Tag Archives: slant33.com

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?

what’s the difference between teaching middle schoolers and high schoolers about dating and sexuality?

i addressed this question in a recent edition of slant33.com. click here to see two more good responses, from michelle lang and d. scott miller.

my response:

Full disclosure: I have taught on sex and dating to middle schoolers more times than I can count and have had even more conversations about sex and dating in middle school small groups. I have taught on sex and dating to college students once. I have taught on sex and dating to high school students approximately zero times.

It’s not that I’ve avoided the subject with high schoolers. I just don’t have many teaching opportunities with high schoolers (aside from speaking to them at large events, where sex and dating are never the topic). That’s because I have been hanging out in middle school ministry for thirty years.

But that disparity has given me plenty of opportunity to consider this particular Slant 33 question, especially since most advice and resources on sexuality in the youth ministry world are targeted to high schoolers. So I’ve spent a youth ministry lifetime modifying and filtering, adjusting and considering my audience.

Let’s start with what’s the same:

Sex (and dating) is a subject that cannot and should not be avoided. No matter how comfortable you are or aren’t, it’s pure irresponsibility as a youth worker to avoid this subject.

Wise and self-monitoring honesty is the best approach. Honesty is critical on this subject with so much misinformation, a subject that few adults are willing to be honest about with teenagers. But our honesty has to be tempered with wisdom (of what not to say) and self-monitoring.

Thanks to the dual, interconnected forces of the internet and a sex-obsessed culture, there’s not as much difference in how we should address this subject with middle schoolers as there was, say, twenty years ago. The primary differences could be summarized in two generalities:

Middle schoolers have less experience and less knowledge when it comes to sex. Even dating, to most middle schoolers, is a very different practice—for those who would say they have dated—than it is for their older brothers and sisters. As is true of so many factors in the teenage years, experience and understanding of sex and sexuality are a sliding scale (same with abstract thinking, worldview, independence, and a host of other issues). But, in general, most middle schoolers need conversations about what sex will be more than they need conversations about what it already is.

Middle schoolers are all over the board in their own sexual development. Sure, you could accurately say this about high schoolers too. But the plain fact is that 99% of high schoolers are post pubescent. When the subject of wet dreams comes up in my sixth-grade guys’ group, the majority of guys only have an idea (usually wrong, like “it’s when you pee in your sleep!”), and not actual experience. Of course, that personal experience, even for those eighth graders who have no interpersonal sexual experience, shifts dramatically as their sexuality awakens.

When I, as a middle school youth worker, combine the truths of the first two similarities with the second two differences, I’m left with this: When talking about sex with young teens, I am compelled by my calling to dive into—not avoid—honest conversations and teaching times but to do so with extreme sensitivity to age-appropriate developmental and experiential realities.

The best advice I ever received on the topic of teaching about sex and dating with teenagers came from Jim Hancock, co-author (with Kara Powell) of the exceptional youth ministry resource Good Sex 2.0. Jim says that, in his observation, youth workers often err in their approach to teaching about sex to teenagers in one of two extremes. Either they talk about sex as if it’s everything, or they talk about sex as if it’s nothing.

Sex is a big deal! It’s definitely not nothing. But it’s not everything. I’m committed—as awkward and uncomfortable as it might be at times—to teaching (and having conversations) in that tension.

the role of the holy spirit in youth ministry

i was one of the three contributors on this week’s slant33.com question: what’s the role of the holy spirit in your youth ministry? click here to see the excellent responses from the other two contributors, albert tate and brooklyn lindsey. but here’s my response:

I’ve had a bit of an awakening to the Holy Spirit in the last couple years. As soon as most people read that first sentence, though, they will assume I mean that I’ve awoken to signs and wonders stuff. That’s not what I mean. (Everything on the table: I’m in the middle; I’m not a sensationalist, but I’ve not had much personal experience or desire for signs and wonders experiences.) The awakening to the Holy Spirit that I’ve experienced has played out on two levels: in my own life and faith practice and in my thinking about youth ministry and church leadership.

My last year at Youth Specialties and the pressure I felt to perform were particularly soul deadening for me. By the time I got laid off, I was close to burnout—both professionally and spiritually. But in the two or three months that followed, I experienced a gorgeous re-awakening of my soul. I felt God’s presence for the first time in a long time. My prayer life rekindled, and I started to hear God speaking, nudging, consoling. I knew this was the Holy Spirit, who had never left, of course. Instead, my spiritual eyes were merely opening to the Spirit’s presence.

This ramped up when I launched the Youth Ministry Coaching Program. When my cohorts were in times of personal sharing, I started sensing the Holy Spirit giving me insight that was beyond me, and I even started receiving what could only be called words of truth to be offered to others. I entered into the exercise of this with open hands—not grasping it or claiming it or arrogantly confident about whatever I might think I should say. But I was amazed, over and over again (as I have continued to be over the last eighteen months) that what I was hearing—from the Holy Spirit—was usually accurate. One of the most powerful of these was a time when I had a strong sense that another person in the sharing circle had a word from God for the person talking. Sure enough, when I called that out, the words spoken had a profoundly holy and truthy beauty to them, and we all knew we were on holy ground.

This has changed both my regular, everyday experience of God as well as my youth ministry practice. When I’m leading my middle-school-guys small group, for example, I’m trying to choose (and it is a choice, by the way) to simultaneously listen to my guys and to the Holy Spirit. One of the surprise benefits to me, in a youth ministry setting, is that I feel unburdened and free. That’s because I’m not carrying the absurd responsibility of being smart or insightful enough to know what to say.

This personal awakening and shift in my practice has also shaped my thinking about youth ministry and church leadership. If you ever hear me talk about Youth Ministry 3.0 stuff these days, I hope you hear the difference from what I wrote about in that book. When I wrote that book, about four years ago now, I was not operating with this mindset or experience, and most of my suggestions only tip a hat to the role of the Holy Spirit. But these days, I’m convinced that great youth workers (and great church leaders) need to recover the art of collaborative discernment. Great youth ministry takes all different forms because it has to be contextual. But the path to a wonderfully contextualized youth ministry is not merely an effort of assessment and study. In fact, it is first and foremost an exercise of listening (and I believe that listening needs to be practiced in community, which is why I am passionate about collaborative discernment).

Yes, we need to do assessments and learn about the community we do ministry in; yes, we need to read and study and observe. But more important than all of that is the intentional act of gathering a small group of spiritually minded people to actively listen to the Holy Spirit. Ask, What teenagers have you placed in our midst? (No, just observing them is not enough.) Listen. Ask, What teenagers are you calling us to in our community? Listen. Ask, What would a culturally and contextually appropriate approach be to reach those teenagers? Listen.

Bottom line #1: Without a sense of the Holy Spirit’s role in your life, you will always be limited in your own spiritual growth and practice and, therefore, in your youth ministry efforts. Bottom line #2: A youth ministry that’s not informed by active and intentional listening to the Holy Spirit will miss out on who God is calling it to be.