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In January we did a teaching series on identity called “I Am.” For the 3rd week of the series, we talked about how being a follower of Christ means you are changed and different than the culture around you. To make the point a little more relevant, we did a teaching video of me speaking from a local middle school here in Lexington. We know that schools are where a lot of identity decisions are made, so we wanted students to connect the idea of being changed to their local school. Here is that teaching video:

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?

Back to Blogging!

Posted: February 9, 2011 in Uncategorized

Hey everyone! I just wanted to let you know that I’ll be blogging again more frequently. I couldn’t keep up the frequency at which I was blogging last year and needed to take a break. But I absolutely love this age group and have been collecting thoughts to write about this year. If there’s a topic you’d like to see discussed, please leave a comment here or e-mail me at david_hausknecht@vanguardchurch.org. I’m always amazed by the vocal comments I receive in person and wish that these comments were included on the actual blog to stimulate more discussion. Whether you’re a middle school pastor, a parent, a teacher, or a student, you have input that we can all benefit from. So don’t hesitate to voice your opinions! I’m looking forward to more interaction with you all.

As one final note, I’d like to share a resource with you that I have found very helpful in my ministry with teenagers: CPYU.org. CPYU stands for the “Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.” It is tailored specifically with parents in mind and does a lot of current media research and reporting. For example, it can be very helpful for those of you who don’t have the time to watch a movie before telling your student if they can watch it or not. I encourage you to check out their website and browse around!

I pray that you will love your middle school student(s) authentically and that your integrity always be greater than your influence. God, give us patience and grace and help us to love our middle schoolers into a REAL relationship with you. Amen!

I played a lot of baseball as a kid. Inevitably from time to time someone would hit the ball over a fence into a neighbor’s yard, and I would always volunteer to go get it. Why? For some reason, I loved climbing fences. I felt it was a worthy challenge for a kid like me, and I’d always look for an opportunity to climb a fence higher than the last one I climbed. It was always a struggle at first – looking for good places to put my feet, using little cracks to wedge my hand into, protecting myself from the occasionally sharp-tipped fence. Eventually I would manage to get most of my body on top of the fence, and what a feeling that was! Being so high up I was teetering on the edge of excitement and danger, as any wrong move could leave me falling to the ground and drastically hurting myself. A good move and a good jump would lead me successfully to my desired location on the other side of the fence; a bad move and a bad jump would lead me back to mom’s medicine cabinet looking for bandages. The awkward feeling of balancing on the fence was a necessary step to completing my objective in retrieving the ball. At one point half of my body would be on the side with the ball, and the other half of my body would still be on the side I came from.

Now think back to your years in middle school… Did it ever feel like you were teetering on the edge of excitement and potential danger as you traveled through puberty? Did you ever feel as vulnerable as you might feel while balancing on the top of a fence? Did it ever feel like half of the time you were becoming an adult (and wanted to be treated like one) while half of the time you still felt like a child, even desiring childish games and experiences? Moving from childhood to adulthood isn’t much different than climbing a fence.

Think about it. On one side of the fence is your childhood, and you find yourself there as an 11-year-old. You know you have to get to the “other side” and adulthood; in fact, you’d like nothing more than being treated like an adult! But there’s this intimidating fence separating you from your destination. For the sake of the analogy, we’ll call this fence: PUBERTY. There’s no going around this fence. You have to climb it, as awkward as it might feel. And at one point, once you reach the top, you’ll try to balance yourself. Half of your body will be on the original side (childhood) and the other half of your body will be on the new side (adulthood). The jump from the top of the fence is a little scary, and at one point you’ll wish that someone was there at the bottom ready to catch you or at least support you as you make the leap. But you eventually have to jump and land on the new side (adulthood) and how great it will feel!

Most middle schoolers, I would say, are somewhere along this process of climbing and sitting on the fence. They have adulthood in view, but they’re not ready to jump. They’re in what middle school ministry veteran Mark Oestreicher calls the “overlapping transition.”

The reason middle school is such a blackhole of ministry for a lot of churches and parents is because not a lot of people understand this age. Are these students kids? Or do we treat them like adults? We see glimpses of both, but it’s so confusing that we often just hope to get the students through this time as quickly as possible so we can “fix” them in high school. Instead of being proactive, we become reactive. This, I believe, is a massive mistake.

We have to understand that middle schoolers are in a unique phase of life. There are moments when one of our kids will be on top of the fence, with one foot in childhood and another in adulthood. I saw this demonstrated by one of my old youth group students in Indiana. This 8th grade girl posted this as her Facebook status (preserved in its unique middle school girl style):

“Sooo excited for a romantic dinner and movie with my loving boyfriend tonight! Then later tonight GLO-IN-THE-DARK mini-golf with my bff’s. Love u gurls!”

The first sentence demonstrates her new appreciation for what feels like a committed, loving, dating relationship that she has probably learned through observation of symbolic role models (those people whom she does not know personally) and exemplary models (those people whom she does know personally). The second sentence demonstrates her desire to hold on to the child-play with her friends (her “bff’s”) that she’s enjoyed for the first 13 years of her life. She doesn’t really want to commit completely to either side of the spectrum, childhood or adulthood. She likes having one foot on either side of the fence.

There isn’t a problem here that needs fixing; rather, what this girl needs is committed older women who will walk alongside of her during this tumultuous journey of middle school. She needs godly examples who will teach her what it looks like to be a woman, but who will also give her the grace to enjoy what remains of her childhood as well. We shouldn’t try to force a student out of her childhood; how does that communicate the love of Christ? Her childhood joys were given to her by God, and so often we interpret these childhood desires as “immaturity.” When we do this, we fail to understand where our students are at developmentally.

