Tag Archives: middle school ministry

the values driving my church’s middle school ministry in this season

if you read my blog much, you know i talk and write a lot about leading from values. it’s a central theme in our Youth Ministry Coaching Program.

i define values as the answer to the question: What is God calling us to embody in this season? (and by season, i mean: this chapter of our ministry life together.) values should flow out of mission (Why do we exist?), and lead to strategy (How will we embody our values?) and goals (What are our measurable, actionable plans?).

we teach a process of developing ministry values in our coaching program. and the awesome junior high pastor at my church (where i’m a volunteer) recently graduated from a san diego cohort of YMCP. last fall, we had a fantastic volunteer team retreat, where i got to lead our team in developing values. and recently, we came back together to identify which of our values were the most aspirational (we aspire to embody these, but don’t really do so yet), and to come up with strategy for those.

i was reminded how much i love the values our team came up with. thought i’d share them with you here (not so you can copy them, as the best ministries discern their own values!).

things to note:

  • they’re in no particular order
  • the initial italic words come from our discernment process, and are grouped together from a bunch of value-ish stuff that surfaced.
  • the bold sentence is the actual value.
  • the additional sentence(s) are an unpacking of the value.
  • our JH ministry is called Riptide (which is why you’ll see that all throughout).

Riptide Values

  1. Family/Belonging/Known

Riptide is a family. We will be a place of radical belonging for young teens and for leaders. Every junior higher who walks through our doors will be known and know others.

  1. Questioning/Safety/Honesty

We will be a safe harbor of support and honesty. Questions will be viewed as a cause for celebration rather than a reason for shame or embarrassment. Personal stories will be celebrated and treated with the respect they deserve.

  1. Experiencing God/Jesus

We desperately want junior highers to encounter Jesus. We believe that the best life is one that follows Jesus; and to that end, we want young teens to experience God as a means of cultivating their faith and being transformed. We will be leaders who will manifest our own personal relationships into the ministry and lives of middle schoolers.

  1. Celebrate Uniqueness/Culture of Encouragement

We believe each student and leader is unique and has gifts to offer the world. We will actively develop a Culture of Encouragement, intentionally identifying and nurturing competencies.

  1. Integration with church

Junior Highers should be connected with Journey, not just Riptide. We believe that a long view of faith development means we are compelled to think of junior high as one chapter in a life long faith journey. Because of that, we will work to reduce the isolation of young teens in our church and find meaningful ways to integrate them into the life of the congregation.

  1. Take Risks/Embrace change

Change is constant, and growth requires risk. Riptide cannot stay the same, cannot coast, cannot become complacent. We will consistently evaluate, discern the Holy Spirit’s leading, and experiment with change in order to become everything God has dreamed our ministry could be.

  1. Face outward/Mission/Outreach

We will help junior highers engage their faith outside the Riptide room. We refuse to allow our ministry to become program-centric and only occurring in our room. We will engage the world around us in mission and outreach, both for the formation of our junior highers, and to engage the work of the Kingdom of God.

re-orienting to the desires of teens

my middle school guys small group has been…uh…challenging this year. i think i could summarize it best with:

i really like each of the guys individually; but i don’t like them much collectively.

i come to consider it a ‘good night’ when we have a 5 – 10 minute bit of focus and honesty (out of our 60 – 80 minutes together). and we’ve been having a ‘good night’ about once every 6 or 8 weeks.

after a particularly bad night a few weeks ago, i was understandably discouraged. i got thinking a bit about what we’re trying to accomplish, and it dawned on me that we’ve been forcing our agenda (i have a co-leader) on the guys, hoping they’ll buy into it, rather than discovering and responding to their desires.

i called my co-leader and said something like:

we only have about 5 weeks left with these guys before they leave us for the high school ministry. i don’t want them to look back at our two years together and think, “that was ok; but marko and tyler seemed frustrated most of the time.” i want them, at the very least, to think, “my small group leaders loved me, and our group was a place i looked forward to being every week. it was like family.” if we had another full year together, maybe we could rethink this in some other way; but at this point, i think we’d be wise to consider what it is that they guys want out of this group — why do they come? — and meet them at their point of desire, rather than forcing our own spiritual/educational agenda on them.

