Archive for the ‘faith development’ Category

risky behavior by middle schoolersI once had a middle schooler in my small group, whom I will call Brad (not his real name). Brad would come to small group every week with a new story that shocked me. Now normally I tend to question the validity of the shocking stories that are told me weekly by some students, as most of them are designed to just get a reaction from me, but this student was different. Not only did he have a shocking story, but he had the wounds and scars to back it up. No, he wasn’t getting abused by anyone (unless you count himself as “anyone”). He was into BMX biking. He would take his bike everywhere and go off anything that could be a ramp or grind on anything that could be a pole. Everything was an opportunity for adventure to him… And most of those adventures resulted in bleeding legs, bruised faces, and scabbed arms. He was very proud of his “war-wounds,” but one week I just had to ask him, “Why do you keep doing those things if you always end up hurting yourself?!” He simply replied: “Life would be boring if I didn’t bike.”

I don’t know if you’re a parent or a youth worker, but regardless, I bet you have witnessed a lot of risk-taking behavior in your middle school students. It may be physical risk or emotional risk (e.g. middle school dating), but it’s risk nonetheless. Have you ever seen so much risk-taking in a student’s life that it started to drive you a little crazy? I know I have. But what I want to encourage you with today is that maybe… just maybe… it’s part of God’s design.

Brain development fascinates me. Specifically, development that affects the way I do ministry is what fascinates me. I learned very early on in ministry that during puberty, a person’s brain is still not fully developed. One of the biggest parts that has yet to grow is the frontal lobe. What is the frontal lobe responsible for? Oh, just a few important things – rationalizing, decision-making, responsibility, wisdom, empathizing, speculation, and so on. I think it’s safe to say that it’s kind of important.

So before you get frustrated at your student for not thinking properly, think about what’s happening in their brain. They may not be using the frontal lobe of their brain, which in turn makes it really hard to rationalize and think (or, speculate) about the consequences in the nearby future. I know this may still frustrate you, but remember that God created all things, and declared that what he created was in fact “good.” So bear with me for a moment while I attempt to expose the “good” that this can bring to our students.

Let’s do a case-study for a moment. Let’s say Brad in all of his non-frontal-lobe goodness decides to think about what he’s hearing at small group about the love and grace of Jesus and how God has a bigger plan for his life. He starts to think that giving his life to Jesus is a great idea. If his frontal lobe was in full use, he may begin to speculate what his friends may say if he becomes a Christian and give in to the fear that keeps him from making that decision. He may even begin to rationalize that he has a good thing going and doesn’t need God. You see, while the frontal lobe development is a GOOD thing, it can also hinder students from making a tough decision, including following Jesus. Maybe this has something to do with Jesus’ statement on the brain development of human beings: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18:3)

Mark Oestreicher (who blogs here) writes in his new book, “A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains“:

…Teenagers’ natural risk-taking behavior and lack of inhibitions and “good” decision-making is what allows them to discover the boundaries in the world. They’re able to step over the line in a way we normally wouldn’t, which helps them discover where the line actually exists (11).

Basically, the later-development of the frontal lobe helps students learn in ways we can’t teach them with our words. Their experiences guide them to deeper truths about life and free them up to make important identity decisions. As Marko later states in the book, “I see the creativity of God all over this” (12).

Oh, and you know Brad, the risky student I mentioned above? After a couple years of discipling him, he told me at a retreat that he wants to take his experience with bikes and turn it into a ministry where he provides bikes to villages in Africa to help them with transporting clean water (and teaching the kids to do tricks, I bet!). How cool is that?!

In what ways have you seen the risky-behavior of students be a positive thing instead of a negative thing?


Coming into my position as the Middle School Pastor, one of the things I knew I needed to do – for my own passion and sanity – was lead my own small group of guys. I love the large group teaching environment, casting vision, and developing programming. But where I really come alive, and where I really feel that I am discipling best, is within a small group of guys. It keeps me in tune with where our students are at and gives me the opportunity to pursue relational ministry (which isn’t easy with a MS youth group of 300).

And after leading middle school small groups for so long, I’ve learned that I’m still learning. So my idea was to create a weekly blog series where I re-cap my most recent small group with the 6th grade guys and talk through the creative and leadership lessons that I learned and that some of my readers might use. I was talking with one of our other 6th grade guy small group leaders who was so excited to be leading but also expressed how much he needed to learn. He was asking the other leaders for ideas on how to lead a 6th grade guys group. My hope is that this blog series will highlight my successes AND failures (there will be many of the latter, I’m sure) in order to give an idea or two to any middle school small group leader.

