Middle School Lessons from Moses

Posted: September 7, 2010 in dealing with discouragement

Let’s be honest here for a second. Working with middle school kids is less than glorious. Parenting middle school kids is messy. Sometimes I think of middle school ministry like the fire department having a controlled fire – sure, there’s a degree to which you know you’ll be safe, but it still looks like more is being destroyed than is being saved. (Anyone who has done an overnighter with early teenagers knows exactly what I’m talking about. Can I get an amen?)

I love my calling to pastor and teach middle school students. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. They have the curiosity of a child but are developing the thinking capacity of an adult. There are moments in my ministry with this age group that I will never forget because of the depth of insight and growth I witnessed as kids grew closer to Christ. HOWEVER, there are also moments that I wish I could forget. I look back, wondering, “What good could possibly have come from that small group session?” or, “The kids looked more interested in the paint pattern on the wall than they were in anything we were talking about.” If I’m really honest, these moments happen more often than I’d like to admit.

Mark Oestreicher talks about the “Fifth Week Principle” in this article here. His basic premise is that every four weeks of small group sessions he has with middle schoolers feel like nothing good ever comes of it. But the fifth week comes, and all of a sudden kids are bringing incredible insight and asking good questions, giving him hope that the build-up of 4 weeks is completely worth it for that 5th week of small group. If you are patient enough to be consistent and dig through the messiness, the fruit of your ministry with early adolescents will come at some point.

I loved that article! It really encouraged me. But at the same time, I left wondering, “Well how do I emotionally and spiritually endure weeks of difficulty for that fifth week?” This question came back to mind recently after a dreary small group session with some of my students. There were a couple guys who refused to join the discussion and intentionally distracted the others who might have contributed their thoughts. I left discouraged, questioning my ability to lead. I’ve had these days before, but for some reason this one really messed with me. I started praying, asking God for direction and wisdom.

And He answered! He led me to Numbers 13-14. I’ve actually taught on these passages before, but from a different angle than what the Spirit revealed to me during this particular time. At this point in Numbers, the Israelites are wandering in the desert, and Moses sends some spies to explore the land of Canaan, which God had planned to give to Israel. The spies leave for Canaan, equipped with several questions for which Moses needed answers before leading the Israelites in a conquest.

When the spies return, they report to Moses in Numbers 13:27-28,

We entered the land you sent us to explore, and it is indeed a bountiful country – a land flowing with milk and honey. Here is the kind of fruit it produces. But the people living there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak!

At this point, Caleb tried to interrupt them and encourage Moses and the Israelites to be courageous. He gave Moses hope that one of his men actually cared about the mission God gave them. But still the other spies spread this bad report to the rest of the people in verses 31-33,

We can’t go up against them! They are stronger than we are!…The land we traveled through and explored will devour anyone who goes to live there. All the people we saw were huge. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak. Next to them we felt like grasshoppers, and that’s what they thought, too!

Despite Caleb’s plea for the people to bravely accept God’s calling, the people, as it says in the next verse, began to weep and cry all night. Not only did they throw a pity-party, but then they started protesting against Moses and Aaron. All of a sudden, cries for new leadership were abounding in Israel! Joshua and Caleb tried to talk reasonably with the people, and in response the people start to talk about stoning them. This is what I’d call a leadership challenge, though I’m sure there is a worse term for it.  

Now if I was leading over the Israelites at this point, I think I’d be more than tempted to throw in the towel and give up. Nobody wants to listen to me, and they’d rather be in slavery in Egypt than follow me. The Lord even spoke to Moses with frustrations that His people refused to be obedient to His calling. Thankfully, Moses was in charge, and not me.

What exactly was Moses’s response?  He prayed for his people. He begged the Lord not to punish the people for their rebellion. In Numbers 14:19, Moses prays,

In keeping with your magnificent, unfailing love, please pardon the sins of this people, just as you have forgiven them ever since they left Egypt.

I don’t know about you, but the response of Moses shocks me. I think my jaw dropped a little bit when I read it. I mean, the spies had tasted how good the fruit of the land was, and still they refused to dig deep and answer God’s call. What is it about Moses than inspired him to pray for those who refused to follow his leadership?

And then it hit me. A wise leader understands that consistent influence comes only after navigating through the myriad of emotions. People aren’t always going to feel like following the leader. Ask any President of the United States, and I think he might agree.

But that’s not the whole picture. A wise leader also understands that prayer is not just an option; it’s a necessity. James 5:16 says, “The prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective.” From my experience, the most seasoned and successful leaders – though “successful” is a term I use very lightly, for success in the eyes of the world is not always success in the Kingdom of God – are the ones who refused to stop praying, even when results did not appear right away.

So what are the implications for working with middle school students?

Middle school youth workers and parents must remember that there will be days like the one I had and the one that Moses had. I doubt the kids will threaten to stone us (though I wouldn’t rule out shaving an eyebrow… Noah Goad!), but they will ignore us, distract others, and express little care for what we have to say. The emotional roller coaster that early teens are riding on will inspire them to love us profusely one week and revert to apathy the next week. That fifth week is coming, but we must continue to push through if we want to see the fruit. After this story, the Israelites continued to follow Moses and gave him their trust. It really was an emotional car-wreck – one that reveals the middle school traits that often follow us into adulthood – but in the end God’s mission continued on!

And, of course, youth workers and parents, hear me on this. We must pray for our kids. Especially during those moments when we don’t feel like praying, when we fantasize about just waiting for them to grow up, we have to approach the throne of grace with confidence and intercede for our students. I really struggled with this after my dreary small group session with the guys. I didn’t feel like praying for a couple of my students. I was frustrated by their lack of interest and by the way they’d distract the others from participating. But after remembering Moses’s response, I knew I must pray for them. In reality, there are probably issues at home contributing to their lack of concern for which they need prayer! As I mentioned before, wise leaders, youth workers, and parents will understand that prayer is not just an option; it is a necessity. I’ll never forget one day in college, when in the middle of a class my professor stopped and admonished us to spend time every single day praying for the students in our influence. I know for a fact that he daily prayed for us, his students, and I will always take his simple advice to heart.

Turns out that Moses could have made an incredible middle school pastor! Now if only we would learn from his actions!

  1. Katy says:

    The Lord absolutely guided you as you wrote this and THANK YOU! After a particularly challenging evening with my middle schooler last night, I prayed for patience and guidance and today I read your blog for the first time. Thank you for what you do to make such a difference in our kids’ lives…there may be times when it feels like what you say or doesn’t matter, but it absolutely does. For the kids and for us, their parents. Thank you, David!

  2. Wow, thank you so much for the encouragement Katy! That is exactly the reason I write this blog, in hopes of being a support to you all, the parents, who are in the thick of middle school ministry everyday. I am inspired by the patience you as parents exhibit daily, and I get to see the fruit of your ministry at church. Thank you again for the kind words, and I hope I can be a cheerleader for all of our parents!

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