Talking to Middle Schoolers about the L-Word

Posted: February 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

We see it in the movies. We hear it in our music. And we hear it on the lips of our middle schoolers, those three big words: “I love you.”

With as much ease as eating their sandwich for lunch, our students quickly and passively talk about the love they feel. They love their best friend. They love their cell phone. They love not having homework.

 But I wonder where they get their definition of love. As I’ve mentioned before, most learning is caught, not taught. With that understanding, it is easy to see how models (parents, musicians, friends, etc.) shape our students’ perceptions of the big L-word. But what are the models in students’ lives teaching them about love?

I had the privilege (and adventure) of substitute teaching in a local middle school on Valentine’s Day. I felt like I needed to video-record the whole experience, because it was quite a sociological study! The school had a fundraiser in the weeks leading up to V-Day during which students could buy “candy-grams” with a note attached to them and send them anonymously to their secret (or not-so-secret) crush. During the first class period of the day, the candy-grams were delivered to the recipients, which resulted in a flood comparable to the disaster that hit Noah’s Ark, except this time it was a flood of emotions.

Certain boys and girls would be covered with candy grams, up to six or seven a piece, while many went without a single piece of candy. There were shouts of jubilation as a girl received her long-awaited candy-gram from her middle school boyfriend. There was silence in other parts of the room where that long-awaited candy-gram never came for another girl. And, of course, there was also a lot of…well… bragging. Certain students felt the need to boast about how many candy-grams they got compared to how many another student received.

And in due course the middle school students learned by experience that love is all about popularity. That’s a solid worldview right there! (Please note the sarcasm…)

My “youth pastor mindset” kicked in immediately as I watched the clash of excitement and disappointment in the room. I couldn’t help but wonder where our society has gone wrong in teaching our young students about the concept of love. Is it really as cheap as getting candy-grams on Valentine’s Day? Or is it much deeper, like that of Jesus Christ on the cross? 

I strongly believe we need to be much more intentional with the way we teach (and model) “love” to our middle schoolers. We need to teach the biblical/Christian worldview of love; that is, love is laying down your life for another. Here are just a couple verses that help shape our Christian worldview of love:

1 John 3:16 – This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another.

1 John 4:10 – This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as atoning sacrifice for our sins.

John 13:34-45 – A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

What is the common thread in these three verses? What is the standard of love that is expressed? What is the best model of love we could ever provide our students?

None other than Jesus Christ.

It sounds like the “Sunday School answer.” It seems too easy. (Side note: my ministry professors in college warned us about the Sunday School answer. Some people are quick to give the easy answer when they’re in church. You can ask them what’s brown and furry and runs around in trees, and the answer you’ll get? Jesus, of course. Not a squirrel…).

But in order to teach a truly, distinctively Christian worldview on love, we have to invite our students into the story of Jesus Christ. We are always gripped by story. Stories are welcoming. Stories teach. We need to help students see their part in the love story of Jesus Christ.

Our middle schoolers see the “love stories” in movies like Twilight and in popular radio like Bruno Mars’ new “Grenade” song. Our students’ perceptions of love are being shaped by the world more than it is being shaped by Jesus and caring adult mentors. This has to change!

In February we spent the whole month doing a teaching series on real love from a Christian worldview. We wanted to help students see beyond the movies and music and understand the sacrifice and service that real love requires. We talked about love as a decision we make, not an emotion we feel. This goes beyond romance; this is how love was modeled by Jesus Christ for all humanity. In our students’ relationships with family members and friends, their love should be expressed in selflessness, not in the ugly narcissistic fashion we see in the world.

 What do your teenagers think about love? What shapes their worldview? What are you doing to teach and model real love to the students in your influence?

  1. Calli Edwards says:

    I have a feeling that teenagers deep down want a different perspective on love. A different definition that satisfies, fulfills, and is always present.

    A hesitation for me that I wrestle with often is having the boldness to speak the truth of Jesus’ love to these kids outright without demonstrating it first. I wrestle with this because I hesitate to speak up, but I don’t want these children to hesitate one bit given the opportunity.

    Jesus’ love for us transforms us. We receive a “candy-gram of hope” from Jesus everyday because of His sacrifice on the cross. He stinking loved us so much He couldn’t not do something about it!

    I recently had a conversation with my little cousin and was baffled by the way that she honestly spoke about how she perceived God and church, and how that was challenged by what she was seeing in the lifestyles of her family and fellow church members. This made me think of how important demonstrating the love of Jesus is. The passages from the John’s seem to confirm that in helping express true Love (Jesus).

  2. Katie Barnes says:

    This is good stuff David! Something else that I’ve struggled with in middle school ministry is figuring out how to become a person who actively models Christ’s love, and not becoming someone that the students ‘love.’ I appreciate your insight!

  3. Calli – That’s great insight too. As Christians we hear about Jesus’ love so often, but our lives don’t truly reflect it. We receive it willingly, but are too selfish to share it. There are a lot of adult Christians (myself at times included) who act like the kid on the playground who won’t share his new toy with anyone else. I don’t think anything frustrates me more than passive Christians who are content to sit on the pews every Sunday and refuse to share the love they receive with anyone. I also agree that deep down our students want to have a more meaningful definiton and worldview of love. It’s as if they KNOW that love is more than a popularity contest, but they don’t know how else to explain it. We HAVE to help them see their role in the story of God. And as 1 John 4 says, God IS love.

    Katie – Man, isn’t that a tough balance, though? Everyone wants to feel loved, even us youth workers 🙂 But the WHY behind their “love” is so important. Do they “love” their leaders because they play fun games and joke around all the time, or because their attracted to a tangible example of Christ’s authentic selfless love? I’m challenged by the question of whether I selflessly love my middle school students the way that Christ loves them.

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