Stop me if you’ve heard these before: “Oh, you work with middle school kids? You must be really patient.” Or maybe, “Gosh, I could never deal with junior high kids. They’re ruthless–they’ll eat you alive!”

As I tell people about what I do as a profession–a full-time middle school ministry youth leader–I hear the same stereotypes emerge from adults everywhere. And as I look back to my years in Sunday school class as a student, I can remember quite clearly the looks of fear my rowdy class of junior highers regularly instilled on our Sunday school teachers. In fact, our claim to fame was that we boasted the highest teacher turnover rate in church history–at one point, we averaged a new teacher every two weeks.

As I consider ministry to middle school students now, however, I’ve realized that there are countless misconceptions about this age group. Some are well-founded, but other stereotypes of middle school ministry aren’t quite accurate. Yes, you can make generalizations on this age group, based on statistics, biology, experience and knowledge–but there are plenty of stereotypes I had, going into ministry, that have proved absolutely false.

Here are some of the wrong stereotypes I once had about middle school ministry:

Stereotype #1: You can’t expect a middle school student to focus.

As a fledgling youth leader, I fully expected that I’d need to arm myself with toys, coloring books, gadgets and a Bible with a Kevlar cover (just in case the kids decided to attack me, you know) in order to muster through a single lesson with teenage students. And I’m not disagreeing that this age requires a lot, in terms of teaching–they’re all over the board with their comprehension levels, ability to pay attention and learning styles.

What I’ve learned, however, is that you can expect a middle school student to focus–and it’s not unrealistic to demand their attention for the length of a lesson. Middle schoolers are curious and dying to learn new things. They’re excited about life, and full of questions. Show them how your lesson actually applies to their lives. Engage a variety of different learning styles in your lesson through activities or experiences, music or video clips. Truthfully answer their questions instead of writing them off as distracting or petty. If you give them your full attention and speak from the heart, they’ll give you theirs.

Stereotype #2: They only want to play games.

Don’t judge me wrongly–I love to have fun, and our youth play a lot of goofy games and have great activities together. But I’ve realized that ministry is more than stringing together an endless amount of games and pizza parties.

Middle school ministry is an incredible time to influence students when they are first dealing with some of the most difficult situations they’ll face in their lives. It’s a chance to engage students in their faith, to share what a real relationship with Christ is like and to reach them before the world has jaded them or beat them down with its challenges. Don’t cheat your students by giving them Skittles and soda when they’re longing for the eternally-satisfying Bread of Life.

Stereotype #3: Middle school ministry is one-size-fits-all.

Middle schoolers all tend to struggle with the same core issues, such as identity, change, questions about the future, relationship challenges, self-discipline and image. However, each community has its own unique identity and thus, every student deals with different issues. For instance, female aggression and regular fist-fights were a major issue at my middle school when I was a young teen–but many of the students I work with don’t deal with that, and instead struggle with drug and alcohol abuse.

At the end of the day, there’s no magic program, curriculum or book that works for every ministry. Part of our jobs, as youth leaders, is to study our own context and tweak resources to fit the needs of our students and leaders where they’re at. The prayer I most often pray is a simple one: “Jesus, give me discernment and wisdom as I teach Your children.”

Stereotype #4: They’re ruthless.

By the adjectives adults sometimes use to describe middle school students, you’d think that they’re describing rabid wild animals. Sure, pre-teen and teenage kids can be wild–but they’re not the crazed creatures we sometimes label them. Often, the “ruthless” label comes from adults who aren’t really prepared to handle a group of teens–whether they didn’t read their lesson in advance, or that they don’t understand how to deal with middle schoolers.

My own students have been some of the kindest, most caring individuals I’ve ever encountered in my life, offering to pray for me when I’ve had a bad day, doodling me pictures to cheer me up and leaving notes of appreciation for our whole staff because they want to express their love.

I’ve learned that middle school students truly love adults of all ages–despite their strange quirks and affinities. They’re patient, forgiving and understanding. More than anything, they desire lasting relationships and authenticity from the adults around them. Kids appreciate varied experiences in their lives, at this age, which includes learning and hearing from all different adults and leaders.

Stereotype #5: Middle school ministry is of secondary importance to high school ministry (or any other ministry).

This stereotype that middle school ministry is “not as important” as any other ministry area is unfortunately fueled by many churches who put inexperienced or untrained adults into the role of middle school ministry, or who chronically underfund and write off middle school ministry. It’s shameful to hold the attitude that one group or demographic should be considered more important than another–after all, Jesus equally welcomed little children, maimed and wounded adults, prostitutes and tax collectors, and all others. In my opinion, it’s inaccurate and speaks to uneducated knowledge about this age to discount the role that middle school ministry can have in the life of a young person.

The potential life-long faith impact can be greater at this middle school age than any other age, since middle school ministry has the ability to capture youth right at the crux of their spiritual formation. Students are making crucial decisions about their personal identity and beliefs in middle school, and many of their choices dictate where they will end up going in life.

These are the first moments in which a child is growing into an adult, tentatively stepping out in his own faith and identity. It’s the time when a student is confronting her own doubts and fears, and venturing out into a world loaded with temptation and darkness. Those who serve in middle school ministry have one of the most unique and essential roles to play in the midst of this complicated crossroads–and it should not be dismissed as “unimportant”.

Stereotype #6: It’s all about you.

Arrogance is one of the biggest problems we deal with in our ministries. The nature of the problem is crippling, since you can’t convince an arrogant person that he’s wrong–he refuses to believe that anyone else could know better than him. But guess what? Your ministry isn’t about you at all. It’s not about how funny you are, how great a speaker you are or how unique your games are. It doesn’t matter if you’re the “cool youth leader,” the one who’s published countless books, or the one who’s been leading ministry for more years than anyone else.

Quite simply, it’s all about Christ: who He is, what He’s done for us and what a relationship with Him is. It’s about an ongoing process of discipleship, of life-long learning and growing with our Savior and in our community of believers. It’s about learning how to “live in the world but not of it,” and to reach those who don’t yet know Jesus as their Redeemer. That stereotype that whispers that you can do ministry on your own, that it’s about your ego, career or reputation, and not about God’s children who have been entrusted to you? That’s not from God.

The longer I do ministry, the more I realize how little I know and how often I must rely on the Holy Spirit to intercede in my thoughts and actions and capture every moment for Christ. It’s only through the wisdom impressed on my heart by the Holy Spirit and other mature Christians in my life, and knowledge that God’s Word reveals to me on a regular basis, that I’m able to sort out what stereotypes of middle school ministry are actually true and which ones are false.

As Abraham Lincoln once famously said, “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom, and that of all about me, seemed insufficient for the day.”

Amen to that, Abe. If only someone could have told my poor Sunday school teachers that, back when I was in middle school.