We all have mostly hilarious, and sometimes horrifying, stories of middle schoolers at their worst, but I want to share some of the brightest moments where I’ve seen some of my middle schoolers reflect a pure love that can only come from an outpouring of God’s love in their own life. I also want to share ways we as educators, teachers and leaders can provide opportunity for our youth to exercise their servant hearts–especially middle schoolers.

Service is Formational in Middle School

Middle school is the start of one of the biggest projects of a person’s life: identity achievement. This is the beginning of a child testing the waters of who they are and to what extent their faith is a part of their identity. We know and should continue to teach them through God’s Word that their ultimate identity is found in Jesus Christ and given through the waters of Baptism. We must push further though and not teach, but show them how this identity in Christ Jesus is lived out through every aspect of a person’s life. One of the best ways I see this happen with my middle schoolers is through mission and service projects. It breaks down compartmentalization in their faith. It takes Jesus out of the Sunday school classroom and puts Him squarely in a one-on-one interaction with someone else in real life. It knocks down the mental block that faith is tied to a certain building or day of the week and time. It forces middle schoolers to confront reality in this world through the eyes of Jesus.

One of our mission projects was at a nursing home, and I had a middle school student ask another leader as we entered, “How long do we have to stay here?” It was that middle schooler’s first time serving at a nursing home. He sure confronted reality that day and had his identity as a child of God brought out of the “Sunday school compartment,” because as that same adult leader was gathering up the kids at the end of the time there, he asked, “Do we have to leave?”

Mission Projects for Middle Schoolers

So how do I set up mission projects specifically for middle schoolers? Middle schoolers are a species all to their own, and so there are many specific considerations to take in mind, and I give these as practical suggestions for all mission projects involving middle school kids:

  • Tangible
  • Relational
  • Expectations
  • Example

Middle schoolers need a mission project that is tangible. They have a really hard time seeing far-reaching impacts of their service and have a hard time connecting to a hypothetical or far-away cause. Something that is immediate and right in front of them is most impactful for helping them understand how who they are as Christians (identity) plays such a great role in their actions. Second, I would choose relational projects every time over physical service with middle schoolers. The relationship developed with another person is where kids “get it”– the concept of who they are ministering to and why. In many respects it is similar to being tangible: they can see, talk to and share a small part of their life with the person they are serving. Also keep in mind that middle schoolers are developing conversationalists. They are learning the art of conversation, social cues and social interaction, so they need prompting, encouraging and few other things that we’ll get to shortly. Expectations: Specific expectations are crucial. Kids in middle school need a set of lines to play in–a basic framework in which they can function. For mission projects this means a clear, concise set of instructions or directives so they can easily tell if they are operating within the bounds of the mission project. Lastly, example: The example of a servant’s heart needs to be right in front of them. Middle schoolers need to see a servant’s heart in action from a mentor, leader or other youth. They see it and have something to model themselves after.

Here is how it works with my middle school kids: One of our favorite mission projects is serving dinner at Hope Lodge. It is American Cancer Society sponsored housing a few blocks from our church, and they house patients who are receiving cancer treatments at Mayo Clinic. They are all living out of suitcases at Hope Lodge, so we take the opportunity to bring a home-cooked dinner to the residents and eat with them. This is tangible: we serve buffet style and all the kids sit down and eat with the residents at the tables in the dining room. The kids get to eat and talk with these patients receiving treatments for cancer–it doesn’t get much more tangible and right in front of your face than that. It is relational: I tell the parents who help with this mission project that I really don’t care if any of the kids do any clean-up work on the buffet line at all when dinner is over. I would rather have them spend every second of their time chatting with the residents (think Mary/Martha). We give expectations: All the middle schoolers are given “prayer cards” before we make the dinner announcement and serve food. They are expected to sit down with a buddy (one-on-one can be hard for some middle schoolers) and eat with a table of residents. The prayer card serves several purposes: 1) it gives the middle schoolers a reminder to keep the people they talk with at dinner in their prayers; 2) it allows them to give Christian witness to their dinner guests; 3) it gives them an expectation of what they are supposed to do; and 4) it provides them with some much needed social prompts and conversation starters (we include several get to know you questions on the cards). Lastly, Example: Our parents and leaders are examples to the kids at Hope Lodge. They set the tone and show the kids what it looks like and feels like to show care and concern for the residents, talk with them and pray for them.

Family is Essential in Middle School

Which brings us to the next big consideration in middle school mission/service projects: family. Middle schoolers must see adult leaders, and more importantly, their own parents, in action when it comes to service. Study after study will continue to show the necessity of this, and we must continue to entreat our parents and leaders to step off the sidelines and into the action. I honestly could care less if anyone did dishes at Hope Lodge. I would gladly stay an extra hour later to do the dishes myself after everyone left if it meant that every one of the parents and adult leaders there spent their time engaged and setting a great example for the kids. In whatever manner possible, get parents to serve alongside their kids.

One family in particular stands out to me in this regard. Mom is a caring, serving woman, and she is always setting a great example for the middle schoolers through helping engage them in discussion with the residents and displaying the joy of serving them. The first time her youngest boy was at Hope Lodge he started out like most sixth graders: unsure, shy, hesitant, intimidated. I would expect nothing less. Sixth graders who are new to our mission projects take time to adjust and learn the ropes. His mom got him settled within 15 minutes. Halfway through the dinner time that sixth grader was jabbering away with a nice elderly lady there. At the end of dinner, he was playing Uno with her at the table (no idea where he got Uno cards from), and by the time people were leaving he had a couple others joined in on the Uno game. That lady was the happiest woman in the building, having sixth grade boys goofing around and playing Uno with her. I can tell you where that sixth grade boy gets it from: seeing his mom’s example.

Joys of Middle School Servants

I hope that you, too, witness some of the same heart-moving moments in kid’s lives through your service and mission projects and share in the joy and blessing of being a youth leader. I’m not sure I have been able to put my finger on it yet, but there is something unique about the compassion and love a middle schooler has toward someone they are serving. It is as if they combine the pure, innocent love that comes from Christ alone that we see in little children with a growing hint of an adult’s sense of Christian service and righteous duty to stand up for the poor and orphaned.

I learned several days after one of our mission projects that one of my middle school students and her mom left contact info with a resident at Hope Lodge because he didn’t have a vehicle with him in Rochester. They wrote cards back and forth several times before the man finished his chemotherapy treatments, and even picked him up to make a Wal-Mart run for some food and necessities. Never prompted from an adult leader or me–just because the middle schooler asked her mom if she could leave contact info to stay in touch with the man she talked with over dinner. That’s the heart of a middle school servant.