after some back-and-forth, we decided to have a birthday party that week (for all of them — it wasn’t anyone’s birthday, really), and play some games, and make sure we left a good amount of time to pray for each other (one of the only spiritual practices they’ve taken to).

as i write this, we have 3 weeks left. we bought them each a copy of The Way Bible (a great bible for high schoolers and young adults), which we’ll give them on one of our last nights. and i plan on continuing this re-orienting for our limited remaining time.

(by the way, it’s clear to me that my thinking on this was totally informed by Morgan Schmidt’s excellent book, Woo.)

 

the junior higher who called my bluff

i’m a youth ministry volunteer. middle school ministry, specifically. and for the last 18 years in a row, i’ve been volunteering with riptide, the middle school ministry at my church. for the last 11 of those, my role has been fairly boundaried by the otherwise-freneticism of my life and travel schedule. so while i teach on sunday morning once in a blue moon, and help with some volunteer leader development stuff, my regular involvement is co-leading a small group.

i’ve had my current group of guys for two years (while we’ve been a 3-year middle school ministry in the past, we’re currently a 2-year junior high ministry, since our church has a thriving and developmentally appropriate 5th & 6th grade preteen ministry).

and, honestly, this group has been the toughest one i’ve lead. this challenge is likely a large portion due to me. i’ve been lazy in my approach. and while i’m prepared for my group each week (that i’m there), i haven’t been great at the other stuff, like connecting with the guys outside of our scheduled time.

a week ago, our group time was massively frustrating. my co-leader and i just couldn’t get the guys to focus for more than a minute. afterward, i decided to have a brief parking lot conversation with 3 of the guys. one had checked out halfway through, and i wanted to verify that he was ok (he was just tired). two others, though, have such a big impact on the group with their choices, and i wanted to challenge them. i thought i was going to give a short, strong word of ‘i believe in you, and i want you to see how you shape our group time.’ easy-peasy, lemon squeezy, and move on.

the last of those short conversations, though, caught me off guard.

it went down like this:

me: dude, you have so much power in our group. you are a natural leader, and the other guys follow your lead. you have more power to impact the vibe of our time together than i have. i’d really love to see you choose to exercise that power in a positive way.

8th grade guy: teach me!

me: uh, what?

8th grade guy: teach me about leadership! that would be so cool!

me: uh…ok.

honestly, he freaking called my bluff. i wasn’t expecting an invitation to step it up with a guy who’s moving on to the high school ministry in about six weeks. but that’s not an open door (heck: it was much bigger than an open door!) that a youth worker can say no to.

so: i ordered a couple copies of 99 Thoughts for Student Leaders, and we had our first meeting the other night.

FRIDAY NUGGET: the location of great middle school ministry

i was massively revising an old seminar on middle school ministry while in new zealand last week, and updated some stuff i didn’t find complete enough anymore. i had previously taught an axiom: “quality middle school ministry always takes place in the context of meaningful relationships and meaningful ministry opportunities.” it wasn’t that i completely disagreed with that; but it didn’t feel like the whole story, or the best way of expressing the whole truth.

so i came up with this:

great middle school ministry takes place at a 3-way intersection:

  • feeling stuff (belonging and safety)
  • doing stuff (particularly serving, but also the sort of ‘doing stuff’ that provides a shared experience for relationships of meaning and a sense of agency)
  • saying stuff (“verbalization of belief is more important–or a higher priority–than accuracy of belief”)

my new working metaphor for young teens and doubt

for years, as i’ve talked about the spiritual development of young teens and their brain development, i’ve said something along these lines:

