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?