Friday, June 18, 2010

What Every Youth Worker Should Know About Junior Highers

Tim Schmoyer has this uber-list of youth ministry topics, so thought I'd add my own thoughts on ministering to junior high students. If you're a parent, volunteer, or youth pastor, here is some of what I've learned about pointing junior highers to Jesus:

Concrete to abstract thinking. Child psychologist Jean Piaget called it concrete and formal operations. A puberty-driven shift in cognitive abilities, junior highers are beginning to think in new ways. Like moving from black-and-white to full color, their minds are becoming capable of abstract thought. Abstract thought is, in essence, thinking about thinking. Metaphors, empathizing, imagining possibilities, etc., are all now part of a junior higher's cognitive toolbox. They're in the middle of the transition, so while some will love your metaphor about how faith is like jumping out of an airplane, the still-mostly-concrete-thinkers will wonder what planes have to do with Jesus.

Balanced structure. Junior highers need healthy and realistic boundaries. Where a child needs to be watched at nearly all times and a high schooler is mostly independent, junior high students are somewhere in between. Boundaries need to be clear, firm, simple, and fair. With abstract thinking comes an increased desire to define what is right and wrong, then push those boundaries to their limits. Have a balance between grace and truth--communicate the boundaries clearly, then offer lots of grace when students mess up.

Child-adults. They aren't really kids, but they aren't quite adults. Instead of viewing them as some bizarre middle category--hence the connotation of middle schooler or junior higher--they truly are both children and adults. Meaning: they are fully capable of handling responsibility, focusing their attention, and giving respect to others, but they're still in the maturing process. There will be moments of childlike silliness and immaturity, and moments of deep insight and dependability.

Positive expectations. The former three concepts can be summed up as having positive expectations for junior highers. I've blogged about the Pygmalion effect before--that the greater expectations are placed on a person, the better that person is likely to perform and grow. View junior highers with a glass-half-full mindset; infuse your perspective of them with an abundance of grace and compassion. Expect that they can read and understand the Bible. Expect that they can serve. Expect that they can engage in worship. Expect that they can pray for others. Expect great things, and they'll rise to the occasion.

Listen well. Nothing will communicate love to a junior higher more than simply listening to them. Listen to their stories. Listen to their jokes. Listen to their hurts. Listen to their dreams. So often adults can rush by students and not really hear them. Be fully present in the moment and choose to listen.

The long haul. In many ways, junior high ministry is like gardening. You're fostering the soil of their souls, planting foundational seeds of truth and wisdom, hoping that the seeds will sprout into healthy spiritual identities growing in Christ. Youth workers can spend years investing into a student with very little outward progress. You might not see the fruit from junior high ministry until years later, in high school, college, or beyond. Don't give up. God uses those seeds in ways you would never expect. Even in my limited years of junior high ministry, it's incredible to see students grow up into men and women of God, pursuing Him with their entire lives.

Love. More than anything, love junior highers in the name of Jesus. It's not enough to tolerate or even like them. Love them. Chapter two in 1 Thessalonians says this:
We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the Gospel of God, but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.
Be delighted in sharing life with a junior higher and you'll see Jesus use you in radical and miraculous ways to further His kingdom.

Books to read on junior high ministry: Middle School Ministry (Mark Oestreicher and Scott Rubin), Junior High Ministry (Wayne Rice), Think Orange (Reggie Joiner), Middle School Ministry Made Simple (Kurt Johnston), Shaping the Spiritual Life of Students (Richard Dunn)

Parents, youth workers, junior highers: anything you'd like to add? Leave a comment!


  1. What a glorious mess! I've been volunteering for 19 years with these amazing creatures known as middle schoolers, and I don't plan on slowing down any time soon. It's a joy to have even a handful come back years later and say thanks - or to observe from afar as they soar with Christ!

  2. Andrew, nineteen years ministering to middle schoolers is impressive. Keep at it! :)

  3. I just started as a Youth Pastor... less than 2 months ago. Thanks for your blog and for sharing your insights and experience. It is so easy to feel inadequate. I feel encouraged by your blog! Thanks.

    1. Sara, welcome to the world of youth ministry! Glad you feel encouraged, keep seeking the Lord and loving students.