You are not a horse.
While this may seem like fairly common knowledge (unless this blog post has found itself on some Planet of the Horses), sometimes we need to be reminded of the simplest of things. Here’s what I mean:
When a horse is born it does not spend the next 18 months of its life swaddled in a crib and crawling on a floor. Within minutes the foal will stand and in an hour or two this newborn horse will be walking next to its mother. In only a few days a foal will be romping around the stable, ready to go for a run. But you are different. Because you are not a horse.
Humans are born and we cry and cry and cry until eventually we crawl and crawl and crawl. It takes us months to bring ourselves upright, stumbling as we go. And it takes years until we are able to hop, skip, and jump our way through life. We don’t just jump up and run. We take our time. We need support. We need people to love and care for us along the way, helping us find our legs and even staying with us after we learn to use them.
Too often it seems that the jump between Sunday School and Youth Group expects preteens to be a horse, up and walking the minute they are born into the wild and wondrous world of Youth Ministry. We move them from Sunday morning to Wednesday night, from the wide-eyed world of childhood to the rough and tumble life of a teenager. We’re done with cute stories from the Bible. Time for some systematic theology. And games. Lots of games. (Because who doesn’t love launching mini pumpkins in the parking lot with a water balloon launcher?)
Sometimes in the church we find ourselves working in silos, different ministry areas only passing each other on the way to refill our coffee cups. It can be easy to accidently force young people to leap from one world of ministry to the next. And too often it is preteens who fall in the cracks that we naively create.
A preteen – 9, 10, 11, or 12-year-old – is at a unique stage in their physical, emotional, and spiritual development. They are no longer the kid they were when they began Sunday School. But they aren’t quite yet the quintessential teenager of Youth Group that they will quickly become. And it is in these unique and quirky years that we expect them to be horses, jumping to their feet and trotting around the minute they enter this brave new world.
This is where a preteen ministry comes in. A preteen ministry is a space where emerging adolescents can be the no-longer-a-kid-yet-not-quite-a-teen that they are. A preteen ministry means sixth grade students don’t have to sing songs with hand motions like a first grader. Nor do they have to have the “sex talk” alongside an eighth grader. A preteen ministry means you are intentional about creating environments and curating resources just for them in the already-not-yet that a preteen embodies.
And more than anything else, a preteen ministry invites these fourth, fifth, or sixth grade students to begin connecting the diverse and potentially disparate stories from the Bible that they have heard all through Sunday School. As they begin to cross a threshold into a world of abstract thought, they are able, potentially for the first time, to see individual Bible stories as an ongoing narrative. They can connect Abraham who was blessed to be a blessing, to the followers of Jesus who are blessed to be a blessing to the world around them. They can see God calling a leader like Deborah, and Jesus sending Mary Magdalene to be the first messenger of the good news of the resurrection. They can connect a story that spans from creation to new creation, discovering that they are actors in this story as it continues to come to life in our world today. And they can explore and experience this in the safety and security of a preteen ministry, a room, a class, a group, a lesson designed just for them and their quirky personalities.
If preteens were horses it would be a lot easier. They would jump up out of Sunday School and gallop their way into the world of Youth Group. But they’re not. And so they won’t. They need pastors and leaders who will stand with them as they test their legs, finding the footing of their faith as they discover a God who grows up with them.
This is our calling with preteens: to give them hugs and high fives, to play games and tell stories, to run with them as they find their legs, to help them see Bible stories as a part of God’s ongoing narrative, and to celebrate every step they take as they continue to find themselves in God’s story.
Now giddy up and get to it.