Posts Tagged ‘middle school ministry’

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:


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?



I received the above comment yesterday on our middle school ministry Instagram account, and it made my day. Why? Because I spend time every week trying to think of the next “crazy thing” we could do in our weekend services that could help create an environment where unchurched students feel comfortable. This past weekend it was called the “Impossible Shot,” where one-by-one students had one chance to throw a roll of toilet paper from the stage through the toilet seat (hooked to the end of a pole) in the back of the room. I strongly believe that having fun is integral to the discipleship process in middle school ministry because it brings down walls (and I’m not just talking about the literal church walls that end up with holes in them…). This comment reminded me that everything speaks in our ministry… So whether you are a youth pastor, a volunteer small group leader, or even a parent – remember that having fun with your middle school students creates memories and environments that they will want to return to and ultimately hear more about Jesus.

What’s the latest “fun” thing you’ve done with students? What fun element are you particularly proud of from your experience?

I don’t think it’s any mistake that I have been reading (and watching) the “Hobbit” while we as a church have been launching our 3rd campus. It’s hard not to see all the similarities. There have been times of uncertainty; times of anticipation; times of blind faith; times of re-mapping our course. There have been unlikely heroes and a few occasional dragons along the way. But we finally made it this past weekend!

For those of you who are unaware, our church, Southland Christian Church, bought a run-down mall property in Lexington, KY, about 20-25 minutes from the main campus (although we try not to say “main” campus, as that encourages a ranking system of every site when each one is very much equal). Over the course of a couple years, it has been renovated into a great building with lots of room for people. Over the course of the opening weekend, around 4,700 people attended a service at the new campus. We were blown away! The best part about it was meeting people who don’t have a church home and were just coming to check it out because it looked interesting. We want to multiply the kingdom, not add and subtract from other churches.

RR Launch-WorshipWe also launched LIFT, the middle school ministry of Southland, at the new campus during the opening weekend. We have yet to hire a Student Director for that campus, so for the time-being I have been overseeing the middle school ministry at two campuses. (Our third campus in Danville has been going strong in middle school ministry under Scott Hatfield’s leadership!). It has been a tall task to try to prepare for a large ministry launch while also building another one, but I loved the challenge. We have a great student ministry team that has poured so much time and energy into the student ministry room and the programming.

When we opened the doors on Sunday, we had more than double the amount of middle schoolers than we anticipated. We actually ran out of chairs! We were throwing couches and random seats in the back row to fit more students. It was a great problem to have. When thinking about middle schoolers and the launch of a new ministry, here are a few things I have reflected on this past week:

  1. If the adults are excited about it, the middle schoolers will be excited about it. With so much energy coming from the stage in the main service, along with our incredible volunteer launch team talking about it everywhere, students expected to be blown away when they came to LIFT at the Richmond Road new campus. They were excited before ever setting foot in the programming because we had earned their trust and excitement in other arenas. Don’t neglect or ignore the power of your staff’s and volunteers’ excitement with middle schoolers.
  2. Sneak-Peeks are gold. The week before the launch we had an open-house at the new campus for anyone to walk through and get a tour of the facilities. When they came to the student ministry room, we had music blasting, games were being played, volunteers were welcoming, and so forth. Additionally, we made an Instagram account (@LIFTRR) and put up some “sneak-peek” pictures that got students really excited.
  3. Activities and games in the room are a must-have. For a middle school guy to walk into a room and feel comfortable, he needs to have an activity to join. At that age guys are not comfortable walking into a room where there are only couches and RR Launchchairs. That’s incredibly intimidating. Encourage conversation with leaders by centering it around activities. In the new student ministry space we have foosball, an arcade basketball game, air-hockey, 4-square, and 9-Square-in-the-Air (which is by far the biggest student favorite!). Eventually we’ll have carpet ball and gaga ball as well.

I’m sure we have a lot to learn still, but these are a few lessons I will take with me for future new ministry launches. There are a lot of questions to be answered, but with the right volunteers and high energy, you can create an environment that’s attractive so middle schoolers can come and encounter Jesus in worship. Remember, the room isn’t the end; it’s only the means to an end.

(If you’re interested in how our children’s ministry is handling the launch of the new campus, check out Jason Byerly’s blog at

What would you add to that list? What are some must-haves for middle school students?

