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Five Considerations for Bridging the Gap Between Junior and Senior High Youth

They are all around us!  We love them!  We love their convenience.  We love their predictability. We love their affordability. What are they?

They are fast food restaurant chains selling hamburgers, national pizza chains specializing in home delivery, or places where the tacos are the same from coast to coast and the chicken is named after a state that may be over a thousand miles away.

The strength of these nationally known places is that they are the same from coast to coast– a shortcoming is that they are the same from coast to coast.  We like the fact that if we are 500 miles, or even five thousand miles, from home and see golden arches; we know the food will be pretty much the same. While it may be argued that this “cookie-cutter” approach works for hamburgers, tacos, and pizza; it doesn’t work for youth ministry.

If you are looking for a cookie-cutter method for effective ministry with junior and senior high school youth, keep searching because it isn’t here! There is no “programming template” that produces an equal result in youth ministry.

It is a challenge to think about all the possibilities that can shape and mold a youth ministry program. Sometimes the possibilities are overwhelming. What can you do to connect with junior and senior high youth in a meaningful way? Here are five considerations for bridging the gap.
Consideration 1:   Characteristics

There are noticeable differences between Jr. and Sr. High youth that are helpful for the youth worker to keep in mind as they attempt to work with these age groups together or separate.

Junior High
Physical

Changing dramatically
Uneasy about changes
Girls maturing first

Social

Clumsy and unsure of roles
Uncertain of expectations
Interested in opposite sex
Girls showing more interest
Very aware of the group

Emotional

Intense and extreme at times
Tend to blame others
Easily influences behavior

Spiritual

Accepting of traditional teachings
Wonders how God does things
Unsure how to handle doubt
Willing to do things at church

Mental

Still dealing with the concrete
Likes to find the tough answers

Senior High

Physical

Starting to stabilize
Accepting of growth
Boys finally catch up

Social

Growing toward adulthood
Gaining in confidence
Exploring new relationships
Boys finally catching on
Seeking own direction

Emotional

Becoming more balanced
Accepting of others
Can separate heart from actions shortcomings

Spiritual

Willing to challenge traditions
Wonders why God does things
Ready to tackle doubts
Willing to live a life of faith

Mental

Begins abstract thinking
Likes to ask tough questions

Adolescence is the biggest change that humans experience outside of birth!  Working with young people going though all of these changes is especially challenging and also rewarding.  It requires the juggling of all these possibilities mentioned above in the context of limited contact time, uncertain attendance, and limited financial resources.
Consideration 2:  Context

Each church is different.  Each community is different. Here are some strategies to consider as you attempt to better understand the impact of your local environment upon your youth ministry.

Strategy 1 = Ask Questions.

Find out what is going on locally with young people in your church by direct questioning.  Go out and find out what is going on in their lives!  Ask them questions about what concerns them in their everyday life. Ask the same questions of Jr. High and Sr. High youth.  Notice the difference in their answers.

Strategy 2 = Listen!

As you are asking questions, let them do the talking.  Let them go off on tangents if they want to. Let them answer at length without interruption.  It might be fun to gather together a group of two or three youth to talk with, especially Jr. High youth. You– just sit and listen. Take it in. Take notes if it seems appropriate.  Everything is data. Clarify details, and ask for more information as needed in a non-threatening manner.

Strategy 3 = Understand Their School.

The Jr. High School or Middle School is a world away from a High School.  Go and visit the campus of the schools that kids in your group attend.  Walk around.  Get the feel.  Notice the banners, flyers, bulletin board items.  What is being promoted? What is similar about Jr. High and Sr. High campuses? How are they different?  Where are they located in the community?  What is nearby?  Do they have open lunch on their campus?  What if they are combined schools, grades 7-12 all on one campus?  What kind of impact does this make on the youth?
Strategy 4 = Seek to Understand the Community

Attempt to determine what is going on locally with youth and families. Find out about the civic programs that youth are involved in and what type of opportunities are out locally. Pay attention to the size of your community, its connection to a metropolitan area and the kind of regional influences your location has on young people. Seek to find out what influences other Christian churches have in the community.

