The Lessons I Learned From Sitting With My Students
It was a cold, rainy November night in Georgia.
This, my friends, is a rarity in the South. Cold weather that early in the season really throws us for a loop down here. Add a little rain, and basically, we don’t want to go outside for any reason at all. Between the bitter chill in the air and the wet roads adding time to the post-work commute, Atlanta is basically a disaster on cold, rainy nights.
On this particular night, I was headed to church where I serve as a small group leader in the college ministry. I was coming straight from work, no time to get home, no time to take a break, no time to shake off the stress of the day. With the traffic, the weather, the workload, the stress, and the whole thing of just being a human trying to make it through a manic Monday, it was the perfect recipe for choosing to stay home.
But as any small group leader knows, that’s really not the best option. If our students are willing to make the effort to show up, then the least we can do is shake it off and do the same.
So, I made my way to the church that night, planning to head straight to the balcony to get a seat away from the crowd. As one of our church’s fastest growing programs, the college ministry is short on space. To accommodate for more students, they often ask us leaders and volunteers to watch the large group gathering from the balcony. Truth be told, it’s kind of a nice way for us to catch our breath before diving into leading our groups once the message is done.
That particular night, I arrived to find a change in plans. As we were hosting a Thanksgiving meal for the students that night, the room was set up with round table and chairs rather than the typical rows of seats. Each group was assigned a table where we could eat and listen to the message together… leaders included.
I’m going to be really honest here and admit that I wasn’t thrilled at this turn of events. Not because I don’t love my girls, but honestly, because I was spent. The thought of having to jump right into small group before I got even a second to myself felt like a lot that night.
Maybe you can relate.
At Orange Students, we’ve been integrating small group time into our message, large group gathering, and beyond in our curriculum this year. And, we know that doing that requires more of you as a small group leader. It requires you to not just show up and sit with your group, but to lead the conversation, engage in the message with them, participate in the experience pieces, and of course, do a little crowd control during large group. This approach asks small group leaders to give a little more than they would in the space of just a small group time and that isn’t always easy.
Believe me, I was right there with you that Monday night. Seated around the table with my small group as the lights went down and the service started, I had to make a choice. I could tune out and focus on myself for the duration of the service or I could lean in and take advantage of the extra time in proximity to my girls.
I’m so glad I chose the latter.
I took my eyes off of myself and put them on my students… literally. I saw them engage with the service in an up close and personal way. I was able to see which parts of the message were resonating with them in real time. I paid attention to who wrote down notes during which portions of the talk. I watched their body language to see when they responded physically to what they heard, sometimes to show they were moved or in agreement and other times to show they were confused or uncomfortable. I could see them respond to worship in their own ways.
That proximity to them gave me real-time, real-life feedback from my students without me having to ask a single question. And it helped me lead the conversation in a different way that night. I could focus on the questions I thought resonated most with them based on what I observed during the message. I could guide them to talk about their reactions and responses because I saw them up close. I could even give feedback to the leadership in our ministry about what really landed with my students because I was close enough to see it myself.
I was tempted to see sitting with my students that night as an inconvenience—an intrusion on the time I really needed to myself. I’m so glad I didn’t let my mind stay there. Because if I had, I would’ve missed an opportunity to really see them. To really engage with them. To really experience how God was speaking to them individually.
So, learn from my mistake, small group leaders. Even when it’s hard, even when it’s inconvenient, even when you’re overwhelmed…
Trust me, you don’t want to miss the chance to meet your students where they are.