an open letter to the church about the importance of young teen ministry

on a break at the annual junior high pastors summit, where this document was created, and seeing it posted on joshua michael’s blog the other day, made me think it would be good to post here. btw, i’ve been asked many times: the junior high pastors summit is an invitation-only gathering of about 20 – 25 full-time, junior high (or middle school) only youth workers. most are vets who have been committed to this age group for a long time. none see this as a stepping stone, and are planning on staying in young teen ministry for many years to come.

the first year we gathered, back in 02 (i think), eric venable hosted us up in monterey, california. the purpose of our gathering that first time was to write this open letter:

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“Anyone who works in the church knows that junior high may be the single most pivotal period for spiritual decisions in the lives of our children.” –Rick Warren, Senior Pastor of Saddleback Church

In late Spring of 2002, and again in the Spring of 2003 and 2004, a group of leaders in ministry to young teens gathered to discuss the state of early adolescent ministry in the American church. We felt compelled to write a letter to church leaders about what we believe to be one of the most important yet misunderstood ministries in the church.

A Small Window of Opportunity
For decades – since the beginning of the modern youth ministry movement in the 1950s – ministry to youth has been almost synonymous with high school ministry (church work with teenagers roughly 15 – 18 years old). And until recent times, ministry to young teens (roughly 11 – 14 years old) has functioned as either an extension of most churches’ ministry to children or as a mere preparatory version of the youth group.

And while pastors and churches are beginning to understand the importance of this young-teen ministry (sometimes called junior high ministry, sometimes called middle school ministry), widespread misunderstanding and confusion – even fear – lingers in this area.

Two significant life-phases overlap during the young-teen years: the openness and responsive characteristic of childhood; and the forward-looking attitudes of teenage years.

As to the openness of children: Barna Research claims that the overwhelming majority of Christ-followers date their “conversion” prior to 14 years old; indeed, after 14 years old the likelihood of conversion drops drastically.

This evangelistic openness is just one example of the responsiveness of children and young teens. Yet, the two years following the onset of puberty are when the second most significant changes occur in life (birth to two years sees the most). Young teens experience change in every aspect of development: physical, emotional, cognitive, relational, social, and – of course – spiritual. With their brand-new ability to think abstractly (a developmental “bonus” of puberty), Christian young teens, thanks to this God-ordained developmental phase, inevitably re-examine their childhood belief systems. This faith-evaluation is normal and good!

When we combine the “responsiveness” data presented by Barna (and confirmed by thousands of observations by the writers of this letter) and the unique capacity for spiritual development among young teens, we see an extremely narrow opportunity for life-long impact. Working with young teens offers us the opportunity for preventive ministry, whereas ministry to older teens must often be corrective.

Return on Investment
Effective church ministry to young teens has a significantly high spiritual return on investment – much more so than in other age-groups. It is a “return” in many areas: spiritual understanding, faith commitment, vocational calling, maturity, and leadership. Noted leadership guru Peter Drucker has said: “I believe that the junior high years are the most important years to develop leadership skills in people.”

Many churches are finding that junior high ministry affords a collateral benefit as an effective outreach vehicle to families. The president of a large internet company, along with her husband, began attending a church in the Silicon Valley, as a result of the transformation they observed in their junior-high son under ministry.

So what is the “investment”? Well, it’s all the stuff churches already allocate to other valued ministries: prayer, focus, exposure, facilities, finances, and – perhaps most powerful – people. Since effective ministry to young teens must be relational, quality adult staffing (paid and volunteer) is a vital factor in many ministries.

How Should I Respond?
We ask you to exercise your leadership potential to encourage a healthy young teen ministry in your church.

If you oversee the youth ministry in a church or group of churches, consider hiring a paid youth worker for young teens. Any church with 40 young teens, or the potential for that many, should have a paid youth worker dedicated to young teens only (any church with a dozen or more young teens should have a distinct young-teen ministry, separate from the older teens). Hire a professional, someone who feels specifically trained and called to work with young teens. Many churches make the mistake of hiring a low-wage intern – often just out of high school herself – to lead this critical age group.

Churches should re-examine the old pattern of hiring a qualified, trained youth worker as a “Student Ministries Pastor” but who really works with high school students and for whom junior-high ministry is a side-project or afterthought.

Be prepared to think long-term by encouraging longevity in your paid and volunteer junior high ministry workers. Youth workers are often not in their prime until they’ve been at it a few years or more with young teens. They have much to learn about this age group in order to be truly effective – and there is no substitute for experience!

Allocate funds for your young teen ministry: funds for leadership training; funds for programming; funds for resources.

Leith Anderson, past-president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Pastor of Wooddale Church, says: “Every church needs a strong Junior High ministry. It’s top priority. Can’t wait.”

Pray for your young-teen ministry and especially for its leaders.

Give them positive exposure. If you, as a leader in youth ministry, talk positively about the young teen ministry, the church’s perspective will begin to change for the better, and so will the health of the ministry. Check yourself against making sarcastic or joking comments (even well-intentioned), like the pastor who habitually calls young teens “pre-people.”

We firmly believe that your church will be a healthier, more effective ministry if you have a healthy young teen ministry. You will attract more families, raise future leaders, and connect with kids of an age that is possibly the most receptive to life-long change and commitment to Christ.

Mark Oestreicher
President, Youth Specialties

Rick Beckwith
Director of Middle School Ministries, Young Life

Kurt Johnston
Junior High Pastor, Saddleback Church (Mission Viejo, CA)

Jeff Piehl
Director of Student Ministries, Evangelical Free Church of America
Representing the Evangelical Free Church of America

Louis J. Chaney
National Middle School Director, Youth for Christ, USA

Phil Human
Junior High Pastor, Christ Community Church (Omaha, NE)
Representing the Christian & Missionary Alliance

Mark Carroll
Director of Student Ministries/Middle School Pastor, Kentwood Community Church (Kentwood, MI)
Representing The Wesleyan Church

Kevin Dean
Junior High Pastor, Lakewood Evangelical Free Church (Brainerd, MN)
Representing the Evangelical Free Church of America

Sr. Ann Cassidy, FMA
Assoc. Director for Early Adolescent Services, Archdiocese of San Antonio
Representing the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry

David Gibson
Pastor of Middle School Students, Crossings Community Church (Oklahoma City, OK)
Representing the Church of God, Anderson, IN

Eric J Venable
Minister to Middle School Students, Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (Menlo Park, CA)

Lynn McKinney
Middle School Minister, Johnson Ferry Baptist Church (Marietta, GA)

John Wilson
Junior High Pastor, Lake Avenue Church (Pasadena, CA)

Andy Na
Junior High Pastor, North Coast Church (Vista, CA)

Heather Flies
Junior High Pastor, Wooddale Church (Eden Prairie, MN)

Alex Roller
Middle School Pastor, Journey Community Church (La Mesa, CA)

Alan Mercer
Pastor of Middle School Ministries, Christ Community Church (Leawood, KS)

Nate Severson
Junior High Pastor, Hillcrest Covenant Church (Overland Park, KS)
Representing the Covenant Church

Jeff Buell
Pastor of Student Ministries & Middle School Pastor, McKinney Memorial Bible Church (Ft. Worth, TX)

Jeff Mattesich
Director of Junior High Ministries
Forest Home Ministries (Forest Falls, CA)

Ken Elben
Student Ministries Pastor & Junior High Pastor, Shadow Mountain Community Church (El Cajon, CA)

Scott Rubin
Junior High Pastor, Willow Creek Community Church (S. Barrington, IL)

Endorsers

Bob McCarty, National Federation of Catholic Youth Workers

Tom East, (Catholic) Center for Ministry Development

Leith Anderson, president, National Association of Evangelicals

Rick Warren, senior pastor, Saddleback Church

Howard G. Hendricks, Distinguished Professor
Chair, Center for Christian Leadership, Dallas Theological Seminary

William H. Willimon, Dean of the Chapel and Professor of Christian Ministry, Duke University

Rev. Chris Hill, Youth Evangelist, The Chris Hill Evangelistic Association

Chris Tomlin, Recording artist and worship leader

Denny Rydberg, President, Young Life

Jay Kesler, Chancellor, Taylor University

Most Rev. Patrick F. Flores, DD
Archbishop, Archdiocese of San Antonio

John Ortberg, Teaching Pastor, Willowcreek Community Church
Author of If You Want to Walk on Water You’ve Got to Get out Of the Boat

Dr. David Jeremiah, Senior Pastor, Shadow Mountain Community Church, and radio preacher, Turning Point Ministries

NOTE: some of the titles and positions of the signers and endorsers have changed since this was finalized in 2004.

6 thoughts on “an open letter to the church about the importance of young teen ministry”

  1. Impressive. And preach it. “none see this as a stepping stone, and are planning on staying in young teen ministry for many years to come.” This is my desire in ministry and it is wonderful to see that so many other leaders in ministry have the same passion.

  2. So how do we (those out side your invited group) communicate this effectively with the church staff and membership at large so that they will listen and respond?

  3. Nice, Marko, nice.
    I totally agree with opposing the “stepping-stone” mentality.
    My church doesn’t have the budget for separate Jr. & Sr. Hi positions, so I do both. I was worried about that coming into this job because I had only done exclusively Sr. Hi in the past. But what has knocked me off my feet is how much I’ve fallen in love with the Jr. Hi age group.
    It’s great to see a summit like the one you mention being held. Monterey’s not a bad location for the first one, either. That’s where I was when I was doing Sr. Hi.
    This is a long comment. Adios. Great letter.
    -RPD

  4. hmmm….

    i wonder if it’s children’s ministry (0-12 yrs) that’s the most critical. It’s when kids get to 12 that they realise the faith they’ve been taught in sunday school isn’t making any sense in their lives. perhaps we should treat the issue systemically…

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