junior high, middle school, K-8, combined JH/HS?

in light of this article and the national mumblings and shifts that precipitated it, and my post the other day revealing that i’ve been wondering the very same things myself, i’ve been asked to ruminate a bit more at length about how to structure — grade-wise — a youth ministry.

first, jennifer asked me what i meant when i commented that my young teen daughter’s experience this year in a private K-8 is night and day different than the public middle school (6th – 8th) she attended last year. i mentioned that her current school isn’t a christian school, only to dispel the notion that the difference would be that factor. here was my response to jennifer:

great question, jennifer. let me give a short and quick response here (and maybe i’ll elaborate more later). i’ve noticed these things in liesl and her classmates…

– decreased obsession with clothing and brands. they don’t wear uniforms, but they’re not allowed to have brands that show. consequently, it just doesn’t matter as much to liesl. this is probably less about being K-8 as it is about the particular private school she’s in, but i did see a MASSIVE jump forward in this — for liesl — when she moved to 6th grade at the public middle school.

– decreased obsession with popular culture in general. again, some of this is, surely, more about the school she’s in than the K-8 structure, as liesl no longer watches TV during the week, since the school wants us to limit media, and she spends very little time on the internet for similar reasons. that said, i have to believe there’s an intensification of desire to be adult-like, or at least “fully teen”, when young teens are in an exclusively young teen population, as opposed to a population that includes a large percentage of children who don’t care much about those same issues. case in point: two of my 7th grade guys – from the small group i lead — wanted a particular lego set for christmas. i was a little surprised, now that they’re in 7th grade; and i had to resist the urge to tease them, because i think it’s FANTASTIC that they remain kids as long as they can! i have to believe that kind of behavior would be more normative in a K-8 than in an exclusively middle school context.

– play is normative. in other words, the kids at the K-8 all play in around each other before and after school, and during various breaks. and they actually play like kids. i didn’t see this kind of play at the middle school.

– fantasy is still ok. i might be reaching here — AND, this really could be more about the school my kids attend, which so strongly encourages creativity — but it seems to be that the middle school was squeezing the creative out of liesl. and part of that was that it was squeezing ‘playfulness of the mind’ (fantasy) out of her. as a 12 year-old, i don’t think she needs to rush into a life of adult reality yet. i’m more than happy to have her keep a wonderfully playful mind. she’ll have plenty of time to deal with reality in the years to come!

– more innocence.
this is subjective and difficult to quantify. i just sense that the 7th graders liesl attends school with now are more innocent than the 6th graders she was hanging with last year. some of that, again, could be a result of the homes that send their children to private schools, and this private school in particular.

then, kevin, knowing that i’ve been a proponant of churches forming middle school groups for years and years, asked what my current thinking on that is, with this question:

Yes, almighty guru of jr. high ministry. I’m also in the process of possibly splitting 7-12 grades into 2 separate ministries. As a matter a fact I remember you suggesting this very thing to me at a YS convention. So, if you have any thoughts or suggestions other than send the 7th and 8th graders down into the children’s ministry… If you can pull that one off let me know… Let us know as soon as you can! You have 5 seconds to comply!!! j/k.

here are my random thoughts-of-the-moment:

– i still think it’s better to seperate middle schoolers from high schoolers, when possible, in youth ministry. in fact, these current discussions support that even more. i hold to my long time view, that combining the two groups rips off one or both. you either overshoot the developmental readiness of the young teens, or undershoot the issues facing high schoolers. and the problems talked about in this article, and experienced by so many of us — like the acceleration of young teens moving into teenage and adult cultural choices and risky-behavior choices — only seems to be exacerbated by having young teens constantly hanging around older teens.

