It’s the eternal youth ministry question. Do you divide your youth ministry into Junior High and Senior High groups? In many ways it seems logical. Developmentally junior- high-aged-kids aren’t at the same level as senior-highs. The issues are similar but not the same. The questions a senior high youth may ask can require a different level of understanding, sensitivity and ability to respond. Why not just automatically say 6th, 7th and 8th graders go there. 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th graders go there?
Many years ago, I was the new pastor in a modestly sized (but not small), rural congregation. I knew the theories about how to do youth ministry and as we set up our youth ministry program, I divided the youth into two groups depending on their grade level. “Junior high kids will simply do better with peers their own age,” I said.
Well, we tried this division for a couple months but there appeared to be some irritation with the set up. As the irritation grew, I thought it a good idea to nip it in the bud. If there was something wrong with what we were doing, I wanted to fix it! Were the Bible studies not “deep” enough? Were there enough service opportunities? Were our fellowship activities okay? Maybe there was something wrong with the way we did refreshments.
I asked some of the youth how things were going.
“Why did you divide us up?” was their question. Why do you do 6th, 7th and 8th graders from 5:00-7:00 and high school kids from 7:00-9:00? I tried to explain the difference between junior and senior high ministry. But that didn’t make a lot of sense to these youth. They explained that they were pretty much related to each other (lots of cousins) or they were all friends. The junior and senior high classes were in the same school building and they saw each other everyday. They liked each other (after all they were related, well, maybe that doesn’t count.) Even the parents didn’t understand why they had to bring the younger kids at 5:00, pick them up at 7:00 when they dropped off the older youth and come back again at 9:00 to pick up the non-drivers. To these folks, separated junior high and senior ministry didn’t make a lot of sense.
I do agree with the theories about separating the groups. The potential discussions and conversations are just going to be at different levels. At the same time, my memory of this experience reminds me to always be sensitive to those you serve. For this particular group, separating ages didn’t make sense and the families were growing resentful. They encouraged me to do youth ministry with all the youth, regardless of their grade level. That’s what we did and it worked in that setting.
Being sensitive is crucial. Being sensitive to developmental levels. Being sensitive to issues and concerns. Being sensitive to individual and family needs.
Every organizational theory has an exception. What we know for certain is that God loves junior high youth and senior high youth and wants the best for their lives regardless of what kind of group your church has for them. And regardless of the group they are in, we need to make sure that all those youth understand that truth of God’s love. Ultimately communicating the Gospel is what makes youth ministry effective and successful.