abstract thinking is a beautiful gift from god that comes with the onset of puberty. abstract thinking is, in a nutshell, thinking about thinking. there are tons of implications, but the primary biggies are speculation (asking ‘what if’ and ‘why’ questions), and third person perspective (seeing myself from someone else’s point of view, or seeing someone else from someone else’s point of view, or even considering an idea from someone else’s point of view). these two results of abstract thinking are revolutionary to the spiritual development of teenagers (as well as for their emotional development, relational growth, and identity formation). preteens are some of the most concluded people on the planet. they have a completely worked out (albeit naive) worldview and systematic theology — concrete, but functional. then puberty comes along like a tsunami and obliterates all that conclusiveness, creating a space for questions and doubts and a move toward either rejecting childhood faith or growing into a more robust, complex, adult faith.

i think i’d picked up that ‘tsunami’ metaphorical language years and years ago from one of my own junior high ministry mentors. it’s dramatic, and sounds nice.

but it’s not accurate.

and i’ve replaced that metaphor recently in how i talk about this shift.

the reason it’s not accurate is that young teens don’t suddenly acquire fully-functioning abstract thinking. they get the capacity; but it’s like an underdeveloped super-wimpy muscle that has to be exercised for a number of years in order to gain strength. so, yes, young teens (post-puberty) have the capacity for abstract thinking; and it DOES have huge implications for all those developmental realities (including spiritual). but it doesn’t happen overnight. it’s not a light switch. and the ‘elimination’ of concrete childhood beliefs does NOT take place like the arrival of tsunami.

picture a giant cliff at the edge of a sea. but this cliff is made of something soft and easy to erode — like dirt, or sandstone, or chalk (think: cliffs of dover). when the capacity for abstract thinking kicks in, nothing changes immediately. those concluded faith bits still stand like a proud sea cliff as long as the sea below is calm.

but then something happens that creates a gap or tension between experience and belief. like: a 12 year-old who has always had a beautiful and confident belief that god answers my prayers, that if i really pray and it’s not selfish, i can throw a mountain into a sea. and that kid’s favorite grandpa gets inoperable cancer. the kid is confident (full of faith) that prayer will heal his grandpa; but grandpa dies. now, suddenly, there are stormy seas below the cliff. waves crash against that edifice, and erosion happens. the concrete beliefs of the preteen years can’t stand against the barrage of powerful storm waves.

btw: at this point, a young teen almost always needs an adult who can come alongside and help them move all this erosion/storm waves/doubts stuff out of the murky world of subconscious if they hope to do anything other than reject that previous faith bit (if they hope to consider alternatives and new, more abstract, ways of thinking and believing).

so there you have it: doubt comes to young teen faith not like a tsunami of change, but like a storm wave crashing into a sea cliff made of easily-erodible stuff.

let’s get in there, storm chasers.

cliffs of dover.erosion

overheard at my 7th grade guys small group

ok, new group, new rules. after a couple years of occasional “overheard at my 6th grade guys small group” and “overheard at my 7th grade guys small group” posts, i was partway into a fantastic year of “overheard at my 8th grade guys small group” posts last year when the guys asked me to stop. but i ran it past my new 7th grade guys, and they (predictably) loved it.

IMG_5001it’s a smaller group, and a few of them are wonderfully quiet. so the quantity isn’t large. but: some great stuff…

7th grade guy: I’m a white girl; I need my phone!

me (it was the first week, so i was getting to know them): Do you have any pets?
7th grade guy: I own two parents.

me: Do you have any pets?
different 7th grade guy: We had a fish, but it got stolen.

me: I’m older than most of your dads.
7th grade guy: No, you’re like 40 or something.
me: No, I’m 51.
different 7th grade guy: Omigosh, you’re not quite older than my grandma!

(btw: in the small inset photo above, if you look closely, you’ll notice that i dorkily photobombed my own photo.)

