Every other Sunday evening I lead a small group of middle school boys. It’s 45 minutes long, and it’s one of my favorite times of the week. I grab the 5 or 6 boys and bring them into my office. They stop by the mint jar immediately upon entering and grab a Life Saver, and then lounge all over my office. The room is immediately filled with a tinge of socks, axe body spray and the sweet, putrid stench of body odor. I start off with a softball question to get them talking…which isn’t all that hard.
A couple weeks ago, the question was, “What do you want to accomplish this summer?” Here’s what I got:
“It suddenly dawned on me that I want to shoot a gun.”
“I want to get ripped this year”
“I’d like to hit 5’ tall…and 65lbs”
“Seriously, I want to start a garden”
“I want to stop playing 8 hours of video games a day”
After that, things dissolved into farts and laughing. Yes. it actually went downhill from there. In 45 minutes, those answers were the most serious thing that happened in that group.
There are days like this.
Yesterday, my female middle school leader couldn’t make it so I combined the small groups together. We talked about hearing God’s voice, and how God could use us to encourage one another. I had them read Psalm 145:14-21 a couple of times and then ask God to highlight a verse for them to be given to someone else. They each picked a verse and then I randomly assigned the verse each student received to another student in the room. God moved in power with those simple verses. Every one of the students felt like the verse they got was the one that fit them best. One student who has been going through some depression got verse 14, “The LORD upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down.” We got to pray for him, and Holy Spirit moved.
There are also days like this.
You never know what you’re going to get with middle schoolers, but there are some truths that will help set you up for success. Middle schoolers are desperate to belong somewhere. Stats are showing that Generation Z, their generation, is the most disconnected generation ever. They’re pretty bad at being friends with each other. They can say and do really mean things at times, but they’re also really lonely. They’re full of ideas and stories and they’re hungry for meaningful encounters with God and with people.
Here’s a few things that I’ve found helpful with middle schoolers.
1) Call out the gold in them.
If you’re serving middle schoolers, you are a miner. You are always looking for the good and beautiful elements in each student so that you can call and draw those things out. I’m a pastor today because in middle school, my pastor called out the shepherd and leader in me.
2) Model friendship for them.
Show them, by example what it means to be a good friend. Gently steer them away from jokes that tear down and set up a culture of encouragement and honor. Set boundaries that encourage inclusivity vs exclusivity.
3) Spend less time on your teaching
and more time on your game/icebreaker. Ask a middle schooler what they remember about the previous week and it will be the game they played or the crazy questions they answered or how they finally nailed the 4 man push up. It’s the reality at this stage. Don’t despise it, use it. I can’t tell you how many times I get to the killer point of my message only to see a middle schooler picking his nose or folding his gum wrapper into a paper airplane. Teachings matter, but it’s not why they come.
4) Don’t ever give up on a student.
As hard some kids can be in middle school, don’t ever give up on them. There are no black holes in the Kingdom of God and there are certainly no black holes in middle school. I have been blown away time and time again when one of the really hard students just gets it one day and is forever changed. If we stop pressing 1 day before the breakthrough, we won’t ever see it. Don’t ever give up.
Students in middle school are one big sponge, ready to soak up everything that you give them. So give generously. Plant as many seeds as you can. Be a bringer of light and a speaker of life. This is rewarding work right here.
Galatians 6:9 — And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.