Each week I will have a few elements to each group re-cap:

  • Content: What was the big idea? What did we hope the guys would take-away from the group?
  • Creativity: What did we creatively do to get the guys talking? And more importantly, did it work?
  • Cool Moments: Were there any cool moments where God really moved? Often times we don’t stop long enough to celebrate the little moments where the Holy Spirit is present in our small groups.
  • Changes Needed: What do we need to change in the group dynamic to improve the experience in the future?

To help you understand our specific group, I am co-leading with a volunteer (Austin) who is a college sophomore at Asbury. As of right now, we have 9 sixth-grade boys. Four of them go to a Christian private school, and five go to public schools. It’s a good mix. For this first post, I am going to re-cap our first two weeks, since we’ve had two small groups already. (**As a side note, we call our small groups “Life Groups,” but for the sake of universal understanding, I will be calling them small groups in this series.)

Also, to protect the guys’ privacy, I won’t use real names when describing our discussions.

Week 1 and Week 2

Content: In the first two weeks we had two main goals – get to know the guys, and set the tone for what small group is all about. In week 1, we came up with expectations as a group (I included the picture to the right for you to enjoy!). In week 2, we talked about what it meant to be a community of guys. We focused on 1 Thessalonians 2:8 and the idea of “sharing our lives” with one another. I also gave the guys an opportunity to talk about what they wanted to learn about the most, as our small group leaders have a large set of curriculum (the Uncommon Junior High Group studies by Kara Powell) they can choose from with many different topics. The most popular were the Armor of God, Parents & Family, and Emotions & Dating. The last one was a little bit of a shocker for me with 6th grade guys!

Creativity: In week 1, I stole an idea I got from Rick Lawrence over at Group Publishing (thanks Rick!). I got a wide variety of objects like a rubber band, a crushed soda can, an empty cup, a domino, etc., and asked the guys to choose an object that best symbolized their experience in middle school so far. This gave the guys an opportunity to connect their abstract emotions with a concrete object they knew and understood (See my previous blog here for more on the middle school brain). The answers were amazing! Then I asked a second question: Choose an object that best describes your relationship with your family. Again, more incredible answers. And finally, I asked them to choose an object that best describes their relationship with God right now. One guy chose a crushed Coke can and said that his relationship used to be strong like a normal can but has recently felt weak and crushed like the one in his hand. WOW.

Cool Moments: The coolest moment for me was when the guy was sharing about his relationship with God with the crushed can. As he finished up sharing he began to tear up (Keep in mind this was our first ever meeting). Another guy in the group got up in that moment and went to him and put his arm around him in support. That was one of those moments in middle school ministry that I’ll never forget. Other guys also shared about some deep struggles they’re having with the pressure of school and family expectations. I love the trust factor we already have developed in the group.

Changes Needed: In week 2 my co-leader was absent due to some circumstances out of his control, and the guys came with a LOT of energy. At times it was very hard to get them serious about what we were doing. I’m sure it would have been easier with my co-leader, but even a middle school pastor can struggle with keeping order in the room sometimes! I think I need to take note of the success of the “objects” icebreaker I described above and develop other ways of having discussion around physical objects as opposed to just talking. I’m already thinking about how I can use play-doh and Legos (one of the guys came to small group WITH a pack of Legos – love this age group!) to have meaningful conversation. If you’ve done something like this before, by all means, pass on your creative ideas!

So that’s it! Whether you’re a parent or a small group leader or a pastor, let’s collaborate and swap ideas. We are better together than we are alone!

Don’t you just love when middle schoolers ask deep questions?

If one of my students asks a really good question during a youth group or small group function, my heart just lights up. Whether it has anything to do with the actual topic we’re talking about… well, I don’t really care! Whenever I see evidence of a thinking process happening, I feel validated as a youth worker. Two weeks ago in my middle school Life Group, one of my 7th grade guys asked this question: “If we believe in God, does that automatically mean we have to trust in God? Or does it come later as you grow in your faith?” Man, I just about jumped out of my seat in excitement!

I know it may seem like not a big deal, but to me, it is evidence of genuine faith development. What is your philosophy of faith development? We need to start with this question because if you don’t have a clear and research-based philosophy of faith development, you may end up being very frustrated with middle school ministry or with parenting middle schoolers.

