Effective use of large and small groups is important, especially if you cannot completely separate your preteen ministry from your younger elementary age students (grades 1-3). You can do a combination of things. On Sunday mornings, have a large group time of worship and ministry for grades 1—6 and a small group time of age-appropriate discussion about the ministry topic where you split up into 3 groups each with its own separate leader (grades 1-2, grades 3-4, grades 5-6). Another option is to dedicate Sunday mornings to large group time and midweek service to a more age-focused small group time.
In your large group time, target activities towards the upper-end of the middle age group (grade 4 or 5) but develop programming designed for 5th/6th graders to partner with 1st/2nd grades and help them complete activities as a team.
In her booklet “Teaching and Ministering to Tweens,” published by Practical Resources for Churches, Debbie Kolacki shares some great insights into using small groups effectively.
Relationships are important in tween ministry. Since tweens are typically beginning the process of separating from their parents, they need a place where they can connect with other adults. Some experts recommend having one adult leader for every five tweens and emphasize that having the same leaders each week is important to provide consistency.
Breaking into small groups gives tweens the opportunity to be heard and for their opinions to be valued. Tween leaders need to create an atmosphere where tweens feel it’s safe to be themselves and be honest about what they think and believe. Since tweens are changing at different rates the best way to guide them spiritually is to meet them each where they are as individuals. Tweens will also learn from each other.
Tween leaders should help their kids make the faith their own. This means that a leader serves more as a facilitator than an expert who tells the kids what is “right” or what they are supposed to believe. Tweens should never be criticized or ridiculed but should be encouraged and challenged to explore what God wants of them and to own their beliefs. They also need to understand how the stories of the Bible relate to their own situations and problems.
We can’t force tweens to accept our beliefs. Our job is to create an environment where they can connect with God and experience God themselves. When we expose them to a variety of spiritual practices, we’re helping tweens encounter God in ways that are meaningful to them. When they realize the awesomeness of having God in their lives it can result in life-changing experiences.
In these small groups, teach topical series on subjects such as peer pressure, friendship, and self-esteem. Let them ask tough questions – “why is the Bible true?”, “what about evolution vs. creation?”, “why is Jesus the only way to heaven?” Make a lasting impact on their lives by helping develop the right system of values and beliefs through these question/answer sessions. Don’t be afraid to discuss sensitive issues such as dating or sexual purity or family issues, but maintain everything you do within strict guidelines and make sure it is appropriate. If you do broach issues such as these, you may want to alert parents beforehand.
These small groups are where discipleship will happen. Preteens will develop positive peer relationships with each other, find acceptance, and find a positive adult role model or spiritual hero in the group leader. They also receive positive reinforcement in a strong set of Christian beliefs.