As promised, here is a weekly re-cap of my 6th grade small group. For a little bit of context, I lead over the whole middle school ministry at Southland Christian Church, but I have a huge heart for discipleship and investing in a few. So I have taken on a squirrely group of 6th grade boys with my co-leader Austin, and here is what went down last night:

Content: Last night we started the curriculum we will be working through for the first part of the school year. In the past I have written most of my own curriculum, but I have been thoroughly impressed with the Uncommon Junior High Group Study curriculum edited by Kara Powell. So we are using her Armor of God study for junior highers. I let the guys decide which book we would study, and I have to admit I wasn’t super excited about their choice. BUT after looking through it, I think the concrete language of armor will resonate with the guys’ 6th grade minds (and touch on the “manly man” theme). The first six weeks are the “Defensive Armor” listed of course in Ephesians 6:10-18. The first topic was the “Belt of Truth.” The big idea/takeaway for the guys was that the best defense against spiritual darkness is a clear understanding of what God says about himself, Jesus, salvation and life. It was a pretty abstract concept for 6th grade boys who have yet to gain the abstract learning capacity from puberty; however, this curriculum does a fantastic job of understanding developmental issues for this age group. As the night went on, we really seemed to come back to the mantra of “when in doubt about what’s true, go to the Word of God.”

Creativity: In line with the “belt of TRUTH” theme, we started with the classic icebreaker “Two Truths and a Lie.” Not only did we get to know some interesting facts about the guys. (Sidenote: One of them proudly told the group he has 3 girlfriends, but he decided to break up with two of them yesterday. Celebrate little victories, right?). We had planned another activity mid-lesson where the guys would answer true/false questions about TRUTHS by moving to the right or left side of the room (in order to get their whole body involved in the process), but they were so focused and excited about the biblical content that we didn’t need to. As a tangible takeaway for the night, I bought a belt from Goodwill for $1.50 and used a knife to carve in the words “Belt of Truth.” Then I took a marker and wrote a couple Scripture references with important truths and encouragement for the guys. Every week one of the guys will take the belt of truth home with him and either carve or write in some encouragement or verses, and then pass it on to another guy at the next small group. They seemed excited about it. We’ll see how much traction it gets.

Cool Moments: Middle schoolers constantly exceed my expectations. I had thought the abstract idea of holding on to absolute truth would be way over their heads, but they were tracking the whole time. It launched us into guys asking really deep questions like, “How do we know that our version of faith is true?” and “How do we know the book of Mormon isn’t true?” This led to some great discussion about the history of the Bible and topics like the Dead Sea Scrolls. I love their inquisitive minds. There were other innocent questions like, “How do we know which version of the Bible is true if there are so many different versions?” This led to some discussion about the original language the Bible was written in and how people might translate it differently, but the message remains the same. I love when middle schoolers ask those kinds of questions because topics like that don’t naturally come up very often. We take for granted how much they understand things like “NIV” or “NLT.”

Changes Needed: The discussion was so good, and the guys kept asking incredible questions, so we ran out of time at the end to do any kind of accountability or prayer request sharing. I’m wondering if we should move our prayer time to the beginning of our group time to highlight the importance of prayer and sharing.

It was really an encouraging night. I was reaffirmed that this is my favorite age group by far. The curiosity of a child + their emerging brains like that of an adult = great discussion.

One of the cool things that you can do with a WordPress blog is track the search terms that people type in to end up finding this blog. It fascinates me, really. From “how do you know if a middle schoolers is in love” to “middle school youth group names,” I’ve seen it all! But one topic that consistently comes up is “middle school teaching plan.” Now, I don’t know what these searchers have in mind specifically, but it makes me think of a long-term scope-and-sequence plan for teaching. I think this a really important topic to discuss as we lead our ministries.

At Southland we are in the process of creating a long-term teaching plan for our middle school ministry. This will eventually end up answering the question, “What are those things we want every middle schooler to learn before moving on to high school?” With our long-term vision in mind – to develop students who walk with Jesus, in community, and on mission – I asked our team the following three questions to start the process:

  1. What topics do we need to teach every year in middle school ministry?
  2. What topics do we need to teach at least every three years in middle school ministry?
  3. What “felt-need” topics do we need to be aware of in order to teach as necessary?

Here is the rough draft of what we have so far:

Topics we have to cover every year:
Love, Dating, and Relationships
The Gospel Message
Who is God?

