I wish that this story started out with me sharing some quippy anecdote about how my bestie Tina and I were hanging out over dinner with our spouses after her long day on the set of 30 Rock. We talked about our kids and her upcoming pregnancy. We also discussed that she spent a significant amount of the day deciding how much more she should parody Sarah Palin on SNL. This is not case, however, I do believe if we got the chance to hang out that she would like me. I would become her token “conservative evangelical” that she would call whenever she had a question about Mitt Romney, the 700 Club, or the end of the world on May 21st (oh we’re past that?). She would make sure that I got a chance to hang out with Jimmy Fallon on his show, and our favorite time would be going out for aperitifs and small portion plates.
I, like much of America, spent my $14 on her book at Costco. It was in BOSSYPANTS by Tina Fey (Little, Brown and Co., 2011) that I got my lessons about life groups. When we do become friends, she will thank me, and probably try to give my $14 back. I will tell her it was my pleasure and it was a $14 life lesson investment that has been returned back to me 10 times over, and instead I will buy her a hotdog from the Costco cafeteria out of gratitude.
One of the side notes in her book were the rules of improvisation. She spent much of her 20’s in an improv group called Second City. During her stay there, and after much success and a few failures, she learned these rules to making improv work and flow. I tend to see an application and an illustration in everything, and her notes were no different.
Leading a life group for middle school or high school students is ripe training ground for improvisation. You can study all night. You can have a degree in whatever you want from whatever big wig religious location. You can bring your maps and atlas, and be ready to explain how the Northern and Southern Kingdoms in the Bible clearly prove that God is a Calvinistic Arminian. An 8th grade student will say something to open up the night during prayer requests and all of your plans go out the window. So, while I would never tell you to stop planning, preparing, and praying (there is a blog post in these 3 P’s…) you MUST be able to think on your feet and adapt. Thank you Ms. Fey, my work may not be on a stage, but rewarding nonetheless.
The First Rule :: Agree. Always agree and say yes. “Respect what your partner has created and to at least start out at an open minded space. “Students can be wrong, and are…often. But to lead with a negative response to what they are sharing is often pretty damaging. Take the time to have them explain what it is that they are saying. Have them flesh out their thought. Know that anything they say can be undone as long as you hold onto control of the group. You need to develop an atmosphere of safety where both new-comers and long-timers feel they can share their thoughts. As wrong and crazy as they may be. You are seeing a window into their soul. Don’t allow inerrancy to hang out there, but instead of having them drive into a wall to change their direction, see if you can help them to make a gentle U-Turn instead. This leads to the next rules which is…
The Second Rule :: You not only say yes, but YES, AND… Depending on the statement or question, your job is to redirect it. Thankfully your job is not as much about being the Bible Answer Man or Woman. You are a facilitator and your main purpose is to keep the conversation flowing and help the students to come to the answer by themselves. Think of it less like a ball being passed from the coach to each player and back to the same coach, and rather a spider web that crisscrosses over itself many times. The more directions and diversity will allow for more beauty. They spend 8 hours a day being talked to, and told what to think and believe. We are dealing with a generation that thinks they have the answer and if they don’t they will get it from Google. So if they trust you enough to open up, ask questions, and make declarations we need to honor that. Instead of telling Timmy that Jesus and dinosaurs were NOT around at the same time, and that they were not, in fact, called Jesus Horses, ask him where he got his information. See what this is rooted in. “Yes, I understand you think this Timmy, and where did you get this information?”
The Third Rule :: Make Statements. When you get to the root of the question/proclamation that is coming from a student, take the opportunity to say something like…”That is an interesting thought. I have never heard that before, but why don’t we take a moment to explore this. Has anyone else ever heard of Jesus Horses?” The beauty of doing this whole thing in community, is that you are not alone and there are others there to help guide and redirect the conversation. See what other people think about the statements or questions that are being made and allow others the time to sound off. Sadly, truth is better received from others than from the “parent” figure in the group. I have often allowed other students to GENTLY guide and correct a misguided student back to a place of truth and health.
The Fourth Rule :: There are no mistakes. Don’t read this wrong. There are wrong answers, but a wrong answer is not a mistake. It is an opportunity to see a student’s worldview and why they believe what they believe. We are to speak with grace AND truth. Often times, we remember the truth because, after all, we DO have all the answers and that is why these 12 year olds came over…they are truth seekers. Or it may have something to do with the 5 games of “Knock-Out” you play before group and the rad snacks you feed them after life group is done. I could be off, but there are multiple reasons why the students show up.
If you shut a student down with the right answer, more often than not they will have the right answer and walk away. Wouldn’t you want to take the time to earn the right to speak into their world on an ongoing basis? That takes place when you set your agenda down, think on your feet and improv a little, and facilitate them to a place of God’s love AND God’s truth which are both necessary and life giving.
When Tina calls (and she will!) she sure is going to be shocked to know that, though her few short paragraphs were meant as a part of her book, it gave much in the area of student ministry.