– i have, historically, thought (and said) that smaller groups (less than 15 students, 6th or 7th through 12th grade) should stay combined, if only for the bit of momentum possible. but i’m questionning the wisdom of that now. i’m starting to wonder if a church isn’t able (due to size of the group) provide a ministry that is truly developmentally appropriate for young teens, maybe (this is a HUGE maybe — and it’s countering everything i’ve thought and said for 20 years!)… maybe (did i say maybe?)… maybe (did you hear the maybe?) we should think about keeping young teens with children’s ministry instead of combining them with the high schoolers (man, i feel like i’m betraying my calling just to say that!).

– the idea of young teens (6th – 8th grade, or 11 – 14) staying part of children’s ministry in a church that isn’t able to provide a separate, age-specific, developmentally-nuanced ministry, would require a total rethinking of children’s ministry. in fact, this is one of the reasons i became such a big fan of churches moving 6th grade into the youth ministry: i saw almost no churches where 6th graders were in children’s ministry

19 thoughts on “junior high, middle school, K-8, combined JH/HS?”

  1. Marko I completely agree with you. We just split our middle school and high school students in our student ministry this year and it has been huge. We can finally talk to each group with respective issues. At first the middle school students hated it but now they have come to enjoy their end of our student ministry more because it is tailored more to them. I agree separate when you have the staff to do it.

  2. Maybe, just maybe…maybe I agree with you on the idea of keeping middle schoolers with elementary instead of High School if those are the only two options. When you say, “man, I feel like I’m betraying my calling just to say that!” I can relate. But maybe our calling is to the 11-14 year old age group, and not to a ministry model. Wherever they are, our calling may just be to be an ally for them. Maybe…just maybe…I don’t know.

  3. Marko,

    One of the first major shifts in thinking I made when I came to my current church was to cut 6th grade from the Jr. High and move 5th grade from the kids, to make their own 5/6 area of ministry. Luckily we hired a childrens pastor who saw the same thing, and now Zone 56 is under childrens minisrty. 7th and 8th are Jr. High and High School is 9-12. I am tempted to move 9th grade down to Jr. High so it would be 7-9 in Jr. High and 10-12 in High School. The reason for this is that I feel I TOTALLY over shoot the 9th graders when I try and hit the 11/12 graders and totally sell short the 11/12, when I aim for the 9th graders. The only proponent for keeping 9 in High School, is that’s how the schools run out here, and I believe that we would experience a significant backlash if those freshman in H.S. were part of the Jr. high at Church. But developmentally my freshman are miles away from the juniors and seniors, and way closer to the 7th and 8th graders. See the dillema? Anyone else feel this?

  4. Marko,

    I love this post. Totally something churches should be looking at in their own models. My current church has a jr high ministry with 7th/8th graders only. Even within those two age groups you can still see a difference in some of the students. Of course this is just not referring to girls/guys which usually the girls being way more mature.

    Before I moved to Santa Cruz from San Jose I was attending a church where jr. high ministry was 6-8 grade. It seemed though you were forcing the 6th graders to be more mature when they might not be ready for that. I realize that most pastors have the lack of resources to change things, plus they want to stick with what they have in the public school system. But maybe it is time it changes to more of a 6th/7th grade group, 8th/9th grade group and then have 10th-12th. That division seems to make more sense to me, all though being a volunteer at my local church I have no decision making responsibility and therefore have not done extensive research on this.

  5. I’m the full time yp at my church and we just changed over to separate jh/sh ministries. JH being 6-8 and SH being 9-12. We did the 5/6 thing for a while and it really just didn’t work for us. Here in GA, the schools are split the same way that my ministries now are. BTW, I’m the only yp on staff. I give a talk to both groups on the same night with p/w in the middle. Honestly, I’m finding it VERY hard to be effective to both groups in my teachings…mostly b/c I have to teach both groups with only a 30 minute pause in between. I’m sure that I’m not alone in doing ministry this way, so if anyone might have some suggestions on how to effectively engage both groups in their respective settings, then I’m all ears. Obviously, the best choice would be to hire another yp….but it’s not in the budget ;)

  6. When I was a youth pastor I had a combined group and loved it. We were a small group of 20-25 and the ministry really clicked (not clique).
    Problems arose when a new group of kids came from the childrens minstry and didnt have the chemistry with the established kids. It took about a year for it to work again.

