Tag Archives: teaching middle schoolers

involving middle schoolers in teaching (The Ghost of Amos)

one of my fondest memories of teaching middle schoolers was the annual “film festival” we ran with our small groups at one of my churches. each small group would have a month to make a film, based on list of suggested bible stories. they could tell the story faithfully, modernize it, or pull out some point and base the film around that. then, we’d have an awards night where we’d screen them all and give out massive quantities of awards.

so often, we think middle schoolers are only capable of “receiving” when it comes to teaching. but the learning goes up exponentially when they’re actually involved.

take this example:

our middle school ministry at my church is doing on a series on old testament prophets during our sunday morning teaching time. each of the small groups was invited (though it was optional) to take a week and do with it whatever they wanted. my small group of 6th grade guys took a week; but it’s lucky i have an awesome co-leader who steered that boat, since i was out of town.

i’m more familiar with what the 8th grade guys group did, because my son max is in that group. max’s group taught on Amos. and i can tell you this: as a result, max knows more, and will remember more, about amos than he does about any other old testament prophet.

the guys studied the book together, pulled out themes, narrowed it to one (living what you believe), and parsed out various teaching bits. max taught for about 5 minutes in the “so what?” section of the lesson, sharing a personal story, and pointing out the main theme, as well as providing some suggestions for how others might apply it. he came to me the day before he taught, asking if he could practice in front of me and get my suggestions. i only had one minor suggestion, and he incorporated it really well.

not all the guys were up front. but they were all involved in front of or behind the camera in a video they made (thanks to the expert leadership of their small group leader, ian robertson, who used to be the video guy at YS, and is still a professional videographer, and also the husband of our middle school pastor). in the video — The Ghost of Amos — max plays amos. yup. that’s my boy.

unholster the U

eons ago — seriously, probably 20 years ago — i was teaching on unity in the body of christ to my junior high group (specifically applying it to unity within our group). and i came up with this very silly, seemingly throw-away, idea of a hand motion and catch phrase for the group to remember. i’d form my hand in the shape of a U, put it at my side (like a gunslinger with his hand on the gun handle), then — while pulling the U up to eye level — say, “unholster the U”, and “remember, Unity begins with U”.

yeah, kinda dorky.

but the thing was, the group loved it. we started using it all the time to remind each other to be loving and kind to each other, not gossiping, name-calling, or any other behaviors that were destructive to unity.

i think i introduced the idea in my next church or two also, but i don’t remember it ever catching on like it did with that first group (any former students reading this remember this?).

well, apparently (i hadn’t remember this), i wrote the idea into a lesson on unity in wild truth bible lessons: dares from jesus 2, which was published in 2003 (and probably written in 2001 or 2002). and i don’t know if i’ve thought about ‘unholstering the U’ since then.

but the other day i got this wonderful facebook message from a youth worker named robby:

Hey Mark O.
For years (since ’03? ’04 maybe?) I have been pulling out the ‘Unholstering the U’ application from Dares from Jesus 2, and every time I am shocked that it ‘works’ and kids go for it. The last time I uses the illustration was about 6 weeks ago; tonight I received the following email from a parent. Thank you for your ministry of equipping youth workers–and creating curriculum that works so we can spend time building relationships.

Parent email:
Jackie was talking on the way home from the Harvest Festival tonight about the hand movement you guys did at Zoo a couple weeks ago…where you start with your hand on your hip and then form a U with your hand…you know what I am talking about…

Anyway, she said that she has done that a few times with Kamryn and Rob at school and then she saw Grayson at a soccer game sitting on the sidelines while she was playing and she did it to/with him as well…I just thought that was such a neat way to create bonds between these kids of different ages and with different interests – such a cool way to bring them together and make them a group.

I just thought I would share…your good work is doing neat things way outside of our walls at FPC. We appreciate you very much.

