Middle School

Kurt Johnston leads the student ministries team at Saddleback Church in Southern California. His ministry of choice, however, is junior high, where he spends approximately 83.4% of his time.

Posted By Kurt Johnston

Do me a favor and re-read the title of this post one more time. I believe it accurately states the current adolescent journey.
For those of us who work with junior highers, it presents a unique opportunity (challenge):
How do we help young teenagers hold onto childhood/youthful innocence while adequately preparing them for young adulthood in our culture?

The first part of the issue (too old, too soon) is nothing new. Sociologists have for several decades been observing and writing about the myriad of ways our culture forces aspects of adulthood onto children at far too young an age. When I was in college almost 25 years ago, one of our text books was David Elkind’s classic, “All Grown Up and No Place To Go.”

But the problem of extended adolescence (too young, too long) is a newer development…or at least a newer conversation among youth workers.

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So we have a bit of a catch 22, it seems. Junior high youth workers today (and this may be the first time you’ve thought of it in this light) get to live, minister, lead and love-on young teenagers in a “both/and” fashion; that protects them from being too old, too soon yet helps prevent them from staying too young, too long.

How do we do this? I’m not sure! But I’m eager to learn.

If you are going to SYMC, this topic will be part of our junior high track. But I’d love to get the conversation started here, and let everybody who reads the blog share their thoughts.

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  • Matt B-man says:

    I think we need to start early in encouraging them to make decisions based on scripture, and involve them as early as possible in “adult” responsibilities such as teaching them to do ministry, outreach, and service.

  • Jim Candy says:

    It feeds on itself too, Kurt. We now have 25+ year-old adolescents that media outlets design video games, movies, etc. for. They end up in the hands of 11-year-olds which pushes it younger (and older) at the same time. Yikes.

  • pete sutton says:

    I wonder about the rights of passsge that traditionally mark growth and spirituality in the church; catechism, confirmation, first communion, etc…. Is there a place for high church ritual in evangelical youth ministry? Would this be the type of thing kids in an unstable culture need to find solid ground to stand on?

  • Brooklyn says:

    this is such a loaded conversation kurt. it’s interesting thinking about this from a youth workers perspective as well as a parents perspective. my hunch is that there is a both/and that we hold in balance as we lead our youth ministries and as we support parents in being…well, great parents! ultimately we are the vitamin–they are the meal, and if we miss building up the parents as they learn to understand their teenage children we may miss big opportunities to equip them to lead and launch them. can’t wait to talk about this more at SYMC!! love the comments above and also the question about video games geared for 25+ being bought and sold to 11 yo’s. This is the same for cosmo mag and others who claim to market to an older audience but their’s nothing keeping them from putting a 17 yo on their covers. how do we direct families to respond to systemic things that don’t seem to be changing anytime soon? how do we set an example for believers in this? how do we teach parents to “trust in the Lord” at appropriate times and give their teenagers space to form and use their newly formed brains? good stuff. let’s talk more!

  • Kurt J says:

    Jim and Brooklyn, great thoughts on the “self-feeding” nature of this…hadn’t thought of it in those terms. Performers like Katy Perry might be another example; sexually charged, but wrapped up like bubble gum.

    As for rites of passage, Pete, I think there is definitely a place for their return, and there has been an increased interest in how they might look in a youth ministry setting.

    This may seem goofy, but I am learning a lot from our church’s Boy Scout troop….or at least trying to. Scouts seems to do a good job of helping young teens move toward “manhood”, while protecting much of their youthful innocence.

  • markeades says:

    Kurt – I wonder what universal “move”ings that the scouts use that helps them move the boys forward correctly? I think knowing those would give us words we could use in our talks about this subject.
    Brooklyn – I totally hear what you are saying about us being vitamins while the parents are the meal for their preteen kids. I would add that we have to be listeners to parents. Not so that we then can explain what they need to do but to learn together what is the best way to help their kids take spiritual steps forward. I would also add as we listen to them & learn with them about their kids we will find them moving forward in their spiritual walk as well. Looking forward to SYMC

  • Nathan J. Anderson says:

    “Extended adolescence” makes me really sad. I used to live in Nashville and I remember reading a plaque commemorating one of the officers in the Civil War. He not only was an officer, but also had a successful career as an architect…and he was only 19! People grew up and took responsibility a lot faster back then.

    I can’t help but wonder if our lack of meaningful adventure bears some of the blame. If my sons had to be prepared to shoot a bear to keep our family safe, and had to learn how to manhandle a plow to help feed our family, and had to know how to build a house to keep us warm, they’d grow into responsibility a lot faster.

    Seems the biggest adventures are found on the wii, PS3 and XBox. That’s sad.

  • Eric Upton says:

    Tough call as far as a solution. I am noticing in my ministry a need to “attack” the root/source of many of the students issues. It’s becoming increasingly clear that somehow when I signed up to minister to Jr. High Students what I actually was enlisting myself into was a “Family” ministry. Don’t get me wrong, I got the obvious parts of this. I knew camps, trips, retreats, carpools, permission slips, and the like were all “family based” stuff. What I am seeing more and more is that my role is to be a resource to parents and families of middle school students.

