40 Minutes of Hell: A Small Group Strategy

Posted By Tony Akers on Jan 30, 2014 |

*This post is not about someone’s near death experience.  It is about middle school ministry!

I love middle school students.  I just do.  They are some of my favorite people on the planet.   I love their raw honesty.  I love their “here and now” approach to life.  I love them…and they drive me nuts!

I want to lead them well, but they have an amazing way of exposing my weakness as a leader.  It is frustrating as I desperately want to help them to connect with Christ and scripture.  I can assure you that they have taught me more about leading groups than I ever learned in college or seminary.

I am not a social scientist, but I am observant.  I have discovered a “flow” of sorts to an hour-long encounter with middle school students, whether it is through Sunday school, Bible study or what one would consider a discipleship group.  This “flow” has been helpful to me in terms of being patient as these young people are drawn into connection with scripture.

The Bad News:  “40 Minutes of Hell”

Each small group encounter with middle school kids involves what I call, “40 minutes of hell.”  This is a term I stole from the Arkansas basketball program in the 90’s when Nolan Richardson was their coach.  Richardson committed to having his players in top physical condition in order to apply the maximum amount of defensive pressure during the game.  He would spend the first 40 minutes of practice avoiding a basketball and focusing on conditioning.

In a similar way, I have discovered that things go best for me as a leader when I allow the students to avoid content for a while and instead focus on “conditioning” or emotionally checking in with the group.

It is difficult for me as a leader.  I want to quickly move to content.  I am ready.   For me it is 40 minutes of hell.  For the students it is fun!

The First 20 minutes:  Testing the water

Give the first 20 minutes away.  Let them chat.  They are going to anyway.  They are reconnecting with one-another and are warming up socially.  Years ago I heard someone say, and I believe it to my core because I have seen it time after time, “A student is not theologically aware until they are emotionally safe.”  Much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we cannot avoid the early stages of group “conditioning” and expect something significant to happen later.

While they are chatting take the time to listen.  Listen to the content of their conversations, their jokes and also read body language.  You can learn a lot during this early time if you allow them the space and time to check in.  Because you know the content of the bible study portion, look for connections to the content that you can refer to later.

The Second 20 minutes:  Wading in

Begin a “soft” launch of your content.  Say something like, “During the conversation earlier I heard_________.  It is interesting that was mentioned because our bible study mentions that today.”  Focus the group attention on small bites of scripture or a bible story.  Instead of having everyone read a scripture and the group comment on it, I prefer for everyone to turn to (or pull up on their phones) the same scripture.  Camp there for a while.  Embrace the chaos of giggling and shifting.  Be patient.  Avoid lecture.  Ask a lot of questions related to your topic.  Give scenarios regarding how to apply the teaching of the scripture to their lives.  Let the discussion flow and be patient.  Did I mention, “Be patient?”

10 minutes:  Diving Deep

Without exception when wading through the first difficult 40 minutes the group will be rewarded.  A magic moment will come as spirit touches spirit and in will flow a fresh insight or application point that can only come from the mouth of a middle school student.  After witnessing this happen I have had numerous volunteers say, “Wow that went much deeper than I thought it would!”  The moment will happen when we allow it to form.  If we try to force this moment we will likely be rewarded with “parroting” answers as student try to give us what they believe we want to hear.  Your patience and lack of anxiety about “getting to the point” will invite real thoughtfulness and discernment among the group.

The Last 10 minutes:  Resurfacing

Enjoy the moment for they will surface soon!  Use your last ten minutes to help the group tie what they learned to a present circumstance, personal change or a spiritual discipline and close in prayer.


In short, good middle school ministry is about understanding and honoring what the students need above what we want.  Our “40 minutes of hell” is their invitation to connect with Christ in a way that is most helpful to them.  Embrace the chaos!