(At least part of the time!)
I’m a fan of separating guys and girls, at least part of the time.
Developmentally, it’s critical that we create good and safe places for young teens to try on relational connections across gender lines, without all the cultural and sexual pressures that are common at school and the mall.
I believe the best youth ministry happens when teenagers are able to be honest and present in every way, and that happens best with occasional gender segregation. With young teens (as well as some high schoolers), adding the other gender into the mix can color everything.
A Copernican World
It’s difficult to find a middle schooler who doesn’t believe he or she is the center of the universe—a pre-Copernican ego-centered world.
For example, let’s say you rarely will experience a young teen sharing something in a group when he or she is not first-and-foremost thinking of how others perceive him or her. He or she might be horribly misguided in that perception (they often are); but it’s still the lenses through which they view themselves. This is a good shift, by the way, as it reveals their new ability to see themselves in third-person (a psychological skill that comes with abstract thinking).
So such self-obsession is normal, and it’s even present when there aren’t distractions; but one of the biggest distractions for a young teen who’s opening his or her mouth to share a thought, prayer, idea or question, are those pesky other-gender kids: “What are they thinking about me as I’m saying this!??!”
So I like to separate the genders occasionally. Specifically, I think it’s wise to have single-gender small groups.
The whole point of small groups, after all, is to create a safe place where middle schoolers are known. In the context of being known, we hope they will enter dialogue and collaborative discernment honestly and wholly and verbally wrestle with truth, all of which requires a level of vulnerability. Single-gender groups grease the rails.
There’s another time I think gender segregation works well. One weekend after I wrote this column, my church’s middle school ministry will host its most popular events: a girls event and a guys event. They’re so popular that we do them three times each year—more than any other event in our ministry, except weekly stuff. A former middle school pastor imported them, and their fun names (Girly and Burly) from his previous church; but they remained, even when staff moved on!
They’re mystery events. My seventh-grade son has no idea what they’ll be doing all day and is given a crazy list of things to bring (most of which are meant to confuse and mislead; only a few actually will be needed).
This time around, the Burly event has the guys going to a local camp for a day of ziplines, climbing walls, swimming and Capture the Flag. After dinner and video games, we’ll spend an hour at a go-cart track. The girls will spend the same day doing something Girly.
My son and the guys in my eighth-grade guys small group love, love, love these days. They get to be themselves. They don’t have to worry about pretense, what they’ll wear, being embarrassed or being cool. Our volunteer team, along for the relational ride, gets to hang with our students while they’re being more themselves and less someone they wish they were.
Of course, I’m not suggesting middle school guys and girls be separated all the time; but if you’re not doing it some of the time, I’d encourage you to experiment with it. You might find—no, you will find—shoulders relax, authentic selves show up and really wonderful ministry takes place.
Mark Oestreicher is in his 30th year of middle school ministry. He leads a bunch of things, such as the Youth Ministry Coaching Program, under the banner of The Youth Cartel. He’s especially stoked about the Middle School Ministry Campference this fall (MSMCampference.com) and hopes you’ll join him! Marko’s blog, WhyIsMarko.com.