12 things i love about middle school ministry

a number of years ago i wrote a post listing reasons why i love middle school ministry. and recently, i re-wrote that post as a column for youthwork magazine (in the UK). here’s my list (realize that “middle school ministry” doesn’t mean anything in the UK, so i use their term “11 – 14s” or young teens instead):

IMG_386712 Things to Love About Young Teen Ministry

  1. Young teen ministry is about shaping. What an opportunity! Everything I learn about young teens continues to affirm and re-affirm that this is not merely a holding period until the good stuff of older teen work.
  2. 11 – 14s are easy to connect with. Years ago, a youth ministry mentor shared this simple observation: 11 – 14s, in their decision as to whether they’ll allow you into their lives, are only asking the question, “Do you like me?” Older teens complicate it more by adding, “Do I like you?” And university students ramp up the complexity by layering on the additional question, “Do I like what you stand for?”
  3. They’re willing to try anything. The young teen years (in a post-puberty parallel to the first few years of life) are all about discovery, or sampling. Young teens, in the earliest stages of self-conscious identity formation, want to try everything. They don’t start testing conclusions until the middle teen years. This is a wild ride of unpredictability, of course, and can feel very scattered and capricious. But there’s willingness—even desire—to try things that makes young teens prime for creative and participatory youth work.
  4. The wonder of abstract thinking. 11 – 14s are far from experienced with abstract thought. But the capacity is there (I like to think of it as God’s puberty gift). And they’re dipping their toes in the water, checking it out.
  5. The process of doubts and faith development. Tied to the development of abstract thinking, young teens are on the leading edge of stumbling onto doubts about their faith. This is a critical aspect of faith development, and should never be shamed or shut down. Wrestling with complexities is the necessary detour from childlike, inherited faith to a more robust, owned faith.
  6. They’re unpredictable. Maybe you find this frustrating, but I love it. Young teens regularly and consistently surprise me. They surprise me with their random questions. They surprise me with their hidden talents. They surprise me with their insight. They surprise me with their interpretations (often different than I expect). The unpredictability of 11 – 14s keeps young teen ministry fresh and untamed.
  7. Parents are still involved. Sure, there are plenty of older teens with involved parents. But there’s a drop-off in parent involvement throughout the teen years, as many parents retreat out of fear, exasperation, or a misguided understanding of what it means to give their teenagers independence. We know that parents have a significantly larger shaping role in the lives and faith of their teenagers than we do; so this higher level of parent involvement creates an easier path to coming alongside parents, partnering for greater impact.
  8. They have more time than older teenagers. Yes, young teens are busier than ever; but they still have more time and availability than their older peers. Mix this in with their #3 above (their willingness to try anything), and you’ve got a potent pot of “let’s do stuff!”
  9. Most are not yet jaded. 14 year-olds can start to get a little jaded (some of ‘em). Older teenagers—holy cow—can wear cynicism and “been there, done that” as comfortably as Lady Gaga wears a meat suit. But most young teens possess wonderfully low levels of cynicism, and a naiveté that looks a lot like hope.
  10. They’re passionate. I love the “all in” attitude of most 11 – 14s. It’s not only their willingness to try things (mentioned in #3 above); they’re also passionate about the things they try, the opinions they voice, the beliefs they hold. The funny thing is: they’re passionate about things that, often, they won’t be passionate about in two months or two years.
  11. They’re forgiving. When you mess up, or have an off night in your teaching, or plan a lame event, or say something dumb, young teens are quick to forgive (particularly if you ask for it). The travel time back to normal (whatever that is!) is extremely short.
  12. They’re fun! Young teens keep me feeling young (not so easy at 50 years-old). They’re playful and hilarious, goofy and unselfconscious. Young teens remind me, regularly, of what a joy-filled life should look like.

if you agree with me on at least most of these, then you need to join us at the third annual Middle School Ministry Campference. the earlybird registration price (and $50 bonus back of free stuff and campference munchies) runs out in two weeks, on june 30!

my-tribe-square

being a middle school guys small group leader is like being a mediocre golfer

last night, all the small group leaders from my church’s youth ministry had an end-of-the-school-year thank you dinner and wrap up. the high school and middle school leaders ate together; but then we slit off into separate ministry groupings to debrief the year a bit. here’s a little pano of our middle school small group leaders, minus about 5 or so who couldn’t be there last night (you can click on it to see it bigger, if you’re so inclined):