Have a good week,

what a kick. i was grinning from ear to ear as i read that; not only did a youth worker use that old silly idea and find it helpful — but to see an email from mom somewhere in america, who i don’t know, commenting how her daughter was ‘unholstering the U’, was a marko-happy-maker.

so there you have it: unity begins with (yo)U!

jael, courage, cooking, and middle schoolers

yesterday (sunday), i taught in my church’s middle school group as part of a series of “weird, gross, and strange” bible stories. i chose to talk about jael, the wife of heber who drove a tent peg through sisera’s temple after lullabying him to sleep with milk and cookies.

i’ve taught on this passage to middle schoolers many times before. i even wrote a lesson on jael for wild truth bible lessons 2. but when i looked over my previous notes, as well as that lesson i’d written, i kinda felt they all missed the point. i had previously focused on “doing hard things for god.” but that just came off sounding like legalism in many ways, or, at least, a kind of performance-based grace. as i was reading the story in judges 4 this time around, i really felt like it is more about courage.

one of my favorite little factoids about courage is its etymology. cour is the latin root, and means “heart” (cour means heart in french also, btw). to have cour-age is to have a full heart. so the question becomes: how does one get a full heart?

before i describe what i did, i have to give props to my two kids. max (12) plays drums for the middle school worship band. that band is in a bit of a “rebuilding phase,” and normally has (at this point in time) drums, bass, rhythm guitar, and two girls who share keyboard and vocal duties. they are 5 middle schoolers. what they lack in musical excellence they more than make up by being peers to the group they’re leading in worship.

well, the bass player (a guy in my small group) broke his finger playing football the other day; so he was out. then, for reasons i didn’t hear, the two girls weren’t going to make it. early sunday morning, the middle school pastor called max as we were driving to church, and asked if there was any way liesl (16, who plays keyboards, and sometimes bass, in the high school worship band) could help fill in. on a half hour’s notice, liesl and another friend came over and helped make it work. actually, liesl played bass in HS, then came over and played keys in MS, then went back and played keys for a cover song in HS as part of the teaching time, and played bass again for a closing worship set in HS — and she did all of this 2x, since there are 2 HS and MS services on sunday mornings at my church. with me also teaching, it did feel like a family affair. if jeannie had been there to offer spiritual direction to middle schoolers, we could have had some kind of von trap thing going.

back to jael and courage.

when i was thinking about how to teach on having a full heart, i had this idea that introducing a cooking show in the middle of my lesson, where i taught how to ‘fill a heart’, might be a fun angle. i called the middle school pastor, and she quickly found a butcher shop where she could pick up a couple sheep hearts (very similar in size to human hearts, btw).

i started with a funny story about a time i got really scared when i was trying to have courage, while a teenager (i was trying to impress a girl in a scary situation).

then i transitioned to the story of jael. i made full-page name tags of the following characters, with titles, and duct-taped them to 8 volunteer students who stood up front:
– King Jabin (bad guy)
– Deborah (prophet)
– God (creator)
– Barak (Israel’s general)
– Sisera (Jabin’s general)
– Heber (Nomatic dude)
– Jael (Heber’s wife)
– Peggy (the instrument of courage)

i told the story, pointing to the various characters. any time i said a character’s name, the group had to shout out their title. it got a little silly at points, but seemed to work, giving a little visual to the characters to help students grasp the storyline.

after the story, i asked:
Which of these 3 responses from Jael was most likely her real response? (the middle school pastor read of these on a mic, hidden in the back of the room:)

1. OK, so, Jael here. Seriously, can I just be honest with you? I’m a super hero. No, really. Tent-wife by day, super hero by night. My super power? Hammering tent pegs through the heads of bad dudes. At least, that’s what I’m convinced my super power is, because that’s WHAT I JUST DID. Seriously, I am NOT TO BE MESSED WITH! IN FACT, YOU WILL NO LONGER CALL ME JAEL; YOU WILL CALL ME… HAMMERHEAD!