This really smart guy named James Fowler created a stage-theory of faith development after his extensive research in the field. He found that generally 12-18 year olds are in a stage called “Synthetic-Conventional Faith.” What does this mean? The “synthetic” description means that these particular kids haven’t truly authenticated their faith; it can be very fake, like synthetical material. I don’t think Fowler’s intention was the demean the faith that these students have. Rather, I think he was alluding to the fact that many of these students haven’t gone through trial or some trauma that makes them reflect on the faith that they claim. Often it takes an event, a broken relationship, a painful experience, or a debate in class to force these students to examine what they truly believe and why they believe it.

The “conventional” description means that these kids look to the convention of trusted people around them to determine what they should believe. In other words, they will look to their parents, teachers, youth pastors, and yes, especially their closest friends, to tell them what they should believe. It’s a highly dependent stage, though many do not realize they are doing this. They want to feel like they are part of the majority if they are still in this stage. So instead of doing their own exploration or discovery, they will ask someone in the “convention” to tell them what to think, not how to think.

Fowler also said that many people never graduate from this stage, and in fact, we have many adults who are still here! Sitting in our congregations we have many people who haven’t truly examined their own faith and simply wait for the pastor to tell them what to think about a certain topic. Is this the kind of faith Paul prayed for in Ephesians 1:17-19, which says,

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.

Something about those verses makes me think that synthetic-conventional faith is not the kind of faith that Paul had in mind…

So how do we help our students move past this stage to the next stage of faith (Individuative-Reflective)? I have just a few ideas:

  1. Encourage question-asking. If a student doesn’t fully agree with whatever you’re saying, allow them to do so! But then encourage them to explain their thinking and dig deeper to see if there is any life experience that is dictating that belief. Allow them to discover any flaws in their thinking by themselves, and it will actually take root in their mind.
  2. When students ask questions in group settings, allow other students to answer. My biggest temptation in ministry is to answer big theological questions with all the education I received from my Bible and theology classes in college. But the problem with this is that I would just be continuing the trend of “conventional” faith by being the answer-guy. Answer-guys don’t build deeper faith; they’re just glorified versions of Google. Allow other students to attempt answering their questions! This will not only be beneficial for the original student, but for the answering students as well. It is a safe place to explore and communicate doubts. Now, occasionally the question will be so deep and theologically complex that no one really knows how to answer. In this case, explain the answer by asking more questions. And if all else fails, the last resort is to answer the question yourself. But make sure it’s the last resort!
  3. Always ask the question, “Why?” When I’m leading a small group, and a student gives a good Sunday-school type answer, I love asking them, “Why do  you believe that?” or “Where in the Bible does it say that?” These two questions can be instrumental in forcing them to examine their own faith. I led a group of middle school guys for four years (when we ended the group, they were in high school), and I asked those questions so much, they started to ask each other the same questions before I could even ask them! They learned not to give cheap answers and started examining their own faith.

What would you add to this list? Have you found any good methods for helping our students move to the next stage of faith?

Whether you’re a youth pastor, a volunteer, a teacher, or a parent, you know that investing in middle school students can be a difficult experience at times. It’s not always hard, and it shouldn’t be, but there are times when everyone wonders, “Is this worth it? Am I making a difference?” I go back to those questions at least a couple times per year. Only by the grace and power of God do I persevere and remember this important truth:

I am a seed planter.

When I meet with a small group of middle school students and teach them the truth from Matthew 5:11, does every student go to school the next morning and seek to be persecuted because God will bless them if they are insulted for His name? No! (But wouldn’t that be cool?!) I have to lay the foundation before truths start to translate into action and fruit in their lives. Listen to this quote from Eugene Peterson, who writes of pastoral work within his congregation:

“The person…who looks for quick results in the seed planting of well-doing will be disappointed. If I want potatoes for dinner tomorrow, it will do me little good to go out and plant potatoes in my garden tonight. There are long stretches of darkness and invisibility and silence that separate planting and reaping. During the stretches of waiting there is cultivating and weeding and nurturing and planting still other seeds.” (Traveling Light)

We need to remember our roles in middle school ministry as seed planters. It is easy to get frustrated and question our effectiveness when we see little change. But reflect on what Peterson says in the quote… If we want potatoes for dinner tomorrow, it doesn’t do us any good to plant the potatoes tonight! Of course, as Americans we start to think about the other option to just go buy potatoes at the grocery store, but that’s not how the Holy Spirit works. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but the norm in our kind of ministry is of long waiting and often long suffering. So you have to choose if you’re willing to be faithful in the ministry of seed-planting: watering, nurturing, weeding, planting new seeds… It’s not easy business. But trust in the Lord and His work – It’s not about ME or YOU, but only about HIM.

