A few years ago I had an experience with our middle schoolers at winter camp that has stuck with me to this day. The youth camp as excellent on every level. My epiphany has nothing to do with the speaker missing the mark. (Even though he did, just a bit) The combination of the speaker and one of my volunteers following his instructions, caused a really interesting ministry interaction. I watched something unfold that has caused me to take a pretty large pause regarding how I approach my conversations with middle schoolers. I realized that more often than not, we adults speak over kids and put our experiences and memories on them instead of simply letting their experiences speak for themselves.
On Saturday morning we were led in a time where we were supposed to recognize our sin, and then invited to share about some of the deepest darkest parts of being a middle schooler. It was a great talk, and I was moved to draw closer to Jesus. Along with me, one of my adults also was moved and wanted to help our kids be a part of the moment as well. Our students, not so much.
Middle School Life Is What They Know
The problem started when the first kid shared about how stressful middle school is and how much they hate homework. It was obvious that this wasn’t to the level my adult leader wanted them to go. So with a little bit of shame and some trial balloons like bullying, heartbreak, and porn, we tried again.
But the funniest thing happened, nothing. 7th grade boys have no idea how awful their middle school experience is. They are just on the front end of being able to be reflective. And because this is a new found intellectual muscle, they have no idea that who they are is fully under assault. The garbage and awfulness of middle school, mostly, goes far over their heads, because this cesspool is all they know.
As they grow and mature, they will come to reflect and will realize how awkward this season of their life is. But today, as a 7th grade boy, this is the air they breathe. If that is really the case, then maybe we need to consider altering our ministry approach a little.
THIS IS JUST THEIR FIRST TIME AROUND:
Grief, hurt, and shame are strange things. The first time we experience them, it is difficult and might even cause us to cry. But every time we experience these things we take another trip around the Merry-Go-Round and simply collect more and more grief, hurt, and shame. And with every passing lap we carry the cumulative impression of our grief, hurt, and shame and that is what informs all our memories.
So, yes, our middle schoolers experience grief, hurt, and shame. But for most of them, this is their first time around. They will reflect back with a full bag of hurt and then put that emotion on all of their memories. And thus, middle school sucks! (But for current 7th graders, it doesn’t suck that much)
QUIT SPEAKING TO MIDDLE SCHOOLERS, AND INSTEAD SPEAK WITH THEM
Most of us get into the youth ministry biz because we love kids and desperately want them to love Jesus. But in this season, maybe part of our call revolves less around beating into our kids what horrible sinners they are and give them words for experiences they don’t even know are happening yet, and simply love them and help them learn more about the love Jesus has for them.
I’m not saying lighten up on the theology, or even watering down “the Gospel.” What I am saying is that youth ministry at its best is simply walking at the appropriate pace students are able. There are many years for kids to reflect on the wreckage of their life, and many opportunities to help them see that Jesus brings good news and healing to those situations.
But right now, for the bulk of our middle school students, they need to be given; space to develop, information to begin to process on brand new levels, and confirm in the depth of their being that the church loves them and is for them and will walk with them through every season of life!
May we be adults who love the snot out of middle schoolers, right into the Kingdom of God. And may God be gracious to all of us as we come to realize who crappy life is, and how good God is to meet us in all our brokenness. Blessings!
This article originally appeared here.