Let’s face it—hanging out with middle school (I call it junior high!) students in the hopes of bringing them closer to Jesus takes serious guts. It is an energy-packed, patience-stretching, sometimes smelly, time-consuming, thankless, awkward and overlooked calling. We are clearly the only people on earth who could get away with belching a Bible lesson or having a swim party in the baptistry. Junior high ministry veterans would agree that ministering to young adolescents is a blast, but it also requires a great amount of wisdom and smart ministry on our part. This quick crash course in junior high ministry has been developed after 10 years of good and bad ideas. Some are originals; some have been said before; all are crucial to consider as you seek to reach this awesome age group.
Celebrate Their Energy
Junior high students have an abundance of energy. I have met many well-intentioned youth workers who have attempted to contain or correct this trait with little success. The truth is, to minister to this age group effectively we must celebrate and wisely direct this God-given electricity. If we don’t, junior highers will be tempted to misuse their energy by distracting people around them, running around with a fire extinguisher or playing floor hockey with the senior pastor’s commentaries. I am convinced there is a better way!
Strategically Placed Games: Who says we have to teach 35 minutes straight just like the high school ministry? Try the 15-Minute Rule: For every 15 minutes of teaching, include an energy-burning activity or game. Maybe the activity illustrates a point, or it could be completely random. A strategically placed activity might break your flow, but it greatly enhances a junior high student’s ability to stay mentality engaged. Side note: Call me unspiritual, but after a decade of junior high ministry, I am doing many more 15- or 20-minute lessons than 35-minute lessons.
Mission Trips/Service Projects: While all age groups benefit from active learning and service, I believe it is most important in junior high ministry. Use their energy to play games with kids living in poverty, organize donations, mix concrete or clean up a local park. Don’t let these opportunities be extras or just summer traditions. Breathe active service into the ongoing fabric of your intentional ministry to junior highers. Allowing service to become your curriculum will be a powerful faith-shaper in the lives of students.
Participatory Worship: For some reason, junior highers still love silly motions to worship songs. While I’m not a huge fan, they are! A wise youth worker won’t push them toward adult worship songs too quickly.
Score Points with Parents
Effective junior high ministry cannot be done without the support of parents. Junior high guru Kurt Johnston wrote, “…it really doesn’t matter who you are or what you can do. As a seasoned junior high youth worker, I can tell you that effective junior high ministry boils down to two things: The sovereignty of God and the support of parents.” Here are a few tips that will go a long way with parents.
Communicate: Don’t expect a squirrelly seventh grade boy to remember the details of the upcoming camping trip. Not going to happen! We must learn how to deliver the information quickly and effectively into the hands of parents through a variety of means: e-mails, text alerts, newsletters, Constant Contact—just find a way to do it well. In the life of a busy parent trying to manage the family schedule and a full work load, we can see how frustration mounts and support wanes if we don’t get them the information they need. Remember always to return their calls, answer all their questions and make time for them.
Prepare and Encourage: Parents will admit that they are unsure about their abilities to guide their children through the junior high years. Be proactive in preparing them for the issues they will face, and be gracious in your encouragement toward them along the way. Even if you are a younger leader and haven’t parented a junior high student, your experience and knowledge of students provides a unique window into their lives. This window can be incredibly helpful as you partner with the parents you serve.
Make It Easy: Do we really expect parents to drive their children up to the church three nights in one week? Is it smart to do a junior high retreat on a weekend when most families are swamped with other things? We score big points with parents when we go out of our way to make their lives a little easier.
Invite Them into the Action: When I was a younger leader, it took me awhile to realize that parents make some of the greatest volunteers. They live with these creatures, experience their drama and witness all the changes their kids experience. Some of them might even be crazy enough to accept your invitation to the frontlines of your ministry. What parent in your ministry is just waiting for an invitation?
Don’t Forget the BIGGIES: Friendship and Identity
If there are two areas in which junior highers desperately need guidance, they are friendship and identity. With a different schedule, fresh faces and new surroundings, the onset of junior high is a prime opportunity for students to make important decisions about the friends they choose. Friendships created in junior high can have a massive ripple effect (positive or negative) on a student’s spiritual development—not to mention their decisions, attitudes and place in society during their lifetimes.
In addition, the awkward physical changes coupled with the rollercoaster of emotions create a distorted view of their identity and self-worth. Girls and guys can express scathing disapproval of what they see in the mirror every day. We must talk, teach and mentor around these issues as often as appropriate. Beware of the nonverbal message your ministry sends to students on these topics, as well. What is your ministry doing to support the building of healthy, God-honoring friendships? Are you showing the popular students and the quiet loners that they matter to God? Good junior high youth workers constantly wrestle with these issues.
Capture a Larger View
For a die-hard junior high leader, this next sentence is difficult to write, but I know it to be true: In my church, I want junior highers to have an unstoppable excitement to be involved in high school ministry. It is a new, ridiculous attitude that God is cultivating in me; and I think we play an essential role in building their anticipation. For example, I choose not take junior highers on a sweet ski trip to Colorado or go out of the country on a mission trip as our high school students do. I want our high schoolers using the best spaces on Sunday night and doing “cooler things” with possibly a larger budget. This is not to say that I shy away from being a champion of junior high ministry or that junior high ministry should be lame. I just see wisdom in having a larger view of the spiritual journey that my kids are on—a journey of which (only by God’s grace and entrusting) I am able to be a part.
So stay committed, remain humble, laugh often and love generously. Thanks for joining me in reaching this young and sometimes overlooked people group. What an awkwardly important mission field we have before us!
Jeff’s Best of the Best Middle School Ministry Resources
Best Middle School Resource: Middle School Ministry Made Simple by Kurt Johnston (Standard)
Best Middle School Web Site: SimplyYouthministry.com
Best Middle School Event: Christ in Youth’s “Believe” conference (CIY.com/believe/)
Best Middle School Curriculum: The “Uncommon” series, General Editor Kara Powell (Regal)