Some people have asked me how I measure success in middle school ministry. I always tell them, “Ask me again in 10 years.” I know that for many of the students I have been in contact with over my years in middle school ministry, the change won’t happen until later in their lives. Now, that doesn’t excuse us from teaching, exhorting, and even rebuking sin in their lives today, but it does release us from expecting results immediately. One of my favorite things in ministry is when one of my former students contacts me and tells me about the Kingdom-things they are doing in the name of Jesus now in college or even in high school. Just recently I’ve been inspired by a former student of mine named Karly, who courageously faces a difficult immunodeficiency called Dock-8 everyday and still gives praise to God. She writes a blog for others to see for themselves how she maintains her faith in Christ. You can see that here:

The truth is that one day we might even learn from our own students if we give them the time to grow in the knowledge and love of Christ. Be patient. Love deeply. Trust in the Lord.

How do you plant, water, nurture, weed, and plant again with the students in your influence?

“If everything has been created or made by someone else, doesn’t that mean God had to have been created by someone else?”

 This question did not come from one of my theology classes in college. It didn’t happen in a conversation with an atheist. It didn’t even come from anyone over the age of 14. In fact, it came from a 6th grade boy named Levi two weeks ago during one of our middle school services.

 Had I been new to middle school ministry, I might have been shocked by his inquisitive curiosity. However, after years of working with this age group, I have come to expect this type of question as the norm instead of the exception. There is a unique dynamic that affects the early adolescent’s view of faith and Christianity. Today we are going to tackle the topic of faith development in middle schoolers and talk through some really insightful research that shapes our understanding of how our kids develop faith at this age.

 If you ever believed in Santa Claus, I assume there was a point in your life when you came to the realization that it was all make-believe. (If you never experienced that point, well, that’ll have to wait for another blog someday!). You had been told stories of this big, jolly guy who flew around the world every Christmas and freely gave presents to all the good boys and girls. Your mind danced with excitement as you thought about the kinds of gifts you might get at the next Christmas. But then your older sibling spoiled it all one day when she told you that he wasn’t real and there was no such thing as a Santa Claus.

Now I never believed in Santa Claus myself, but I imagine that it was a difficult day when you found out that it was all make-believe. You realized that the rest of the world and all the adults in your life knew it wasn’t true, and you were just now getting to know the truth. You were introduced to what the convention of people believe (and you were probably anxious to spoil the myth for your own younger siblings when the time was right, too!). The story was no longer plausible as an actual belief system; your childhood worldview was instantly changed.

 Middle school students go through a similar experience as they enter puberty. They’ve been told numerous stories about some guy named Jesus and the people in the Bible who claimed to follow Him. But as their brains begin to grasp more abstract concepts of faith, the stories are no longer sufficient for them to base their faith on. They’re interested in finding out what the convention of people really believe about God. The great thing for us is that the story of Jesus Christ is not a myth, and we really can commit our lives to following Him!

 James Fowler is a researcher who developed a stage-theory of faith development. Building off of other researchers like Piaget, Erikson, and Kohlberg, Fowler identified six stages a person will go through as they develop a personal faith. Not every person will successfully advance to the next stage unless certain internal criteria are met, but there are certain elements of his research that have giant implications for our ministry with middle school students. Here is a brief synopsis of the stages:

  1. Primal or Undifferentiated Faith (ages 0-3)
    • The child develops faith based on the trust he experiences with his caregivers. “When I cry, does my caregiver come and comfort me?”
  2. Intuitive/Projective Faith (ages 3-7)
    • Imagination begins to develop and the child is able to make constant discoveries about his world and experience.
  3. Mythic/Literal Faith (ages 7-11)
    • Children have a hard time differentiating between real and make-believe.
    • Reliance on stories and authority figures for understanding
  4. Synthetic-Conventional Faith (ages 12-18)
    • Adolescents look to what the popular convention of people believe
    • Highly relational stage; teens will form beliefs based upon what respected role models believe
    • There is a danger in that students will not wrestle as much internally with their beliefs as long as their peers and respected adults have the same beliefs.
  5. Individuative/Reflective Faith (ages 18-30)
    • Person begins to internalize and create a personal belief system
    • The question “Why?” is constantly internally asked by the person about the unique beliefs in his worldview.
  6. Conjunctive Faith (ages 30-40)
    • Paradox is accepted as an essential part of truth.
    • “Truth is seen as more complex, ambiguous, and multidimensioned in this stage” (Yount 126).
  7. Universalizing Faith (ages 40+)
    • “There is an emptying of self, a giving up of power in response to the radical love of God” (Yount 127).

