Archive for the ‘learning’ Category

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!


Think back on the last three conversations you had with middle schoolers. How would you characterize those conversations? Were you relaying information, trying to persuade, or building personal relationships?

In his book the “Contemplative Pastor,” Eugene Peterson notes that there are three types of language he uses in running a church:

  1. Descriptive Language – This language informs the listener of ideas or content. Peterson says that descriptive language is about, or in other words, it names what is there. It expresses reality. He rightly notes that schools specialize in this language.
  2. Motivational Language – This language seeks to persuade or convince the listener to do or think something. This language is for, or in other words, it “uses words to get things done,” as Peterson explains. It is generally used to get someone to do something that they wouldn’t do on their own initiative.
  3. Personal Language – This language is the language of relationship. It connects the speaker with the listener. This language is to and with. Words are used to bring two people closer and more connected.

The interesting revelation that Peterson expresses is that churches specialize in the first two types of language – descriptive and motivational – while the third type of personal language is strangely absent. I have to say that I couldn’t agree with Peterson more, and here’s why:

Personal language opens and reveals our scarred hearts. 

Unless you have a steady discipline of vulnerable conversation in your life with trusted friends and family, the likelihood is that you will be very uncomfortable with personal language in ministry, and especially with middle schoolers. But what is the language of prayer? What is the language of the love of Christ? It is not descriptive or motivational, but personal. Yes, we need to teach and explain prayer and love, but how will our kids ever experience the depths of God’s grace if they are not loved into the kind of relationship that speaks in a personal language!

I know my tendency as a pastor/teacher. I am apt to explain a passage, exegeting and picking apart each verse to reveal the correct interpretation and application of the words of God. I am apt to artfully combine words to persuade kids to feel the need to change in their lives according to the words of Scripture. But do I naturally express my own personal love language with God? Do I naturally lead students in such a way as to build the relationship between them and God? Do I pray in such a way in front of students that models my inward personal connection to Jesus? Unfortunately for me, the answer is no. But I am working on it!

In the book Sticky Faith by Kara Powell and Brad Griffin, they revealed findings from their research that showed a conspicuous absence of prayer in the lives of college students after they graduate from our youth ministries. They said that “Less than half of the surveyed students said they prayed daily, and only 83 percent claimed to pray at least once a week” (143). Seriously?! While that number might seem promising, it still isn’t where it should be. Why is this the case? I think kids are unaware of the relational depth that prayer can bring to their lives because it was never modeled for them.

We need to train ourselves, youth pastors, parents, and our small group leaders to specialize in all three types of language. We need to equip those who lead our middle schoolers not just to communicate information, not just persuade students to make changes/do something, but also to model personal language that seeks to build relationship. How can we expect our students to have a dynamic, honest, vulnerable relationship with their Father if we never use that language in front of them?

Most of us are good at the descriptive and motivational languages. Not many are good at the personal language. How are you balancing the three types? Do you tend to lean towards one type of language more than the others? What can we do to bring more personal language into our families and churches?

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?

First of all, let me apologize for my hiatus from the blog. I really only like to write when I feel passionate about a particular topic, as opposed to simply writing my thoughts just because I feel like doing so. Lately my mind has been buzzing with new thoughts surrounding middle school ministry, so I’d like to re-start the conversation!

Today I want to talk about something called the “Explicit, Hidden, and Null Curriculum.” Now before I lose you because of the boring nature of the blog’s subject today, I think this topic is of extreme importance for anyone who interacts with teenagers, especially middle schoolers! But first, an example.

Let’s say “Youth Leader Bob” is leading a small group with five 7th grade boys on the topic of self-control. Throughout the discussion, Bob has the guys look at different Bible verses on self-control and explains, “Once a Christian grows closer to Jesus, the Christian will naturally have more self-control in areas of temptation in his or her life.” When they talk about specific ways to apply what they’ve learned that week, they talk about having self-control with their anger when their siblings annoy them, having self-control to do their homework instead of play video games, and having self-control with the words that they speak. They pray and then dismiss.

At first glance, this would be a good small group, don’t you think? They talked about a relevant topic for middle schoolers, read what Scripture has to say on the topic, and discussed ways to apply what they learned. This is a very glass-half-full approach to ministry. In other words, we look at what they did talk about, but we hardly look at what they didn’t talk about.

Whenever we started talking about teaching and learning strategies in my Christian education classes in college, the topic of curriculum would always come up. (And I’m not talking about the pre-made small group books you can buy). There are basically three types of “curriculum” in teaching:

1)      EXPLICIT CURRICULUM: This is what you are overtly teaching your students. In the example above, Bob explicitly taught his students that, “Once a Christian grows closer to Jesus, the Christian will naturally have more self-control in areas of temptation in his or her life.” Think of the “explicit curriculum” as the very blatant and obvious teaching points that you make.

2)      HIDDEN CURRICULUM: This is what you teach in subtle ways that aren’t always open and obvious. The hidden curriculum can come from the overarching principles of your teaching methodology or even the way you set up a room. For example, if you set up your youth room with hard chairs in straight rows facing the podium, the “hidden curriculum” you are teaching is that youth group is a place to come, sit down, and listen to a lecturer from the front. Your set-up makes it clear in subtle ways that it is not a place for discussion. In the example of Bob the Youth Leader, the hidden curriculum was that if students were not succeeding in the area of self control, it was because they were not close to Jesus. (Read the exact the words he said if you’re unsure how this came to be). Do you see how the way we say certain things can promote a hidden curriculum that (sometimes) we may not even intend to do so?

3)      NULL CURRICULUM: This is what you do not teach or mention in discussion. It’s what you decide – intentionally or unintentionally – not to teach. It’s a very simple thing. But it’s also a dangerous thing as well. In the example of Bob the Youth Leader, one part (out of many) of the null curriculum was the area of sexual temptation. Bob did not mention anything about how Jesus and self-control help the guys to fight the temptation of lust or pornography. By NOT teaching about the arena of sexual self-control, Bob taught the students that sex is simply not an appropriate topic to discuss in small group with other guys.

I think that so often we as youth workers and parents have our agenda on what we think the students ought to learn or think about. But how often do we stop and ask ourselves, “What are the hidden messages we’re sending our students? What are we NOT teaching?” Honestly, I believe these two questions are equally (if not more) important than the original question about what we ARE teaching.

And this doesn’t just apply to our formal teaching times or discussions with our kids in the car on the way home from school. There’s that old adage that most learning is caught, not taught. There is hidden and null curriculum in the way we teaching with our examples and lives. For example, when kids walk into the Hive youth group, they might see our male and female leaders talking and laughing with each other in respectful ways. The hidden curriculum we’re teaching our students is that guys and girls can interact with each other in respectful and friendly ways without any hidden motives.

Another example might be at dinner in the home one night. Mom gets a call from a friend who is struggling through a situation at work. Mom listens, speaks kind words, encourages this other woman, and then hangs up. After Mom hangs up, she starts complaining about how needy this other woman is, how Mom has enough things to think about without this woman’s problems, and so forth. The hidden curriculum that Mom is teaching her child is that it’s okay to act kindly to someone’s face and then turn around and gossip about them when they’re not listening anymore.

Our words and our actions contain all three curricula: explicit, hidden, and null. What do are you intentionally doing to make sure that your message lines up across all three lines? How do you as a youth worker or parent make sure your hidden and null curriculum are not working in opposition to your explicit curriculum?