I’m never quite sure if I should be offended by that statement or not. If you think about it, it definitely implies that I am the crazy one for working with them.
I’m confident that someday I’ll come up with a good comeback.
Anyway, I recently spent an entire weekend with over eighty middle school students at a retreat. I learned some valuable lessons–like the fact that I can no longer function on just a few hours of sleep, and that you should never mention the word “prank” to middle school kids, as I did on this particular trip. I woke up the next morning to a hallway bedecked with toilet paper, shaving cream messages on the wall, and couches piled on top of each other.
Watching these boisterous kids climb all over furniture and scream like hyenas prompted me to step back and think about them seriously. I vividly remember what it was like to be in middle school. You’re squarely caught between an adult world and a child world, and you know you don’t quite fit into either one just right. I can remember like it was last week the struggles I had with friends, parents, school, and sports on top of trying to figure out who I was and where my life was headed. It’s daunting.
As youth leaders, we need to know everything we can about our kids, so we can best learn how to work with them and help them grow in their faith. Here’s a quick glimpse of what exactly we’re dealing with when we talk about your average middle school student:
Middle schoolers are dealing with the headaches of growth spurts and puberty. Muscle development is just starting, and along with that is a budding interest in the opposite sex. They’re starting to become more aware of their physical appearance, and the frustrations of acne are just becoming reality for many of them. I like to play a fun game in my head, called “Wait-And-See-How-Many-Kids-With-Glasses-Get-Contacts-Before-They-Get-To-High-School”–so far, I’ve predicted correctly nearly every time.
This is the time in their lives that friends are often the sole focus of living (in their own minds, that is!). Popularity and acceptance are huge issues that every young teen deals with. The influence of their peers increases, but at the same time, the desire to be more independent kicks in. The result is a conflicted, angst-ridden middle schooler. They want to be trusted and considered responsible by their parents and other leaders, but they haven’t yet mastered the art of self-discipline.
This is one of the biggest challenges of middle school ministry, because not all kids are advancing intellectually at the same pace. Kids at this age are transitioning from concrete to abstract thinking. For instance, concrete thinking would say, “Rocks sink,” while watching a rock fall to the bottom of a lake, while abstract thinking would reason, “Rocks sink because their density is greater than the density of water”. Most middle schoolers are idealistic, and are just starting to develop more complex problem-solving skills. They soak up knowledge like a sponge, and are hungry to learn as much as possible. However, they’re definitely starting to question what they’ve been taught, and need rational explanations for why they do what they do in order to keep doing it.
Middle school is an emotional roller coaster–they regularly vacillate between being giddy, expressive, moody, sad, melancholy, excited, and a whole slew of emotions in between. They are more expressive about their emotions, especially as they relate to their struggles with self-esteem, friends, and other frustrations. Most kids are so excited to have an adult taking an interest in them that they’ll blab just about anything without much prompting, so it doesn’t take a whole lot to get students sharing their emotions quite openly.
Personally, this is one of the biggest joys I have in working with middle school ministry. These kids are just starting to apply spiritual principles to daily life, and they’re rearing to act on what they’ve been taught. They’re constantly looking for ways to tie what they’ve learned together, and often I’ll hear kids relating what they’ve experienced at school that day to the Biblical principles we’re talking about. At the same time, they’re beginning to question the faith of their childhood and make it “their own” faith. It’s a bit of a scary time for adults, because these kids are often full of questions and doubts–sometimes things we can’t even really answer–but it’s important to let them wrestle and reason through this season in their lives.
So, how can we best work with these complicated but amazing young teenagers? I have a few suggestions for effective middle school ministry:
Set up boundaries early, and stick to them. Middle schoolers will always try to test your boundaries, to see how far they can push you. Set up clear expectations and rules, share them with your students, and keep them–don’t let their constant nagging change your decisions. I’ve been on trips where students nagged me for days about the same things, but my refusal to cave in and cater to their whims makes a bold statement about who I am: I’m the adult in charge, who loves them enough to do what’s truly best for them–not what’s going to make them happy at the moment. They see that, and will respect you for that.
Since kids are growing and changing very rapidly (and at varying rates), an activity that one student might like is one that another might hate. Keep your activities varied, and try to include some kinesthetic activities, where the kids are actually doing things. “Living lessons” are much more effective than any lecture, as we all know.
Additionally, keep things moving fairly rapidly. Generally, students have a minute of solid focus per year old they are–so a 12-year-old can focus well for 12 minutes. That doesn’t mean switching activities–it means breaking up the routine with music, conversation, handouts, getting kids up and out of their chairs, doing a game, adding some auditory or visual elements, a song, moving around in the room–anything to keep the kids out of a routine. And, try your hardest to avoid pauses, since thirty seconds of dead time means you’ll spend several minutes trying to get them re-focused.
Middle schoolers need to feel safe and unthreatened. Since they are dealing with a lot of physical and emotional changes, they don’t tend to like games or activities that single them out. Avoid doing things that draw attention to individuals, deal with speed or strength, or make kids nervous beforehand. Try to plan things where all the kids participate, instead of just one kid.
Also, kids in this age range respond well to a diverse mix of leaders: parents, high school and college students, young adults, and older adults. Don’t be afraid to have a lot of variety in your leaders and volunteers. And, don’t be discouraged if your middle schoolers laugh at you. They’ll relate to you better when you’re in a humble posture, and they’ll appreciate that you’re willing to share some of your embarrassing moments, not just your accomplishments.
The time that you and your leaders spend with the kids is what they’ll really remember. They realize that you’re investing time and energy in them, and they appreciate that–even if they don’t ever tell you that. You’ll fulfill a lot of roles as a leader–a friend, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, an advice-giver, and sometimes a disciplinarian.
Through all of that, remember that your primary role is to love your middle schoolers and help them grow in their faith in Christ. As 1 Peter 5:2-4 tells us, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them–not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”