Archive for the ‘physical 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?



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?