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Go Small, Grow Big

Carmen Kamrath

Unusual Suspect

Imagine a children's ministry where children beg to come. Where kids never want to miss a thing. Where no volunteer ever complains. Where children's lives are changed and their faith grows. Where you breathe a sigh of relief every Sunday because you know -- without a doubt -- that everything is going well.

Does such a place exist? Is it just one of vivid imagination?

It's definitely a reality! It's the large group/small group model of children's ministry -- where kids experience the Bible in a large group setting and then immediately gather in small groups to connect and apply truth to their lives.

The energy created by a large group environment brings excitement to kids' teaching time and worship -- like no classroom can. And small group time creates a sense of community for kids whose spiritual growth depends on caring people who build relationships with them.

The large group/small group movement is alive and well in children's ministry, because more and more churches are embracing this alternative to the traditional Sunday school classroom setting. Nearly 20 percent of churches currently use a large group/small group format in their children's ministry, according to research conducted by Group Publishing, Inc. And another 34 percent of those surveyed plan to switch to this format within the next 12 months.

The large group/small group model has strong advantages over other chil dren's ministry models, and that's why it's captured children's ministers' attention.

"One of the biggest advantages is that it gives kids a dynamic one-two punch from their church experience," says Aaron Reynolds, a children's ministry consultant. "Exciting, creative teaching in a format that speaks directly to kids in relevant ways (that's large group), and a chance to process what they learned in a relationship-filled context of community, with a leader they know and other kids they trust (that's small group)."

These two vastly different but complementary experiences give kids a compelling learning environment and help them grow in their faith. Read on to learn how.

Think Big

The large group gives children's ministry leaders something you long for -- the assurance that what kids are learning each Sunday is exactly what you'd hoped and planned for. This model provides incomparable consistency and opportunities for high-quality experiences that demand kids' attention.

Consistency -- The large group time assures that all kids receive the same consistent message -- which doesn't always happen in a classroom setting. In fact, no matter what curriculum is used in a traditional Sunday school setting, you as the director really have no clue about the consistency of the message, the Bible fluency of the teacher, or the actual takeaway for the kids. You can't guarantee that teachers aren't explaining to kids the power of the Native American God's Eye weaving (that's actually happened in a classroom). But you can hold one large-group leader accountable for consistent quality week to week because you're able to attend and monitor one teaching time.

Creativity -- Kids today are submerged in a fast-paced culture that's inundated with technology. And kids respond to creativity and variety; they want media, action, change, silence, drama, attention-grabbing object lessons -- and they want it all now!

By having one large group lesson, you and your team can laser focus your gifts, experiences, and abilities to create the most phenomenal lesson possible each week. That's frankly not very possible in a traditional Sunday school setting.

In large group, creative teaching is done in a big way that brings the Bible to life for kids. There's wonder. There's surprise. There's something new and amazingly big each week that keeps kids coming back.

Think Small

The small group setting gives kids what they long for -- community and connection.

Community -- The small group environment with one leader and no more than five children gives kids a safe place to share what they've learned, to grow in their relationship with God and others, and to give and receive love. In the same way the large group experience appeals to kids' culture, the small group experience fills a sense of belonging that's often a void for kids today.

"Kids are so used to being just another face in the class that to have someone who really cares about them and spends time with them each week in small group is life-changing!" says Becki Manni, senior editor for Living Inside Out large group/small group curriculum (Group Publishing, Inc.). Small groups give kids a safe and comfortable group of people with whom they can process the Bible story, share personal joys and struggles, and form friendships.

Connections -- Even with the most compelling and creative lessons, truth can take a detour between kids' ears and kids' hearts. Kids aren't always sure what they're supposed to do with what they've heard -- so actual learning or life-change doesn't occur. Being in relationship with a caring leader and friends helps children connect what they've learned to their lives in a real and relevant way. In small group, leaders walk kids through the "So what?" and "What now?" questions and processing experiences that help kids see how God's Word applies to their lives today.

The combination of these two dynamics is what makes the large group/small group model so effective in reaching kids today. And those who use this model report that kids are dragging their parents to church because they don't want to miss a week -- that's exciting!

Think "Can-Do"

One of the biggest struggles for children's ministry leaders is recruiting and retaining volunteers. Why is that? Typically, Sunday school teachers are asked to do it all -- lesson preparation, dynamic storytelling, leading worship, preparing and making crafts, serving snacks, discipline, prayer, relationship-building, and more. That's a difficult task for anyone because no one is gifted in every area. In a traditional classroom, what ultimately suffers isn't the program; it's the kids.

With the large group/small group model, though, finding and keeping volunteers is much easier. Here's why.

One for All -- In a large group, you need only one amazingly creative, articulate, and gifted teacher who knows exactly how to turn a phrase. You need only one person who can make a gesture that has kids sitting on the edge of their seats as they hear the biblical account of God's power. You need only one teacher who can court an audience's rapt attention for any Bible lesson. You need only one teacher who's in touch with the world kids live in and puts the message into terms they can understand and hold on to.

How many of those people do you have in your church? Again, all you need is one for large group teaching.


Check out Group's Living Inside Out

Where kids practice their faith and it 24/7!

All for One -- In small groups, leaders find greater satisfaction in serving because they're not stressed by planning and preparation. So they can devote more time to the kids they're serving. Can you imagine it? Small group leaders plan nothing! They're required to love and pray for kids. It's that easy!