IMG_4421

the main thing we did was share stories (i’m a BIG fan of this, btw, as stories communicate all sorts of embodied truth). once the ball got rolling, everyone had something to share, and there was a beautiful sense of “i am not alone.”

i was, by far, the oldest one there (there are a couple other leaders my age, but they weren’t at the meeting). and i was also one of the only leaders there with more than a few years of experience. but, honestly, this was one of the hardest years of middle school ministry for me in a long time. i shared with our team that i really struggled, second guessed myself, and wondered what was going wrong. i vacillated between being completely stoked about my guys and being completely annoyed by them. my group was too big, and too impossible to focus, and too easily distracted (yes, more than normal for middle school guys!), and too quick to speak on top of each other (almost constantly).

as i was about to share with the other leaders last night, a metaphor for my experience of being a middle school ministry volunteer this year jumped into my mind:

i used to be a golfer. like, i used to golf about 2 or 3 times a month. i read articles about golfing. i bought golf clubs. i tried out new courses. and, yes, i even watched golf on TV (and played a lot of tiger woods golf on my xbox).

but i was never a good golfer. at my best, i was a mediocre golfer. i probably would have had to triple-down on the number of times i played in order to see a difference in my game, and i wasn’t willing (or able) to do that. so, consistently, my golf games looked like this:

approximately 10 – 20 shots in a row would totally suck. i hit the ball too short. i shanked it. i putted past the hole and right off the green. i lost it in the woods or the lake. i topped it, hard, and the ball dribbled forward about 10 feet. occasionally i even completely whiffed–swinging my club with focus, intention and expectation, but not actually connecting with the ball. somewhere between the 7th and 12th bad shot in a row, i fairly consistently had the same sorts of thoughts enter my head or exit my mouth:

this game sucks.

why would anyone subject themselves to this? and i’m paying for this! what is wrong with me?

this game is impossible. or at least, this game is impossible for me.

there is absolutely no enjoyment in golf beyond the cigar in my mouth and the beer waiting for me in the clubhouse.

but, then: deep into my discouragement and disillusionment and fatalism and plans to quit, i’d hit a chip shot onto the green and it would drop in the hole. or i’d somehow hit a fairway wood just right, and by some miracle, it would perfectly curve around that tree in the middle of the fairway and catch the leading edge of a downward slope, adding 50 feet to my shot.

and when i hit one of those shots, well, i couldn’t stop then! i either had to take another shot to see if i might be on some sort of streak of brilliance (or i’d suddenly become a fantastic golfer, somehow), or i took another shot because i just didn’t care, since i was basking in the joy of what had just occurred.

THAT, my middle school ministry friends, is what this past year of leading an 8th grade guys small group felt like for me, a 33 year veteran of middle school ministry. there were absolutely stunning moments of beauty. flashes of insight. spaces of deep honesty and vulnerability. DMZs of listening to each other. absolute god moments.

there were less moments of awesomeness than there were moments of annoyance; but there were just enough to keep me from quitting.

and here’s the litmus test for me: i stop and think of each guy’s face, picturing him in my mind’s eye. and i pay attention to what i’m feeling. and i can honestly say that for each one of them, my internal response is “oh, man, i love that kid! he is so awesome. i have so much HOPE for his future.”

so, yeah, i’ll take another small group next fall.

Join us at the 2014 Middle School Ministry Campference!

my-tribe-square– Customized learning about Middle School Ministry.
– Conversations with people who understand you.
– Rubbing shoulders with JH Ministry vets and experts.
– Worship.
– Laughter.
– Dialogue.
– Ziplines and skeet shooting and nature and camp food and silliness and lip syncing and late night secret sharing and rest.

What’s the only place you can experience every single one of those in one weekend? The Middle School Ministry Campference, of course. Come join with your tribe.