What is needed to effectively reach middle school students in the overlapping transition? Here a couple practical ideas:

  1. Patience. We have to be able to stop ourselves from being frustrated at what looks like immaturity in our students. The fact of the matter is that one week you’ll see adult-Jane, who acts responsibily and responds intelligently to your questions, and then next week you’ll see child-Jane, who pulls her brother’s hair and mumbles responses to your questions. There will be back-and-forth changes from childhood and adulthood during early adolescence and puberty. I’m sure Jesus would smile at these changes with patience instead of being frustrated.
  2. Protection. We have to protect our students from teasing that can often be very brutal. I’d like to say that only their peers will tease them, but too often a youth worker or another adult will slip a comment in about how the student shouldn’t be playing with dolls or Lego’s still. This is highly detrimental to our positive influence on kids. Every comment made to a middle school student can either make or break their day. We must protect them from teasing, whether it comes from other students or from ourselves.
  3. Processing (and role models who will help them do so!). Many students will make decisions everyday without ever thinking twice about them. They will continue to do so throughout adolescence if we don’t intentionally help them process the decisions they make. When a student is visibly upset, use discernment and ask them to walk you through the reasons for their anger. Just this past week, I was in this exact situation. A student got really upset during a group activity and walked off frustrated. I caught up with him and asked him probing questions about why he felt the way he did. I didn’t feed him answers; I let him discover himself, in a way. We have to be willing to walk alongside students during this overlapping transition and give them examples of what it feels and looks like to be an adult.

We have to be incarnational with middle school students to understand where they are on the fence. Are they just starting the climb? Are they sitting at the top? Are they on their way down? Only relationship can give you these answers. Jesus came to our level when he became man because there was no other way for God to understand our suffering. He entered into relationship with us by becoming one of us and taught us how to truly love God as human beings. So should we follow his example as we reach out to our students!

Some questions for discussion: Have you seen the overlapping transition in one of your middle school students? Was there ever a moment when you saw your student awkwardly balancing on top of the fence between adulthood and childhood? Are there moments from your middle school years during which you struggled between being a child and being an adult? How did you handle it?

Why Middle School?

Posted: August 3, 2010 in Uncategorized

I get this question all the time: “Why middle school?” Usually the person has some kind of smirk to indicate that underneath they’re really thinking, “Why in the world would someone like you willingly engage the craziest, most unpredictable, and often worst-smelling age group out of all the other congenial, predictable, and un-problematic age groups?” And honestly, I don’t blame them for asking, either. That is, I don’t blame them if they’ve never had the privilege of working with this beautiful demographic.

There was a point in my life that I would have laughed in your face if you told me that I would be ministering full-time with 11-14 year olds. But now I would probably laugh if you told me I should move on to a different age. Why? Because I have learned that the middle school age is one of the best opportunities to reach a person for Christ. Ever since that first night my freshman year of college when I volunteered to help out in the middle school ministry in Indiana, I have seen the power of investment in students. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into that night, but one small group session with the 8th grade guys, and I was sold on this ministry. I could never see myself anywhere else. Middle school ministry is my passion and calling.

Let’s get into some specifics of why I love this age group and why the church must invest in this group as well. The age range of 11-14 is the second most pivotal developmental stage in a person’s life, second only to the age range of 0-2. Psychologist Erik Erikson writes that in adolescence, “The individual begins to see himself as having a past and a future that are exclusively his. Early adolescence is thus a pivotal time of review and anticipation” (qtd. in W. Rice 20). One way to understand the life cycles of belief and value development is demonstrated in Figure 1:

Cycle One

Cycle Two

Age 0-4          Discovery                               Age 12-14          Discovery
Age 5-8          Testing Out Age 15-17          Testing Out
Age 9-12        Concluding Age 18+              Concluding
Figure 1 (adapted from W. Rice, Junior High Ministry 23)

Just as childhood comes to a close and conclusions have been made about beliefs and values, new discovery is taking place. The middle schooler is learning that he or she is a unique person whose faith is not determined simply by his or her upbringing, but by his or her own personal assent, that is, the student’s new abstract intellectual abilities, and autonomous decision-making as well. Parents and youth workers within the church must come alongside early adolescents and help normalize their experience with the stability that comes from the never-changing love of Jesus Christ.

Additionally, statistics show that 86% of Christians committed their lives to Christ before the age of 15 (International Bulletin of Ministry Research). Now, does this necessarily mean it’ll happen in middle school? No, of course not. Children’s ministry is equally vital to the faith development of our students. But as new discovery takes place as puberty hits, middle schoolers make decisions that will govern the rest of their lives. Because of this opportunity, parents and the church must partner together to teach the gospel to early adolescents to combat the competing secular worldviews.

There is so much more to it too! But that will have to wait for another blog post. My purpose in creating this blog is two-fold:

  1.  To generate discussion between parents and middle school youth workers about how to most effectively reach our middle school students and
  2. To provide easily accessible resources to understand early adolescent development.

Often youth ministry is only talked about between youth pastors and volunteers, and parents are hardly involved. But our kids have been entrusted first to the ministry of the parents, and then to our middle school ministries. The church and parents must join together in the conversation to increase our effectiveness at drawing students to the foot of the cross, the ultimate purpose behind what we do. Also, there is a plethora of research that has been conducted on the 11-14 age group. The problem is that not many people have dedicated extra time to find and read these resources. My goal is to take these resources and to condense them into easily-readable and understandable blog posts that will help both the middle school youth worker and the parent. It’s only in understanding adolescent development that we begin to understand our audience – the number one rule in public speaking.

I’m very excited about this blog, and I want to encourage a lot of discussion! Let iron sharpen iron as we reach our students for Christ!