Room for All -- "The design allows volunteers to do what they're good at and not have to be burdened with lots of little details they're not good at," says Living Inside Out's Manni. "This leads to greater fulfillment for volunteers, which in turn leads to longevity and less stress recruiting. People serve from their gifts, not their guilt."

Basically, every volunteer is either a clown or a Santa. A clown makes a great large group leader (loves to entertain, wants to be up front, is willing to try new things, wants to have a big impact), while a Santa makes a great small group leader (loves to give to children, likes to listen to them, goes the extra mile to help them, wants kids to feel nurtured).

This model also opens doors for new people to serve in children's ministry. In the traditional Sunday school format, volunteer opportunities are primarily for teachers and assistants; additional areas to serve in children's ministry tend to be limited. The large group/small group model allows for people with other talents, such as music, drama, or hospitality, to serve in children's ministry. People serving in an area that's a good fit for them creates happy and content volunteers who are more likely to stick with their commitment and recruit others to get involved.

Think Change

Change is never easy, but there are ways to make it a positive and rewarding experience for your volunteers and children. Use these guidelines to successfully move from a traditional Sunday school model to the large group/small group model.

Cast vision. Give your volunteers a clear picture of what the new program will look like and why you're making the transition. Show your volunteers videos of successful large group/small group programs. Provide opportunities for volunteers to see the new curriculum. Hold meetings where you talk about the benefits to your volunteers and give them time to ask questions. Talk about the impact the new format will have on kids' spiritual growth and how it'll change the way they view church.

Reynolds says, "Lead ers have to paint a picture of the result, the ministry they're trying to build -- kids enraptured and in awe of Bible stories, kids living life differently on Monday as a result of what they experienced on Sunday."

Prepare your kids for the change, too. Talk about the new program often, share previews, and let them ask questions.

Transition slowly. Don't rush to do everything at once. Set a target date to complete the transition, but begin introducing elements right away. Pray for support, resources, and people to propel the transition. Stay in constant communication with your volunteers and other leaders. Be open to questions and issues. Speak positively about the program and "sell" its benefits. Follow through quickly when problems arise, and provide adequate resources and supplies to make the change successful.

To begin making small changes, introduce a large group teaching time that's creative and energetic one weekend per month. Focus on something that gets the kids excited about what's ahead. Follow by introducing worship in your classes with music that'll connect to the future large group time.

Ask volunteers about the role they'd like in the new model. Give spiritual gift assessments and counsel volunteers who are unsure of how'll they'll fit into the new model. Begin recruiting for large group and small group leaders, as well as drama, worship, and technology team members.

Celebrate! Make your first full day of large group/small group programming a celebration. Don't expect everything to go perfectly -- your goal is for kids to experience the excitement of God's timeless truth and for volunteers to connect with the children in their small groups.

Afterward, touch base with everyone. Find out what worked and what didn't. Make adjustments to weak areas. Remember, you don't have to do it all at once. Polish the resources you have until they shine.

Expect transformation. Smiles. Laughter. Hugs. Volunteers come early; they stay late. Something's changed. Kids are excited about church. They rush to tell you about how they applied a lesson to their lives during the week.

"On Wednesday, I ate lunch with a kid who gets picked on a lot. He's pretty cool!" The good Samaritan is brought to life for Aaron.

"This is my friend, Elise. She's never been to church before, so I invited her to come with me this week." Kelly accepts the challenge to share her faith with a friend.

"Travis' mom called me. He's never wanted to come to Sunday school before, but a small group leader named Ryan really made an impression on him. Travis is actually excited to go to church!" A children's director shares a transformation story with the volunteer who's making a difference.

Large. Small. On their own, both words can cause concern in children's ministry. But together they transform into something wonderful -- kids' hearts being changed by God.

Unusual Suspects

Here's what we've learned about recruiting that can help you find people you may've never thought of before -- to serve behind the scenes. Keep your eyes open for people's hidden gifts and interests by what they say and do.

  • Camera-Toting Dad -- You know that father who always has his camera or camcorder out for kids' programs? He'd make a great photographer for your publicity items, bulletin boards, and PowerPoint presentations.
  • Computer Whiz -- Ever had a mom complain about her teenage boy spending too much time with his multimedia toys? He'd make a great techie for you.
  • Divine Designers -- The women who love to decorate their homes would make a great team to spruce up your large group area with signs, banners, props, and more.
  • Happy Hals -- You know these folks. They always have a smile and are eager to shake your hand. They're your next greeters, of course!
  • Filers, Not Pilers -- It's the people who love to shop, organize, and get together with like-minded people who'll make a great behind-the-scenes supply-gathering team for your program.

When people serve in an area of interest that energizes and fulfills them, they're much more likely to sign on for the adventure. We've heard it again and again from directors everywhere: "This program brought out people's talents in wonderful new ways! People who never imagined that they could work with kids had a great time -- and are willing to sign up for all year."

So go for it! Look beyond "the usual suspects" of volunteers, and bring in some new faces. You'll find that as you begin asking people to fill smaller, more specific roles, folks will come out of the woodwork. You may find you have to rotate tasks or put volunteers on waiting lists.

Sound like a dream come true? It's the reality of the large group/small group model.

Carmen Kamrath is associate editor for Children's Ministry Magazine. Adapted from Group's Living Inside Out large group/small group director's guide. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.


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