Posted: February 13, 2011 in needs, physical development

I want you to think about the most awkward feeling you had in middle school. Go ahead. Think back. Don’t keep reading this until you have an awkward feeling in mind. Got it? Okay.

Did you feel alone in that moment or experience? I definitely did.

When I was in middle school, I felt that puberty was my arch-nemesis. It was my Lex Luther, my Doctor Octopus, my greatest foe that always showed up when I least wanted it to. (For those of you who didn’t catch those references, I was referring to Superman’s and Spiderman’s greatest enemies. This whole thinking-back-to-my-middle-school-years thing got me thinking about the superheroes of my childhood!).

I hated puberty. It was awkward and always left me feeling like I was the only one in the room going through it. I remember sitting in English class after lunch in 7th grade wondering if I was some anomaly of a human being who was being forced to change physically while everyone else grew normally. And, of course, there wasn’t a chance that I’d talk to anyone about it, because that would only lead to more awkwardness and the inescapable feeling that I was different from every other kid my age.

My response may sound over-the-top, but I don’t think my experience in middle school was unique. Puberty brings on this sense that “I am not normal” and increases the insecurities that already define the middle school years. I believe every student at some point wonders if anyone else feels the way that they do.

In our churches we talk about “wholistic ministry” with a general understanding that in order to love another human being we should care about more than just their spiritual state; we should care about their physical state as well. In the past 10 years we have had this incredible push in our churches towards pursuing justice for the poor that has resulted in an awakening for many nominal Christians. We are seeing that we can’t just preach at the homeless on the street; on the contrary, we’ve seen that to “be Jesus” to them, we need to care for their physical needs like providing them food, helping them get job training and housing, etc. I got the privilege in the summer of 2009 to do exactly this in Los Angeles with a homeless ministry out there. We understood that “to love your neighbor as yourself,” you must care for them in the SAME ways you’d care for yourself. I loved the focus on wholistic ministry.

Is there not an opportunity for wholistic ministry with our well-fed, financially healthy (i.e. dependent) middle school students as well? We look at our 11-14 year olds in the church and seem to care only about their spiritual state. Of course the church exists to care about their spiritual life, but why do we stop there?

I strongly believe that the middle school parallel of providing food for the hungry is helping them understand that the changes they’re going through are normal and part of God’s perfect plan for their bodies. We need to normalize their experience and help them understand that God’s way of loving them in their middle school years is to develop their bodies in unique ways.

Because we can’t see middle schooler’s emotions on their shoulders, we don’t often acknowledge them in the way we could acknowledge someone’s physical hunger. But the inner pain and insecurity within a student’s heart in middle school is enough to determine the direction of the rest of their life. If we don’t help them see the normalcy of their experience and see God’s hand upon their life, they may go through life wondering if God is a personal God and if He really cares about their daily life.

It is my opinion that in order to “love (your middle schooler) as yourself,” you must take the opportunity to affirm the way that God is growing their body. Sure, there is plenty of opportunity for awkwardness. But imagine the awkwardness that could result if you don’t say anything. This past January we did a teaching series in our middle school ministry called “Changes.” My whole focus was helping them understand that changes are inevitable in life, good or bad, but God’s hand is always upon us as we change. Change is essential for growth and maturity, and that’s a fact for our spirituality AND our physical body.

Do you think it’s important to talk to middle schoolers about the physical changes they’re experiencing? What does wholistic ministry with 11-14 year olds look like? What advice would you give other parents or youth workers when addressing this topic?


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