Effectively Lead a Small Group

Create a win

Leadership / Small Group / The Basics //

Ten boys aged eight nearly made me quit children’s ministry. Seriously. I know you’ve all been there. You’re given a sheet with a Bible passage to read, three discussion questions and a coloring sheet and for 20 minutes you need to keep that rowdy bunch in your small group from injuring one another and hopefully teach them something about God along the way.

“I can’t do it, they JUST WON’T LISTEN!” I was 13 years old and my role in my children’s ministry team was to teach the seemingly unteachable small group of boys at the 9am Sunday morning service. In my imagination, it was like that movie Dangerous Minds (which was hugely popular at the time), where everyone had given up on the students. Then, one teacher dared to take them on. There I was, Michelle Pfeiffer, ready to accept the challenge … gangsters paradise and all. (Well okay, it wasn’t that extreme. We were in the Bible belt of middle class Melbourne, Australia, but like I said, that movie was very popular at the time. Google it.) After one lesson I was ready to quit. Our pastor asked me to just keep teaching the small group at least until they found someone else to take it on. I had no choice but to work out a way to make it great. Each week I grew more and more determined to capture their attention and make the lesson fruitful for those boys. I worked hard at getting to know them. I prayed for them … a lot! And, I got creative.

Define the Win

Getting through the curriculum material should not be the goal of a children’s ministry. The goal is for children’s lives to be changed. If that means you throw half the lesson out the window, then step aside and let me unlatch that window for you. For my group of boys all those years ago, the curriculum was simply not working for them. There was no way reading, discussion and coloring pages were going to get us anywhere. They needed action, they needed games, they needed FUN. So I redefined the win for them. A win was not to complete everything on the page. A win was when they went home knowing the point of the day’s lesson, what that point meant for their lives, and didn’t injure one another along the way. To get that win, they needed a different path from a docile, small group.

You’re the Expert

No one knows the children in your ministry better than you! YOU are the expert. Curriculum writers and developers don’t know your kids the way you do. So it’s up to you to take the material and tailor it to your children. Just like “one size fits all” clothing never fits “all” and mostly doesn’t look good on anyone, children’s ministry curriculum isn’t going to work if we assume that it’s one size fits all. It isn’t designed to be and never can be! Children all over the city, state, country and world are not the same. Different ages, cultures, interests and personalities make up the beautiful landscape of planet earth. It’s the leaders who love them and know them who will guide and teach them in a way that is relevant to their lives.


Once I got to know the children in my small group, I learned what sort of things got their attention. I became the resident expert on 8-year-olds. Some liked sports, others liked computer games, and others liked cartoons. I had to find a way to connect with each one or they would never listen to me. So, I did my research. I found out about the sporting teams they liked, watched the cartoons, played the computer games and worked out ways to use what they were interested in as examples in my teaching. Instead of expecting them to sit and listen to one child very s l o w l y read through a passage of scripture, I read it to them, giving them buzz words and questions with prizes along the way. I made up games that would get them moving and interacting with one another and even those games related to the lesson. Brilliant! Watch out Michelle Pfeiffer!

Part of my role at my local church, Hillsong Church in Sydney, Australia, is to respond to email inquires from children’s ministry leaders. One of our most frequently asked questions is how to run and what to do during small group time. So here’s our answer (to save you writing one of those ever so polite and sweet emails and filling my inbox). I hope this helps you make small group time a win for your children’s ministry.

Hillsong Kids spend 20-35 minutes in small group time. We provide our team with their materials and say, “Hey … choose what will work with your group.” If you start out with a plan to get through everything provided but find you have some really great discussion happening, then keep going with it. If you find that playing the game first works better for your kids … go for it! Or, if you end up making paper airplanes out of your activity sheets, then let ’em fly! Even though deep down it breaks my heart to see my beautifully illustrated activity sheets flying through the air, if the kids are connecting, loving church and learning, then I’m okay with that.

Small groups are all about helping children understand how the lesson applies to them. In small groups children can discuss real life experiences and interact with a group of friends. For small groups to be effective, they need to be … small! Each group should have no more than 12 children, and if possible, be age and gender specific. Ideally, assign the same small group leader to the same group of children for the entire year. Our church has multiple services, so our teams serve at the same service each week and attend church at one of the other service times.

Here are some elements that can help leaders make small group time, no matter what curriculum you’re using, an effective part of your ministry.


Start off with a short activity that provides an opportunity for the children tget talking to connect with one another!


The small group leader should lead the children in discussing a few questions related to the lesson. This is a valuable time for the leader to gauge what the children have learned during the large group time and help them understand the lesson as it applies to their lives.


Activity sheets don’t have to be boring, so it’s important to keep these fresh and interesting for the children while ensuring they are age-appropriate. A crossword might be fun for one lesson, but if you have a crossword every week it will get boring … fast! Encourage the children to take their activity sheets home with them. This helps parents see what their children learned about that day. It’s also a great way for parents to do follow-up activities if they choose, such as read relevant Bible passages and discuss questions their children may have. It may even get the parents thinking how they can bring topics into context with the children’s everyday real life situations.


If you have time in your program, adding this element to small groups helps cement the lesson in a practical way. This activity could be a craft, group game, learning activity or competition. Some small groups, especially younger children, love to do crafts and have something to take home from the program. Here’s your chance to get kiddy glue and glitter spread everywhere in your ministry space. (Personally, I love everything about children’s ministry … except glitter!)


Reviewing your Bible memory verse during small groups allows time for the leader to explain what the verse means and how to find it in the Bible. This element in small groups could be a puzzle, game, song or challenge for the group to complete together.


Games can be used as a reward for a well-behaved small group and a way to let children get active, move about, and have lots of fun.


Pray with and for your small group. Small groups may like to keep a prayer journal as children learn to pray for one another. Children can lead the prayer or the leader can pray with the children about what they have been learning that day.


The key to successful small group time is the small group leader. If the leader is prepared, prayed up and practiced, then the small group is sure to be an effective time of ministry. It’s my greatest joy to know that the children of our church love their small group leaders. A small group leader in our children’s ministry is the most important position on the team. We want children to be connected. Although they are a part of a large church, for them it’s really just a small church with lots of people.

So, if your small group of children has ever made you want to quit, don’t give up! You will get the hang of it! I know you will. And, you can get better and better at it. You can do it! I know you can! Thumbs up for rock and roll! (That’s a You Tube reference. Take a second and do a search for “Thumbs up for Rock and Roll.” Best video EVER!)

VIDEO ICON – connect with YouTube “Thumbs Up for Rock and Roll.”





About the Author

Kathryn MacDowall lives and breathes curriculum, writing for Hillsong Kids at Hillsong Church in Sydney, Australia. When she’s not dreaming up games and stories, she’s doing admin, graphic design and hoarding new fonts to use in upcoming projects. Check out Hillsong Kids BIG Children's Ministry Curriculum at Follow us on twitter: @hillsongkids and Facebook: