How, when, and why do you split middle school and high school?

this week’s slant33.com question asked: How, when, and why do you split middle school and high school?

i’ll admit, i didn’t answer it straight on. but i riffed on it a bit, as did josh griffin and jeremy zach (click here to read their responses). here’s what i wrote:

My answer to this question has continued to evolve over my 30 years in middle school ministry. Some of that shifting (in my thinking) is a response to dramatic shifts in both the onset of puberty (younger and younger!) and youth culture. And some of that shifting is a response to being a parent of two teenagers: my daughter graduated from high school yesterday (as I write this) and my son from middle school. But at least some portion of the shifts in my response to this question come from a change in my thinking about youth ministry in general.

So let’s focus on that. If you’ve read anything I’ve written over the past four years, you might know that I’ve harped quite a bit on the need to move away from an over-reliance on priority of youth ministry programming. Programs aren’t evil; but the subtle thinking that great programs transform lives or grow faith is – and has been, for many of us – a false-positive measurement of youth ministry success.

If the goal of youth ministry is momentum, combining middle school and high school makes lots of sense, because it’s tough to have momentum without a good chunk o’ teenagers.

If the goal of youth ministry is energy, combining – or keeping MS and HS combined – is perfectly logical.

If the goal of youth ministry is hype, then – by all means – keep ‘em combined.

In fact, for years I’ve suggested that it seems to make sense to consider separating MS and HS into two groups when both of them have something around 20 regular participants each. I’ve suggested that there are great reasons to consider separating small groups prior to those numbers, and combining for some things (worship, for example) even beyond those numbers.

But I’m just not sure I buy that anymore – for two big reasons:

First, with the continued extension of adolescence (about 20 years long now, on average, from 10 or 11 through the 20s), the difference between 12 year-olds and 17 year-olds just seems more markedly pronounced than ever. And I’m no longer convinced that the benefit of momentum and energy and hype is worth the trade-off of providing a developmentally and culturally inappropriate ministry for either group. In some ways (and, sure, this is slightly hyperbolic), you have two choices:

• Combine MS and HS, enjoy a bit of momentum and streamlining, but forfeit being developmentally on-target, while expediting the headlong rush into adolescence for young teens who could really use another year or two of being an apprentice teenager.
• Or, separate MS and HS, focusing more intentionally on both, while losing out on some of the fun and energy that can come from having critical mass. Oh, and this option is more work.

But, if the primary value of my youth ministry efforts are no longer to create hype or momentum… if my belief isn’t that big cool programs change lives… then I’m going to have to side with the second of those options every time.

The other big reason I don’t buy into my old advice on this question is this: I don’t know what you should do! And the reason I don’t know what you should do is a very simple and straightforward set of facts:
• I’m not God
• I have not called you into youth ministry, or gifted you
• I do not know your context
• And, I hate blanket answers

My leaning these days is that it’s best to separate middle school and high school as soon as you can, as often as you can, as early as you can. But what do I know, really? Ultimately, this is a question of discernment: what kind of ministry is God calling you to in your context?

7 thoughts on “How, when, and why do you split middle school and high school?”

  1. Thank you for the thoughts here. I struggle with this as well. We do a mixture of combined and separated. There are certainly developmental/social/maturity differences between a 13-year-old and a 17-year-old that are important to address, but I also feel it’s important to battle against the over-segmentation of age groups. In a time when our culture wants to divide target market groups into small, age (and even gender) specific groups, I think it’s important to offer venues where high school and middle school students can co-exist. If we teach our high school students they don’t have to hang out with middle schoolers, how will that impact the way they view those “annoying little kids” in 7th grade? And, what are the implications for other inter-generational ministry efforts?
    I don’t have all the answers and I’m sure I mess things up sometimes, but these are the questions I struggle with and the tension I seek to live within. Thanks again for this post.

  2. It’s a constant battle against time & the many obligations of life to make sure that we create multi-generational venues (meaning the Entire Body) our young people can actively participate in, while also having times when MS & HS can be together, AND providing MS & HS specific times. The number of adult vols & number of youth attending (and scheduling in general) mandate our meeting times in the building to be together for the most part. We also have time carved out for spiritual gifts focus groups for missions work and then tiny groups that meet throughout the week at restaurants, off site events, and just hanging out in the youth room time in the building. It’s exhausting but seems to be working at this stage in the game. But the game may change and we will change with it in order to give our kids what they need. This topic is something I imagine everyone in YM struggles with – many thanks to The Beard for your perspective!

  3. When I was the sole paid youth worker here we split but did several intergen things as appropriate. I found it brought the “maturity” level up for some things, and it gave meaningful ministry to older kids to mentor and model some things. (Of course there is the sibling dynamic to contend with then…)

    Now that we hired a designated Sr high guy and I am designated Jr high, those mix things have gone away. One of our Pastors feels that this is better, but my jury is still out. (OF course he and I still bicker as to whether its Jr High/Middle School and “Student Min/Sr High”. I use Jr High here because it’s how our local school district is arranged, and their verbage.) I think context dictates a great deal.

  4. A related question might be…”how, when and why is it time to institute structural change in your ministry?” In my experience, change can be difficult and it seldom comes without cost. Whether your group meets as combined or as multiple groups, there will be some turbulence when you make changes. That turbulence is easy to underestimate. Make the changes you feel called to make, but involve your stakeholders and do your best to anticipate the costs.

  5. We are making the split next month. I’ve been here for 18months. The church has had 7-12 grade (one youth group) from decades. We are moving our 6th grade up and are making the split. That will give us roughly 30-40 middle school and 30+ high school. This is the best year to make the change due to a small 8th grade class of 4. If not the split would be more difficult for quite a number of years with the upcoming classes being large. One of the main reasons for the split is that the upcoming parents are asking for it and it just makes sense to have 6th graders part of our group since middle school here is 6-8 grade and we are one of the only churches in the area that does not have 6 grade as part of the student ministry.

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