Know what is out there.  Learn about what is shaping the lives of youth and families.  Seek to connect in a personal way so that you can understand the influence of other factors in the lives of the youth you seek to serve.
Consideration 3:  Critical Mass

The next consideration has to do with numbers. Not for the purpose of counting numbers for numbers sake, but with knowing the potential and expectation of the group with which you are working. In some churches–12 is a large group, and they would be comfortable with 8-10 in attendance at group functions.  Fifteen might blow them away!  In another group, perhaps a larger church where there is an expectation of 20-25 in a group, having only 10 showing up on a regular basis would be disappointing.

The concept of Critical Mass does support the notion that many people do have a number in mind, which for them makes the group seem “full” or “complete.”  It is arbitrary. There is no set standard. Whatever the number, it is a real feeling for young people.  It is a feeling that gives satisfaction which is a signal of support and provides a sense that what is going on here is significant.

So, probe your group. Try to find that “happy medium number.”  The key to this number is not how many are there, but really who is there!
Consideration 4:  Confirmation

A vital consideration in working with young people in The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod is to know what is going on with the Confirmation process in your congregation.

Confirmation has a longstanding history in our church body.  Many generations of Lutherans have fond memories of their Confirmation day.  It was a rite of passage from childhood to youth.  It was likely to occur in the 8th grade, often on Palm Sunday, perhaps Pentecost.  Confirmands would wear white robes, and a red a flower corsage of some sort. The class was usually taught by the Pastor. It took two years to get through the program, which was usually a study of the six chief parts of Luther’s Small Catechism.

Not so anymore!  We have churches that confirm in the 6th or 7th grade.  Some wait until the 9th or 10th grade.  Some churches do it in a class setting. Sometimes there is a lay person who teaches the class, or a DCE. Some churches do all their Confirmation instruction in a retreat setting several times during the year. Some churches write their own curriculum. A number of churches take an individualized approach, and when that person has completed the program they are ready to be confirmed.

Another matter of concern related to Confirmation is First Communion.  Many of our LCMS churches have set up an early Communion program that allows for young people, following a period of instruction, to be welcomed to the Lord’s Table, prior to the Rite of Confirmation. It often involves the parents in the instruction class, and the decision of when to begin communing is left up to the family.

The local congregational practice of early Communion and Confirmation program structure has an impact on the spiritual lives of early adolescent youth.  The way in which a church approaches these matters has an impact on how a church views their overall ministry to Jr. and Sr. High youth.
Consideration 5:  Programming Continuity

A vital aspect of ministry to Jr. and Sr. High youth, be they in the same group or separate groups is the creation of appropriate ministry involvement opportunities that challenge them and support them in their walk of faith.  The following ministry matrix is designed for your use as a worksheet. The goal is not to fill in every blank, but to make wise choices which align will your congregation’s goals for youth ministry.  It is a tool.  It is a resource to bring you the end result you want to see in your work to shape and mold the spiritual lives of the young people in your care.

A Final Thought
As you work to meet the unique needs of each age group, keep in mind the important differences, the particular challenges and the individual expectations of each.  But remember, no matter what the age group, the struggle, the maturity level, God has great things in store for each of His Children.  So gather your kids, and “head for the Border,” design programs that allow them to “Have it Your Way” and remember that no matter what, because of Jesus the youth can say, “I’m lovin’ it!”

Published January 2004

Published July 1, 2004

About the author

Over the past 25 years, Dr. Steve Christopher has served in a variety of youth ministry positions such as a parish DCE, a District Youth Committee Chairman, a volunteer youth leader, a confirmation teacher, a District Youth Ministry Executive, a member of 3 LCMS Youth Gathering Planning Committees, an Instructor of Youth Ministry at Concordia University in Irvine, and as a father of two children. Steve is married to Dee Christopher, who also has served for a number of years in youth ministry.
View more from Steven

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