Topics we’d like to cover every 3 years:
The Church
Justice & Compassion
The Bible
Dealing with Family
Character Issues
End Times
Missions – Global & Local
The Life of Jesus
Evangelism/Sharing Faith

Topics that are “felt-need” and require our attention to determine when it needs to be addressed:
Media Usage

Now, before anyone gets upset and starts telling me that we need to teach “the gospel message” and “the Bible” every week, let me assure you that we do. I always ask whoever is teaching to connect the topic to Jesus and the cross. I also give them the biblical text from which to speak. Those “topics” are merely opportunities to focus on the gospel message and the Bible by themselves. Additionally we could teach on the different genres of the Bible and how to understand the Old Testament, for example.

So what would you add? What would you change? I know we are not perfect in our thinking, so I’d love to hear what you are doing in your ministry. Or as a parent, what would you like to see your student learn?

Happy birthday! You just turned 13! Welcome to… adulthood?

The journey of a pre-teen becoming an official teenager is an adventure much bigger than we tend to acknowledge. It’s eerily similar to the 39-year-old going “over the hill” to his 40’s, except the thirteen-year-old tends to be a little more excited about his birthday…

One of my favorite things as a middle school pastor is when parents contact me wanting me to be involved with some unique thing they are doing for their 12-going-on-13-year-old. I can’t tell you how many letters or encouraging notes I have written to middle school guys who are turning thirteen because of some initiative that parents have taken to make the birthday experience a little more memorable.

In Jewish culture the thirteenth birthday brings with it the Bar- or Bat-Mitzpah. It’s their way of affirming the fact that the person is no longer a child; he or she is now an adult. There isn’t just a cake with a few candles and an all-nighter at Laser Tag. It’s an all-out ceremony and celebration of manhood or womanhood.  (I’ve secretly always wanted to sit in on one of these just to experience it first-hand.)

I’ve often wondered why Christianity doesn’t celebrate its teenagers in the same way. I strongly believe that we can change teenage culture if we took the entrance to adolescence more seriously. By communicating to our students that the next season of life will be different with bigger responsibility and bigger temptation, we can prepare our kids for the journey ahead – not just through practical wisdom and advice, but through deeper relationships with older men and women.

There is a lot of discussion today about something called “extended adolescence.” This is the idea that many people never “graduate” to adulthood and remain stuck in this period of extended adolescence, lacking in wisdom and drive to contribute to society in the way that many expect them to do. It is my belief that extended adolescence happens as a result of a lack of older men and women in teenagers’ lives who take the time to stop and challenge them with the new life they need to embrace. I am not saying that we can’t let kids be kids or have fun; in fact, I think “fun” is an essential piece of learning to be an adult. But I am saying that we need to be more “ritualistic” in the way that we invite students into adulthood.

Let me give you a few examples of what I’m talking about.

Last fall I was invited to be a part of one of our students turning thirteen. His dad invited five older men who had invested in the student’s life to come to their house one night for some food and movie entertainment. The student had always wanted to see the movie Braveheart, but his dad wanted him to wait until he was thirteen, the age of manhood. So on his 13th birthday we all watched Braveheart and enjoyed all of its manliness! After the movie ended, the dad asked each of the men to share some wisdom with the student about being a man and the challenges that will be facing him. It was incredible to watch the student pay close attention to each man’s unique advice and wisdom. To finish the night, the dad gave a gift to his son that signified his new manhood, and we all prayed over him.

Another example I heard about was a dad asked his twelve-year-old son what five older men he looked up to the most within their church. The dad then asked these men if they would spend one day over the summer with his son doing any kind of activity. One man took the student hiking, another watched movies with him, another took him to job-shadow at the police department, and so forth. During these days the dad gave each man some questions he wanted them to answer for his son regarding manhood and what it looked like to be a godly man in the normal routine of everyday life. At the end of the summer they all came together for a birthday barbeque and the student got to share what lessons he learned from each man. The cool thing was the men enjoyed the journey with the student so much that they continue to get together every year for the student’s birthday and instill wisdom in his life.

Are you starting to see the possibilities? As I mentioned before, I get contacted regularly by parents who ask me and a host of other adults to write a letter for their student who is about to turn 13. In fact, ironically while I was writing this blog, I got an e-mail from a dad in the middle school ministry asking me to write such a letter for his son’s birthday in June. How cool is that?! The dad is planning some other awesome activities to do with just him and his son in order to, in his words, “acknowledge the significance of this event for him… and his coming into manhood.” Yes!

What are some creative ideas you’ve had for students turning thirteen? What are some ways you’ve used to help your kids encounter Jesus and enter adulthood?