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Honoring & Engaging Your Last Year Students

Posted by: Heather Flies

Some of us call it junior high ministry… some call it middle school ministry… some have 6-8th grades… some 7-8th grades… in our ministry, we have 7-9th graders.  I know, it’s weird, but I love it!  I love having students for three full years and I LOVE the depth and maturity my 9th graders bring to our ministry.

As much as I love it, with any three-year program, and I would argue even two year programs, it’s a challenge to keep that “top grade” engaged and fed.  Year after year, right around January, I hear statements like this from my top grade students:

–> “The seventh graders are so immature.”

–> “I don’t like the games we do.”

–> “I feel like you’re teaching to the 7th graders, not us.”

–> “I already know all this stuff.”

I’m not kidding, it’s the SAME comments EVERY year.  Even though we have a specified doctrinal class (year-long) for ninth graders only– even though I use Greek and Hebrew in my teaching– even though we engage 9th graders in leadership.  My initial response, if I’m honest, is to be annoyed, personally hurt, or indifferent.

This last year, however, my volunteer staff and I decided to take a different approach.

1) We were proactive: On our 8th grade retreat (just two months before they officially became 9th graders in our ministry), we had a straight forward conversation about the tendencies of 9th graders.  We challenged our incoming 9th graders to be different– to sit in the front row, rather than the back.  To engage the 7th graders and mentor them rather than ignore them.  To understand that we all need to be life-long learners & there is always something they can learn from the teaching.

2) We asked questions: One of the first weeks in January, we asked the 9th graders to stay after for ten minutes following our mid-week program.  We acknowledged, right off the bat, that they probably had noticed some differences between them and the 7th graders– they all laughed.  We said, “We want to honor you guys as our 9th graders– what are some things we could do that would help you to feel ministered to?”  They had some great ideas!

3) We listened AND responded to their ideas: For the remaining months, we chose one week to pull the 9th graders out half way through our mid-week program and go deeper into the topic.  During our “Love Spectrum” month for instance, we had 9th grade-only conversations about sexual pressures & temptations– a conversation we would have had to be more conservative about if 7th graders were in the room.  We also set up a couple 9th grade duos to coordinate the games for our mid-week program.

4) We created an event just for them: Last week, we held the inaugural “9th Grade Formal Dinner Cruise” on Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota’s finest and largest lakes (we have nearly 14,000 lakes! :) .  We gathered a group of 9th graders a month before the event and asked them to design the night’s program.  We marketed it as a 9th grade only event– “You have the opportunity to do something we’ve never done before!”  The response was amazing!  Girls found after-prom dresses at Macy’s for $23 and guys borrowed jackets and ties from their dads.  We met an hour before hand and took great pictures– most same gender, trying to promote the idea of it being a 9th grade event, not a date night.  Then, we cruised for three hours, enjoying food, mingling, and the “Red Carpet” theme.

From talking to many middle school ministers, I know this is a challenge for everyone– whether your top grade is 8th or 9th.  Much of it is developmental, I believe, but there are things you can do to engage them and honor them.  Trust me, it’s worth the time and effort!

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Josh Griffin is high school pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA. He’s the co-counder of DownloadYouthMinistry.com and host of the Youth Ministry Garage Podcast. He's authored more than 20 youth ministry resources and is the author of "99 Thoughts for Small Group Leaders" with Doug Fields. Josh is a father of 4 who speaks a little, podcasts a little, Twitters a bit, and blogs a lot. You can find him at DownloadYouthMinistry.com!