2. Yeah, this is Jael. So, like, this general guy came into my tent and I killed him. I was no biggie, really. I don’t see why everyone’s making such a big deal about this. Seriously – I’m, like, the wife of a nomad, after all. It’s not like I’ve never killed nuthin’ before. That Sisera guy was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, baby. Whatevs.

3. I am still so freaked out! Jael here; yeah, the wife of Heber. I can hardly believe what just happened. YUCK! So, this general guy, Sisera, showed up at my tent. I recognized him, because he’s a pretty important dude. And even though I’m not an Israelite, I knew that Sisera and his boss, King Jabin, have been treating the Israelites horribly for 20 years. I don’t know, I just knew I had to have courage and do this thing. It totally freaked me out, and I almost barfed while doing it. Seriously, it was crazy, but I somehow knew I was supposed to do it.

after clarifying why i thought that third response was the most likely, i introduced the subject of courage, and unpacked the meaning of the word (to have a full heart).

i turned around, put on an ‘in n out burger’ cook hat, a tiny apron, and introduced the cooking show…


i brought out the sheep hearts, cut the tops off of them, then spent some time talking about the ingredients that going into having a full heart.
– i broke a couple eggs (using them as a simple illustration for the trinity) and separated the whites into a bowl, explaining how we can never have a full heart unless the holy spirit gives us strength.
– i added bread crumbs to the bowl, saying they represented our willingness to respond to god.
– then i added cayenne pepper and some other spice, saying they represented a positive attitude.

as i stirred the mixture with my hands, i explained how having only 2 of those ingredients won’t cut it:
– with only our willingness and positive attitude, but no holy spirit, the whole thing falls apart.
– with the holy spirit and our willingness, but a bad attitude, it’s flavorless.
– with the holy spirit and a positive attitude, but no willingness, there’s no substance and nothing happens.

then i stuffed the mixture into one of the sheep hearts and talked about how having courage isn’t the same thing as having no fear. we can be scared, but still move out with courage. as i cleaned up my hands, i talked about david running at goliath, and guessed that he might have been thinking something like:
“I’m about to pee myself right now because I’m so scared; but I have courage because God gave it to me, and I’m not going to back down, you freak!”

then i quickly unpacked these ideas:

• Courage does not mean “no fear”. Courage means taking action even if you have fear!

• Only God can fill your heart. Only God can give you courage.

• Ps 31:24: Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the LORD.

we moved into a time of response, where i asked the group to think about things they needed courage for, giving them a few seconds on each suggestion to think and pray:
• Making the right choice when the wrong one would be easier?
• Standing up for someone?
• Speaking the truth about something?
• Mending a broken friendship?
• Admitting a sin to God or someone else?
• Saying no to a sin that always seems to pull you in?

then, for a memorable close, i had them write one thing they were asking god to give them courage for on a small piece of paper. they folding them up, and, while i held it, shoved them down into the cavities of the other sheep heart.

we closed with a time of prayer, asking for the holy spirit to fill our hearts for those acts of courage we’d identified.

hopefully, they ‘got it’. certainly, it was memorable! :)

here are the notes that were on their handouts:

Meet Peggy, the instrument of courage
Doing tough stuff requires courage. But that might not mean what you think it does.

1. Jael was:
a. An Old Testament superhero
b. A butt-kicking kung fu mama
c. A simple tent-wife who had courage

2. Peggy was:
a. The name of a piano-playing kitty-cat
b. Deborah’s nickname (only her family used it)
c. The stupid name Marko is using for the tent peg

3. Sisera was:
a. Once alive
b. Then, thanks to Jael’s courage and Peggy’s pointiness, dead
c. All of the above


COUR = _______________

COURAGE = _______________________________

Courage does not mean “_____________________________”. Courage means taking action even if you have _________________________!

Only _________________ can fill your heart. Only _____________________ can give you courage.