someone would not only see my kid, but connect with him.
As a parent, I only see one kid. As a youth pastor, I must see every kid. I have to make sure every kid feels connected with and seen. The problem is I can’t do that on my own; I need a team. The key to a healthy and successful youth ministry is training adult leaders to help you “see” every kid and student.
So, how do we create small groups that cultivate connection?
Let’s start with the obvious: consistently training your adult leaders is the starting point. In the midst of planning, running meetings, and ordering a crazy number of pool noodles online, it can be easy to let regular training of small group leaders fall through the cracks. Plus, small group leaders are busy too. So they also need constant reminders to connect.
In the book Seen, we explore five connection tools that guide caring adults in helping kids and students feel seen:
- Show up.
- See them.
- Just listen.
- Speak life.
- Build grit.
Each one of these tools influences our natural hard-wiring to connect with the heart of a kid. Connection is a major key in leading kids and students toward authentic faith.
To create small groups that cultivate connection, we need to equip small group leaders to:
Showing up isn’t the goal of connection; it’s the starting point. I like to remind my small group leaders to “show up and slow down.” When we disconnect from the busyness of the day (and from our devices), it allows us to better see the people around us, including the kids or students in our groups.
Don’t just “see” a kid or teenager’s words or actions. Don’t take the line “I’m fine” at face value. We need to see past the façade, to their emotions, to what’s behind the behavior. When a kid or teen shares about a circumstance that happened, ask them, “How did that make you feel?” We like to call this an emotional exhale. Expressing feelings, big or small, is like exhaling built-up feelings in our brains. Often we go through life feeling emotions that we ignore. We live in a world where very seldom will someone ask a kid or student how they are feeling. A simple question allows them to just exhale, and in turn, causes students to feel seen on a deeper level. Seen in a way that communicates, “I don’t just see your behavior, I see your heart.”
Listening is the greatest challenge I face when trying to connect with a child. I always feel the urge to either reduce the tension when someone begins to express emotions or to start processing their emotions logically for them. A simple way to help small group leaders just listen is to teach them a simple phrase when a student starts talking. That phrase is “tell me more.” It’s a direct phrase that assures someone you’re listening and want to hear more. Good eye contact and tone of voice also communicate a receptive frame of mind that’s ready to listen.
This is often where youth leaders like to jump in right away. We see students facing difficult emotions or situations, and we want to rescue them with the truth of Scripture or a faith-filled statement—which is important and needed. But speaking life and the truth of Scripture in a small group setting is received best after helping your group feel seen and heard first. Why? Because when we win the heart, we can lead the mind.
So, how do we speak life over our students? Say things like:
- You are fearfully and wonderfully made. (Psalm 139:14)
- You are loved and seen by God. (1 John 4:9)
- You have a hope and future. (Jeremiah 29:11)
- Through Christ, you are an overcomer. (Romans 8:37)
- You are a child of God. (John 1:12)
It’s inevitable: students are going to face challenging circumstances. They’re going to need the ability and strength to overcome challenges in life. As caring adults, we have a unique opportunity to leverage our connection with them to help build grit and resilience in their lives. One way we can do this, as small group leaders, is by encouraging a growth mindset.
The goal of every adult should be to influence kids who have the confidence to set and achieve challenging (not just safe) goals that will successfully carry them through to adulthood. However, it’s not always easy for every kid to recover from a major, emotional setback. The urge to move on, or avoid difficult emotions or situations, can be hard to resist. But a kid with grit learns to push through disappointment, not just avoid it.
As small group leaders, we can encourage key grit-building mindsets for kids and students:
- It isn’t just the event itself, but our response to the setback, that helps shape our attitudes and next steps.
- Learning from failure is an essential path toward future success and an essential component of resilience and grit.
Kids and teenagers need to understand that embracing failure is a hard pill for any of us to swallow, but every setback can provide an opportunity for growth.
When we model connection for our small group leaders, and intentionally equip them to connect with the kids or teens in their groups, we are cultivating leadership to help every kid feel seen, known, and loved.