Middle-school ministry isn’t easy. And as a 54-year-old who’s been engaged with young teenagers in one role or another for more than 35 years, I’m finding it more challenging than ever (which, I think, is more about me than them).
Case in point: Princess Dongus. That’s the self-selected nickname of a member of my current seventh-grade small group for guys. Honestly, I have no idea where that name came from or why he asked us to use it. But we’ve all tacitly complied, and everyone in the group calls him that (or shortens it to Dongus). A few weeks ago, I had to verify with him that I actually knew his real name.
Dongus is one of the most hyper 13-year-olds I’ve ever met. Each week when we head to small groups, he runs ahead to “hide” under a row of chairs in the meeting area. Throughout our hour together, Dongus is in constant motion—often literally rolling around on the floor. He regularly interrupts with failed attempts at observational humor. His responses to discussion questions are almost always off subject. I often need to send him out of the room for a short timeout.
For many of my high school ministry friends, Dongus would be exhibit A as to why they don’t like working with middle schoolers. But even though Dongus exasperates me, I find something compelling about this kid. And I’ve unquestionably developed a strong sense of affection for him. He’s pure. I choose that word intentionally and mean it in multiple ways: His intentions are without guile, he’s shockingly innocent, and—if we define integrity as being the same substance all the way through—Dongus has a level of integrity rarely seen in older teenagers.
This squirrelly young man has a peach-fuzz mustache on his upper lip but clearly didn’t know what masturbation was when the subject came up in our group. He’s an in-betweener, with one foot already in the massive formation epoch of the teenage years and one foot spastically dragging behind in childhood.
Last week I had our group form little teams, gave them each a short Bible story and theme, and then asked them to come up with various aspects of a lesson (using the old Hook, Book, Look, Took approach). In the Took portion, Dongus led a discussion for his seventh-grade peers about how they might stand for Jesus when no one else is standing with them. And he was masterful: on topic, focused, clear, and direct. He rephrased questions the other kids didn’t understand and affirmed those who responded. Afterward, my co-leader looked at him and said (with a sense of surprise that I doubt Dongus picked up on), “Dongus, you were really good at that!”
Yes, there are easier guys in my group. They still benefit from our group being a safe place for their emerging authentic selves. The “easy” kids still need caring adults and a youth ministry context that walks alongside them on their journey toward Christlikeness.
But Dongus—and the millions of middle schoolers he represents—experiences rejection and judgment, even disgust, in pretty much every context of his life. Without a “we love you unconditionally” environment during these young teenage years, he’ll either check out long before he gets to high school ministry or fold in on himself, attending but not engaging.
After all these years, I’m still hanging out with middle schoolers because I’m more convinced than ever that this is absolutely a make-or-break stage of life. Many of my youth ministry peers don’t get this, but some do. And those are the people I love to gather with at the Middle School Ministry Campference each year. There’s truly something magical, mystical even, about learning, worshipping, and playing with a group of people who are wired like me. The Campference is an extremely rare refueling station because I get to spend three days with people who share my calling for young teenagers, a calling that—I’m convinced—is very close to the heart of Jesus.
If you “get” this, then you’re the kind of youth worker we want at this year’s Campference in October. Visit campference.com for more info. (Hint: It’s all-inclusive… sort of the Sandals of youth ministry events!)