3 Mistakes of Virtual Small Groups

By Doug Franklin September 4, 2020

If your in-person small groups were rough, then virtual small groups are going to be a disaster. If your in-person small groups were dynamic, then virtual small groups could be good. 

We are all under a lot of pressure to have a youth ministry during this pandemic season. Our go-to is to have small groups over Zoom. The problem is our students are already bored with Zoom. Many of them are not showing up for our large group gatherings over Zoom, and things probably won’t be very different with our small groups.

Zoom has limitations, distractions, and it can leave you feeling like you are alone. While Zoom does work for adults, I do not think it works very well for students. Students want to belong; they want to be heard and they want to be known. Zoom does not do very well with these things.

Before we move to virtual small groups for the fall, I think there are some things that we really need to consider. The following mistakes I think are easy to make and can be avoided. 

Mistakes to avoid:

1.Trying to do virtual small groups the same way we do in-person small groups. 

Have an adult volunteer start with some small talk that leads to an icebreaker, then read Scripture and answer a few questions. This virtual small group will be empty within one month.

When students come to church to go to small group, they interact with their friends, they see a girl or a boy they like, and they usually get a chance to hang out together. The Bible study is the side dish.

With virtual small groups, you will need to inform students ahead of time that Bible study will be the key part of the group time. Let students know up front that virtual small group is different and that it requires a commitment to knowing more of God’s Word. Challenge students to come with a different mindset to virtual small group than when they came to church.

You may also need to mix boy and girl groups together to add a little excitement. You need to find ways to build deeper relationships between students, not adults to students but students to students. I suggest that you give each student three minutes to answer a question about their life. Let them talk about themselves, and let students interact with each other about who they are.

Students have a favorite subject, and it is themselves—let them talk about their favorite subject. If you choose to do this, make it voluntary, so those students that are a little shy don’t have to get outside of their comfort zone.

2.Taking all the responsibility for how the discussion goes. 

We believe if we have the right questions, then students will share how they are feeling and what is important to them. Believe me, the right questions don’t make this happen

It’s more about the environment and about the students’ hearts. We need to create the right environment by letting students know that there are no right answers and that nobody will judge them or give them a hard time for what they say. This requires trust, and trust is built by caring more about how students feel than how they answer questions. 

Effective small groups don’t rely on the adult leader to manufacture the discussion. In these groups, students want to share what they think and how they feel because they believe it will help their friends grow in their relationship with Christ. This trust inside of a small group takes time and it takes students with soft hearts toward Jesus to make it happen.

It also requires adult volunteers who will be willing to challenge students to share what they’re thinking and to support their friends who share what they’re thinking and feeling. Without this challenge, students oftentimes don’t know how important it is to create the right environment. This challenge can change the way they view small group and their participation in it. Don’t carry all the weight as an adult for how the discussion goes—put that burden on your students. 

3.Measuring the success of the small group based on getting through the outline.

When we feel the stress of having to lead small group and lead it virtually, we can default to our lowest standard of success—just getting through the outline. This is not how we should measure success. 

In order to do virtual small group, we need to work twice as hard as we did when we led in-person small groups. It’s essential for us to think differently. Before a virtual small group, I want to reach out to the students and challenge them to be more aware of each other and each other’s feelings. I want to reach out to some students and ask them to lead parts of the small group. When students lead, students listen.

Virtual small groups can be wildly effective if we do work around the small group. Things like challenges for students before and follow-up with students who shared important things afterwards. Virtual small group cannot happen in a vacuum. A lot will go on around the small group for the small group to be really effective.

Before you go the virtual small group route, prepare your small group leaders to be experts in the virtual small group reality. Train them to think differently, encourage them to challenge students, and pray for them that they would make great contact with students and that students will feel cared for and loved.

About the Author

Doug Franklin

Doug Franklin is the president of LeaderTreks, an innovative leadership development organization focusing on students and youth workers. Doug and his wife, Angie, live in West Chicago, Illinois. They don’t have any kids, but they have 2 dogs that think they are children. Diesel and Penelope are Weimaraners  who never leave their side. Doug grew up in…  Read More