    I’m not sure about anyone else, but recently I’ve come across many family dynamics that are alarming to say the least. Parents living vicariously through their students with obscene amounts of pressure, mom’s dumping past sins in vivid, and harmful detail on their daughters, fathers who are missing the mark excessively in leading and training their sons as well as adoring and treasuring their daughters.

    We MUST minister to, partner with, resource, equip, pray earnestly for, and help re-shape the families who are hurting and lost. Our society seems to have bought into the “what’s right for you is right for you” idea so much so that it seems like even the church views the instruction of parenting/families to be a sacred and untouchable one.

    It seems to me that we are seeing repercussions to broken families. Too old, too soon happens a lot when parents/families check out and allow students too much freedom or hold an attitude of “Hope you figure it out kiddo”. Students are left to rely on older siblings, friends, peers, and media to supply global, cultural, and personal truths. A compartmentalization happens within their hearts and minds and allows for biblical truths to apply at church but never really make it passed the walls of our buildings (a problem many adults have as well). Too Young, too long occurs often when students are given uniform practical, and applicable training from the valued sources in their lives. Christian truths are at church, but often aren’t given with practical and tangible applications; families develop and utilize their own system of values loosely based on the bible, but mostly just a broad sweep of morality is sufficient in their minds; teachers in public school systems provide personal agenda’s, and peers and media each contribute their own sense of “what to do’s” students are left to figure out the middle ground, and simply aim for the path of broad acceptance where they can limit the amount of disappointment from those who matter to them and maximize the level of cultural success on both a larger global scale as well as a more personal and local level.

    Wow, all that to say, I think it would help to look at how our ministries to Jr. High students can begin to have a bigger and more profound impact on parents/families. If we look at the issue as something that is media driven it will feel like we are fighting against a 10′ tall philistine. If we begin to look at how we can impact and minister to families, now all of a sudden we have a few stones in our hand, and a great shot at taking down the enemy. What’s your thoughts?

  • Kevin L says:

    I’ve been wrestling with this one lately too. In my YMCP cohort with Marko we read Teen 2.0 (which was a long but great read). It’s amazing how much our culture has removed responsibility from our students lives. We (even in the church) have allowed our teens to remain in childhood for far too long. I am trying to see what it would look like to get students to take more responsibility in the church. In my non-denominational context, we haven’t given teens on-ramps to take ownership and responsibility in the church, but we are early in that process. Let’s keep this conversation going.

  • Alan Mercer says:

    tons of great conversation on a very thought provoking question (that’s why kurt gets the big bucks ). As a parent of teenagers myself, I have come along way in “mellowing”my opinions that have a tendency to feel like accusations or condemnations of parents. This parenting teenager thing is a lot harder than it looks. Yet, our high school pastor and I have discussed with our children’s pastor the chance to get in front of parents of elementary school kids. What we desire to share is some of what we see in the homes of teenagers and provide some food for fodder in their homes before things get difficult. Things like “if you don’t want your teenage daughter to dress like she’s 25 when she’s 14, maybe you should consider not dressing her like she’s 16 when she’s 8.”Or, “if you don’t want your 12 year old playing “M”rated video games, maybe you should consider not allowing them to play “T”games when they are 9.” We as parents have a lot to do with how fast our kids progress into adulthood (at least in the experiences category). Personally, and please, call me a prude, I want my kids to be “young”longer than culture wants them to be young. On the flip side, I think, as parents, when we are actively involved in our teenagers’ lives, they will grow up, take responsibility, and be okay. It may not be on our timeline, but it will be okay.

    What does all this mean for middle school youth workers? I think the biggest thing I am telling our volunteers right now is “encourage the snot out of parents.” It’s sometimes easy to look at the 6th grade boy who talks about trains and Legos all night with a snarky eye. It’s equally easy to look at the 8th grade girl who is trying to look 18 and think “what’s wrong with those parents.” Bottom line is they need a lot of encouragement. Parenting is not easy. Maybe the biggest challenge for all of us is the fact that parents need to be challenged with this question long before middle school. How will we work with our children’s pastor to get that done?

  • Eric Upton says:

    RESPONSE ^ Alan, I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve written. I sincerely apologize if in my zeal for youth ministry and what I am noticing came across as attacking or unrealistic. My heart is truly to be a source of encouragement and support for families and especially parents. In no way am I an expert on parenting (I have a 10month old daughter and another on the way, yikes) but what I do know is that I am seeing many parents of teens discouraged, and that is what absolutely wrenches my heart. Parents are, as you said, in need of encouragement, and I believe a renewed focus on this effort would be a great thing! Thanks for your thoughts Alan, I think they are spot on.

  • Kurt J says:

    The reality that JH ministry is also about parent ministry is, I think, a crucial perspective. I might even go so far as to say that you level of succes/effectiveness will be determined by the level in which you embrace that idea.

    Kevin L, would you be willing to write a guest post summarizing key points of “Teen 2.0”?

  • Scott Rubin says:

    Great comments…. about a Genius-ly titled post.

  • markeades says:

    this is great stuff and thx for what you have shared. I would say that a good discussion we could have at SYMC is how to be there for parents of our kids. I would add that one of the best ways to do that is to listen, to really listen, to listen hard to the parents and not be ready to give answers but to use their words to encourage them.

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