Here’s what a few of last year’s attendees had to say:

The MSMC is like getting one-on-one training focused on Middle School Ministry all day long. From the speakers on stage to the person sitting next to you, every person brings it at the MSMC. Every time you start a conversation you know it could be the best one of the weekend.

It’s unlike any other youth ministry conference. Not only do you get great content, but the laid back camp atmosphere creates a great environment for building relationships with other middle school youth workers.

Middle School Ministry Campference isn’t about all the hype and pizzazz of other conferences. It’s about being together with the strange creatures that Middle School Pastors are. It’s not about showing you creative things; it’s about inspiring creativity in all of us. The connections that you make here are 1000x better and more useful than the handful of notes you’ll take anywhere else and never look at again. If I had the choice between Campference and any other conference, I’d choose this every time.

The Campference site is now live, and registration is open! We work hard to keep our all-inclusive rates crazy-low. And thanks to our partners, we’re able to offer Early Bird registration, including LODGING AND ALL MEALS at these great rates:

  • $320 – Early Bird Single Registration (register by June 30, 2014)
  • $295 – Early Bird Group Rate, per person (groups of 3 or more, register by June 30, 2014)

As added Early Bird perks, we’re throwing in more than $50 of extra goodies, FREE:

web-header

my brand new book: 99 THOUGHTS FOR JUNIOR HIGHERS

99-thoughts-for-junior-highersi wrote a thing.

actually, i co-wrote it. with my good friend brooklyn lindsey.

it’s called 99 Thoughts for Junior Highers: Biblical Truth in Bite-Sized Pieces

we both completely dig junior highers/middle schoolers/young teens. really: i’ve been working with them for 33 years, brooklyn for lots of years also (she’s clearly not as old as me). i wrote another one of these a year ago with my own two niños (99 Thoughts on Raising Your Parents), and thought it was a blast to write. so we were pretty pumped when Simply Youth Ministry said yes to our idea of adding this book to their 99 Thoughts line.

if you’re familiar with the 99 Thoughts line, you might be surprised by this: even though we wrote for young teens, the “thoughts” are longer than most of the books in this series (in fact, we turned in a manuscript that was almost exactly twice as long as requested!). there’s depth to this book, even though it cover a LOT of ground in a limited amount of space.

we broke the 99 Thoughts into 11 “chapters” (really, subject groupings):

  • Who Am I? – Understanding Yourself
  • What’s Happening to Me? – Everything About You Is Changing
  • You and God
  • The Low-Down on Church
  • How Do I Figure Out What I Believe?
  • Friends
  • Family
  • Future Matters
  • What’s Most Important? – Figuring Out Priorities
  • Your Crazy Life
  • Girls and Guys

each chapter also has a “Story from Junior High Marko” or “Junior High Brooklyn.” they’re true stories from our own young teen years, thematically connected to the chapter, and told from our perspective as if we were junior highers. a little weird, but fun.

here’s the back cover copy:

Life for a typical junior higher is awesome. And hard. And fun. And exciting. And boring. And crazy, right? Basically, it’s a blur of all those things—and more!

Junior high truly is a season of ups and downs, of possibilities and confusion, of amazing memories and embarrassing moments. To survive it all, you sometimes just need a little help—or 99 bite-sized bits of help!

Mark Oestreicher and Brooklyn Lindsey—youth pastors who’ve worked with people your age for a long, long time—have teamed up to create this insider’s guide for this wild ride.

They’ll help as you examine the changes in your life, figure out what you believe, see where God and church fit into the picture, choose how to interact with family and friends, and decide what matters most in life. And you’ll read some true stories about the authors’ own junior high years!

99 Thoughts for Junior Highers will entertain, engage, and encourage you during this crazy season of life!

we really hope that youth workers and parents will get it for their 11 – 14 year-olds. it’s a great stocking stuffer, mom & dad. it’s a fun small group christmas gift (which you could totally use in small groups come january). check it out or buy it here!

and, for a bit of oddity, here’s a li’l promo video i shot in my hotel room at o’hare airport last night when i got stuck there on my way home…