The ages listed next to each stage are general ages that the shift happens. Obviously there is no hard line that cuts off a person from moving to the next stage. And, as mentioned before, not every person will advance to the next stage of faith. Often adults are stuck in the stage of Synthetic-Conventional Faith because they have never challenged their internally held beliefs.

For our purposes we will focus on the Synthetic-Conventional Faith stage because this is primarily the stage our middle school students are moving into. It is not a coincidence that the shift happens at the time of puberty either. With the development of higher cognitive abilities, students are wrestling with the faith that they supposedly commit themselves to.

The word conventional refers to the idea that students will look for what the “convention” of people believe and follow. In other words, their social relationships with others will shape their faith development. Fowler says this of Synthetic-Conventional Faith:

…[Synthetic-Conventional Faith] results in people becoming temporarily or permanently dependent upon “significant others” for the construction and maintenance of their sense of identity, and for sanctioning the beliefs, values, and action guidelines by which they shape a way of moving into and taking hold of life. Stage 3 [synthetic-conventional faith] is a “conformist” stage in the sense that it is acutely tuned to the expectations and judgments of others…(60-61).

 Middle school youth workers and parents must recognize the most powerful influencer of a student’s faith development: relationships. In her book Teenage Girls, Ginny Olson notes that students will care more about who will be at a youth event than about what is going on at the event (205). Early adolescents like having their identity and faith affirmed by both peers and adults. 

 Additionally, students are eager to learn what the convention of Christians believe about certain issues. This is exactly why Levi, the student mentioned at the beginning of this blog, asked that particular question. He’s wrestling with potential inconsistencies so that he can better understand what Christians believe. I made sure to follow up with Levi during that week, and we had a stimulating conversation about deep theological questions that scholars still wrestle with today!

This is why I tell our volunteers that as we teach students in small groups and large group settings, we must constantly define our terms. Sometimes we use words like worship, fellowship, baptism, etc., as if our students know exactly what we mean. However, if we understand the stages of faith development, we’ll remember that they are in dire need of explanation of our beliefs.

This Sunday we are launching our fall series called, “Back to the Basics.” We are starting with the question, “Why Church?” We’ll be asking hard questions such as, “why do we go to church, what’s the point, what is the purpose behind gathering together every week?” The whole idea behind this is that students want to understand this. They want to know why we do the things we do.

This is also why we have the students learn in community with other students and caring adults. The relationships they experience with other students and with adult role models will affirm their Christian beliefs and give them positive feedback. It is absolutely critical for students in the Synthetic-Conventional stage of faith to have Christian friends and role models inside and outside their families.

If you really think about it, Jesus had a very relational approach to ministry too. He talked individually with the disciples and affirmed their beliefs (and rebuked their mis-guided beliefs when necessary). He didn’t just tell them what to believe; he explained why they should believe it. He pointed to the Old Testament to show why they could believe that he was the Messiah. He entered into relationship and shared in their suffering to affirm their beliefs.

My challenge to you is two-fold. First, make sure YOU know why you believe what you believe. Wrestle with difficult issues. Dive into the Word to discover the biblical basis for your beliefs. Secondly, ask the middle school students under your influence tough questions about why they believe certain things. Get them thinking. Ask questions like, “Why do you think we use music to worship on Sundays,” or, “What does the Bible say about other religions? Could they be true too?” Always point them to the Bible to discover truth.

How have you seen your students progress through the stages of faith? Do they seem hung up in one of the stages? Are they progressing? Where do you think YOU are on the stages of faith? Can you look back on certain moments in your faith journey and see how and why you progressed to the next stage?

Here are some of the sources used in this blog:

Yount, William R. Created to Learn. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996. Print.

Olson, Ginny. Teenage Girls: Exploring Issues Adolescent Girls Face and Strategies to Help Them. Grand Rapids: Zondervan/Youth Specialties, 2006. Print.

Fowler, Jim. “Life/Faith Patterns: Structures of Trust & Loyalty.” Life Maps: Conversations on the Journey of Faith. Ed. Jerome Berryman. Waco: Word, 1978. Print.