Be Prepared, but Be Flexible

“i don’t really have much planned for my small group,” (or teaching time, or youth group discussion) “because i just want to be response to the leading of the holy spirit.” lame. my experience is that i’ll never notice the spirit’s leading with that sort of laziness.
but, the other extreme is equally unhelpful — being rigid in sticking to what i’ve prepared.
the best conversations with my smalli group — the ones where i can truly be responsive to the leading of the spirit — are when i’m both prepared and flexible.

(i wrote this earlier this year for my middle school ministry column in youthworker journal.)

Just before Christmas, I was leading my 6th grade guys small group in a conversation about the incarnation. My hope was to remind them that this season was about more than presents and a break from school. Pretty straightforward stuff, right?

So I was a little caught off guard when Chris interrupted whatever brilliance I was in the midst of explaining to say, “How do we even know this is true?”

My compassionate and well-honed response: “What?”

Chris: “I mean, I know the story of baby Jesus and all, and I know the stuff about him being God, and Mary being a virgin, and how Jesus was God in a man and all that. But I just don’t understand how we’re so sure about it all.”

One of the other guys piped in, loudly, with, “You’re not supposed to ask questions like that!”

Whoa. Wait a second. These guys are 6th graders. And if there’s one thing I know about 6th grade guys after 30 years of working with them is that they are still concrete thinkers. It’s a very rare 6th grader who has already tip-toed far enough into puberty to have his brain rewired for abstract thinking, the kind of thinking that often produces doubts about a faith system worked out through years of parental and church input. It’s a very rare 6th grader who asks questions like Chris.

I assumed it was an aberrant blip on the radar, based on my understanding of early adolescent development. And I quickly concluded that the more important reality at that point was to affirm Chris for asking the question, and remove any judgment from the room. I affirmed Chris, and explained to all the guys how questions like that are great, and will become an important part of their growing faith as they move into and through their teen years.

And I moved on.

Three months passed. I don’t even remember what topic I had prepared for when we got to “Chris’ questions, revisited.” I’m sure it was going to be good, and I know I had something prepared. All I remember was that we had just started reading a Bible passage when Chris interrupted again, “No one will answer my questions!”

Me again: “Huh?” (See, that’s the kind of deep and inquisitive questioning you’ll get to with lots and lots of experience.)

Chris unloaded, “I asked my parents, and they told me it was great that I was asking questions. I asked you and you said the same thing. You gave me this book (he pointed to a book I had written for young teens!), and it basically said the same thing, but didn’t answer a single question for me.”

He was desperate, and it was clearly time to set aside my finely tuned plan for our small group time. I said, “Ok, let’s do it now. Ask me whatever you want, and I’ll try to answer as honestly as I can. But I need to warn you, Chris, that my answers might not be good enough for you. Because, ultimately, you’d going to have to choose whether or not you’ll have faith. And most of the answers won’t completely remove your questions.”

He started asking questions, like:

  • How do we know the Bible is true?
  • How do we know God is who we say he is?
  • What if we’re wrong about all of this?
  • How do we really know there’s a heaven?

He wasn’t giving me a chance to respond! And other guys started jumping in. One of my favorites (worded as only a young teen could word it) was, “What if we get to heaven and find out it’s the wrong God?”

We spent the next 30 or 40 minutes, my co-leader and I, attempting to explain why we believe what we believe. Throughout that time, I continually tried to “normalize their experience” by affirming the asking, and restating the role of faith.

It might have been the best night of the year. And there are two things that were extremely clear to me at the end of the evening:

  1. We never would have gotten to that good stuff if I hadn’t had something prepared. If I’d been winging it, the context wouldn’t have been there for the questions to arise.
  2. And, we never would have gotten to that good stuff if I’d stayed true to what I’d prepared.

That’s the secret sauce of middle school ministry – be prepared, but be flexible.

5 thoughts on “Be Prepared, but Be Flexible”

  1. Having worked in somewhat conservative (read Calvinists) non-denominational churches and a Pentecostal denominational church, I’ve seen both sides of what you are exploring this morning. It can be frustrating on each account. I’ve had fellow youth pastors say that they felt “something was happening”, but they needed to stick to their detailed script. I also heard from those who plan on the Spirit providing every time say that a meeting never became what they had hoped for. It would be easy to blame one side for being too anal and the other too lazy, but hearing their hearts tells you otherwise! There has to be a plan, even if simplified, to know direction-ally where you want to end up. That is a way to measure success. There also has to be some freedom to allow GOD to move. Usually the Spirit shows up because we have been doing the right things, preparing (as best we can) for His presence when he wants to move like in the book of Acts.

  2. This is awesome. I love your posts referring to the uniqueness of the middle school experience, such as these moments of abstract thinking. In fact I just reflected on my blog of a similar experience last week when we were talking about the “belt of truth.” One of the guys “interrupted” my scheduled teaching, asking how we could know that our version of faith is true. After some affirmation of his honest expression of doubts, we answered with some quick explanation, which led to more and more questions like “How do we know the Bible is true?” and “How do we know the people who wrote the Bible were actually listening to the Holy Spirit as they wrote?” It also seemed that his questions and honest doubts inspired some of the other 6th graders to voice some of their own questions. They just needed someone to take the lead – an “abstract thinking” leader!

  3. This is so true. As both a public school teacher and a youth pastor for 43 years, I can say that my most relevant, most exciting and most effective teaching has come when a student asks a serious question. It is not just about having a plan though. Kids need to know that it is safe to ask the hard question. If you have a history of embracing kids (loving them as they are) they will feel comfortable enough to share their doubts. Exploring kid’s doubts is always awesome. The bottom line is to plan, let the kids know you care and leave room for the Holy Spirit to work.

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