As my children grow older and my direction in ministry evolves, friends ask me whether I still like middle schoolers. Others want to know if I still want to be a middle school ministry guy. Some ask me if I ever actually enjoyed hanging around young teens or whether that was just part of the job.
These are fair questions that deserve honest answers. So I thought about it a little bit before reaching my conclusion.
Yup! I still love it. I still think middle schoolers are the coolest people on earth. Here are 12 reasons why.
1) Middle school ministry is about shaping. What an opportunity! Everything I learn about young teens continues to affirm and re-affirm that the middle school years are not merely a holding period until the good stuff of high school ministry arrives, but amazing times that have their own intrinsic worth.
Take for instance the amazing discoveries in recent years about neuron development in the brain. In the two years leading up to puberty, millions of additional neurons—the electrical wiring of the brain—are created by the brain. That’s millions more neurons than will be present in adulthood.
At puberty, a toggle switch is tripped; the process reverses itself, and fewer neurons are created. However, it’s the process of winnowing that’s particularly fascinating: Those neurons that are used get to stay and play; those that aren’t used literally go bye-bye. The lead teenage brain researcher at the National Institutes of Health calls it a hard-wiring process, saying that brains are optimized for how they will process information—for the rest of life—during the young teen years.
We get to play a stewarding role in that shaping!
2) Middle schoolers are easy to connect with. Years ago, a youth ministry mentor shared this simple observation:
Middle schoolers, in deciding whether they’ll allow you into their lives, are only asking, “Do you like me?” On the other hand, high schoolers complicate things by adding, “Do I like you?” College students ramp up the complexity by layering on the additional question, “Do I like what you stand for?”
I’m not suggesting middle school ministry is easy, but there’s this glorious open door to relationship building and connecting with most middle schoolers that requires less of a waiting period, less ramp-up time.
3) They’re willing to try anything. The young teen years (in a post-puberty parallel to the first few years of life) are all about discovery or sampling. Young teens, in the earliest stages of self-conscious identity formation, want to try everything. They don’t start testing conclusions until the middle teen years.
This is a wild ride of unpredictability, of course, which can feel very scattered and capricious; but there’s a willingness—a desire—to try things that makes middle schoolers prime for creative and participatory youth ministry.
A year ago, I was speaking at a winter retreat for a church in Wisconsin; the youth pastor and I did a polar bear plunge , jumping though a 8-foot-square hole cut in foot-thick ice right into the coldest water I’ve ever felt in my life. With an extra permission slip just for that activity, the 100 middle schoolers at the retreat were invited to join in, one at a time. About 75 of them—guys and girls, big and small, sporty and nerdy—went for it.
4) Then there’s the wonder of abstract thinking. Middle schoolers are far from experienced with abstract thought, but the capacity is there (I like to think of it as God’s puberty gift). They’re dipping their toes in this intellectual water, checking it out to see if it’s safe.
This test-driving phase of abstract thinking (remember most of the stuff we talk about at church is abstract!) can be maddening at times, because they’re stepping in and out of abstract and concrete thinking all the time.
It was during a particularly glorious moment in my sixth grade guys small group a few weeks ago when Chris verbalized a doubt, probably for the first time in his life, by asking, “How can we even know the Bible is true?”
Man, that’s the good stuff, because it’s the first bloom of critical thinking, lacking any conclusion or any posturing.
5) Which leads us to the process of doubting and faith-development. As they develop capacities for abstract thinking, middle schoolers are on the leading edge of stumbling onto doubts about their faith. This is a critical aspect of faith development and should never be shamed or shut down.
Wrestling with complexities is the necessary detour from child-like, inherited faith to a more robust, owned faith. I call it a detour because taking the main route usually leads to childish, unexamined faith, which isn’t sustainable in the later teen and 20-something years.
6) They’re unpredictable. Maybe you find this frustrating, but I love it. Middle schoolers regularly and consistently surprise me. They surprise me with their random questions. They surprise me with their hidden talents. They surprise me with their insight. They surprise me with their interpretations (often different than I expect). The unpredictability of middle schoolers keeps middle school ministry fresh and untamed.
7) Parents are still involved in their lives. Sure, there are plenty of high schoolers with involved parents, but there’s a drop-off in parent involvement throughout the teen years as many parents retreat out of fear, exasperation or a misguided understanding of what it means to give teenagers their independence.
At times, you might view parental involvement as intrusive or annoying; but it’s a fantastic strength of good middle school ministry. We know parents have a significantly larger role in shaping the lives and faith of their teenagers than we do, so this higher level of parental involvement creates an easier path for coming alongside parents, partnering for greater impact.
8) They have more time than high schoolers. Middle schoolers are busier than ever, but they still have more time and availability than older teenagers. Mix this in with No. 3 above (their willingness to try anything), and you’ve got a potent pot of “Let’s do stuff!”
9) Most are not yet jaded. Some eighth graders may start to get a little jaded, but holy cow! That’s nothing compared to high schoolers who can wear cynicism and an expression of “Been there, done that” as comfortably as Lady Gaga wears a meat suit.
In contrast, most middle schoolers possess wonderfully low levels of cynicism that when combined with their youthful naiveté looks a lot like hope.
10) They’re passionate. I love the all-in attitude of most middle schoolers, but it’s not only their willingness to try things (mentioned in No. 3 above). They’re also passionate about the things they try, the opinions they voice, the beliefs they hold. The funny thing is they’re frequently passionate about things they won’t be passionate about in two years—or two months.
A funny example: Last week at my sixth grade guys small group, we were talking about the passage in
I asked my guys what kind of soil they think they’re most like at this point in time. One of the guys shot up his hand, making that “Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!” sound. His response was as honest as could be: “I’m like the good soil, because ever since I was born, life has been the best.”
11) They’re forgiving. When you screw up, have an off night in your teaching, plan a lame event, or say something dumb, middle schoolers are quick to forgive (particularly if you ask them). The travel time back to normal (whatever that is!) is extremely short.
12) They’re fun! Middle schoolers keep me feeling young. They’re playful and hilarious, goofy and unselfconscious. Middle schoolers remind me regularly of how a joy-filled life should look.
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Mark Oestreicher (Marko) is a veteran youth worker and former president of Youth Specialties. The author of dozens of books, including Youth Ministry 3.0 and Middle School Ministry, Marko is a sought after speaker, writer and consultant. Marko is a partner in The Youth Cartel, providing resources, training and coaching for church youth workers. Marko lives in San Diego with his wife Jeannie and two children, Liesl and Max.