When we started as youth small group leaders in our church (this was years ago), we didn’t know any of the young people. We’d been visiting this church for a little more than a year and we didn’t know that many people yet. But we wanted to serve in youth ministry again and so we had decided to become youth small group leaders.
We didn’t get any training, there wasn’t a coach or mentor, we weren’t told what to do, so we just had to rely on our own instincts. And those instincts told us that we needed to get to know our youth—the faster the better. So we decided to have dinner together at our home, every Sunday before any youth activity. We had dinner before small groups, we had dinner before a youth service and we even offered dinner on the one Sunday where our youth ministry didn’t organize anything, but another in our town did and many of our youth went there.
Having dinner together turned out to be a critical success factor in our small group, aside from prayer. Looking back, what we did intuitively was the best thing we could have ever done for our small group. It really helped promote unity in our small group. Here’s why:
1. Eating together is fun
Having dinner together with a bigger group is simply fun. You laugh, tell crazy stories, share about your week, all while eating something nice together. It sets the tone for the entire evening. It also gives students something to look forward to, even if they like the ‘serious’ part of having small group less.
2. Eating together helps getting to know each other
Eating together is a great way to get to know each other better. People often talk easier when they have something to do, like eating, so even students who are a bit shy will answer your questions more easily. And not only do you as leaders get to know your group, the students learn stuff about each other as well and grow closer as a group.
3. Eating together can make students feel seen
Because our small group had dinner at our house every week, we got to know their habits fairly well. We had one vegetarian, so we would try and come up with something nice for her every week. We had someone who liked to drink milk at dinner, so we made sure we had milk. We had a couple of boys who loved to eat about anything as long as it was a lot, so we cooked enough to feed an army. We had a girl who was deaf in one ear, so we ensured that she always had the same seat at the table so she could hear the conversations. They were all little things, but our students felt seen and loved.
4. Eating together develops rituals
After a while, our small group started to develop habits and rituals. It was decided that the ‘left side of the table’ would serve the right side of the table, so every week there was some hilarious fighting for the ‘best’ seats. We made it a running ‘thing’ to serve something else each week, so they never ate the same thing twice the first year.* Some people helped with cleaning up, while others helped load the dishwasher. They knew where the plates were, how to clean the table and where to put the salt and pepper. One of the guys constantly made scary pictures of whatever we were eating. We had everyone make their own mug to drink from and each week they proudly used their own personalized mug. We developed certain rituals that helped us bond as a group. Even now, years later, whenever we meet one of our small group members, they’ll refer to some ritual we had.
5. Eating together promotes sharing
During small group there is often little time for small talk, for sharing about the day-to-day things in your life. When we ask our students to share, it’s often about spiritual things and they may fel somewhat threatened by that. When you first have dinner together, you create time for them to tell about their week, their lives. It stimulates them to share the deeper things in the ‘real’ small group session later on.
6. Eating together releases energy
We’ve had experiences where we didn’t eat together and wanted to start with small group. Usually, it would take a while for our students to calm down, because they wanted to share things with each other first, wanted to show new shoes or jeans, wanted to discuss new love developments, and so on. Eating together before starting the actual small group session means they can get rid of a lot of excess energy and catch up with each other, so that when the times comes to get serious, they can.
In short, by eating together every week, we became a true community. And no wonder, because we see Jesus do the very same with His disciples and followers. In my experience, eating together with your small group is one of the best things you can do. Yes, it’s a bit of work, but it is so worth it.
Do you eat together with your youth small group before small group sessions or other youth group activities? What are your experiences?
* I know, very European of us 🙂 We actually cooked ourselves most of the times, since homecooked meals are not only way healthier than pizza, but also create a different atmosphere. Students got to try new foods, new flavors, and some even picked up some decent cooking skills in the process! Especially if you have students from disadvanteous backgrounds, providing them with a home cooked, healthy meal may be their highlight of the week in more ways than you can think!