  7. It seems to me that some kids in middle school would fit fine into the children’s ministry catagory (esp those in private schools or home schooled). However, many kids who are in regular public middle schools might not be given relevant info that they need along with the style of discussion and respect that they crave within the children’s ministy framework(at least at my church).
    lori (see, Marko-i can still comment once and a while!)

  8. We created what I like to call “respective space for both” Jr High AND High School students a few years back in a ministry that had about 18 years of combined space. It’s been a great change for the students, but it was a compromise for me.

    Both then and now I find that the students that have the most in common break down in the following ways (and I sense that if we were some how able to make the shift toward this breakdown within the Church – even though it would mean breaking some serious cultural norms – that we would see a lot more fluid formation and transition in to the different chapters of life, as well as more support for students as they reach graduation).

    6th – 7th Grade
    8th – 10th Grade
    11th -12th Grade

    Of course, this doesn’t really deal with that huge jump from High School to the next chapter, but it would allow for some more specific discussion around that transistion and it may be best to allow that to be an issue that bothers people for a while longer anyhow….

  9. not sure why but i get a little scared when i think of splitting jr. high from sr. high. maybe it is because i realize how much more will be required and quite frankly i can be lazy sometimes.

    but this is something that continues to come up for our youth ministry.

  10. we have a combined group, and i am working on a good way to split it up! It is really hard to minister to MS students & HS students at the same time.

    In my group, i try to lead discussions as much as i actually teach. but the answers that MS students give are ussually much more simple than the HS students. Half of everything i say is too much for most MS students… i’ve found in my group that MS students get bored (they realize that it is too much info for them) and HS students get annoyed (it becomes too simple, when going deeper wouldn’t be all that difficult)

  11. I think the idea of breaking it up is a great idea. Currently we are meeting together but I have seen in our area that we don’t reach a lot of H.S. and I have even gotten to the point that I believe most of our energy in youth minstry should be focused on the J.H. age.

    What are some people’s thoughts on space issues?

    If you have only one room and one night to do it in how would you break it up????

    Marko lets keep up this line of thinking with a few more posts from you that can delve into these issues.

  12. Jr High and HS definitely need to be split apart IMHO. But the model I would prefer has three parts.
    1. A 5th/6th Grade Ministry
    2. 7th-9th Grade
    3. 10th-12th Grade

    I have more thoughts on this but I gotta take my daughter to preschool.

  13. I see a lot of churches now having a seperate ministry for 5th and 6th, 7th and 8th, and 9th-12th … do u think thats a national trend or just a midwestern Ohio thing?

  14. buchanan…
    this is more than just a local trend, though obviously more so where there are more students.

    wakeling & damien…
    eric-i tend to lean in your direction, though i don’t currently operate under it. part of the question that always arises is how much should you align yourself with the school systems around you? ie…does it become disruptive for students to be in one set-up at school and another at church? there’s definitely two sides to this-maybe it would break up some of the cliques to be different?? and damien…your alignment interestes me as well, as i hadn’t previously considered that set-up. the obvious problem for either of these, though, for your average church, is having the staff/volunteers to be able to be this specific. if the resources are available, though, it would seem to be a great idea. integration between grade groups would still be vital, as well as considering how mentoring can continue to take place across these age divides.

  15. Pingback: ysmarko
  16. We are taking a slightly different view on our ministry. We have Wednesday night as our corporate worship & preaching time for 7th – 12th. This is our intro/front porch to the student ministry. On Sunday, we split up into 4 classes: HS (10-12) guys, HS gals, MS (7-9) guys, MS gals. This is our discussion time and deep study.

    The reasoning behind this breakdown is simple. Our kids are so age segregated in this age. They spend over 8 hours a day a school with 5 adults and 100+ teens. They just don’t get the opportunity in a segregated world to have the visual learning they need to understand how to behave like older teens, young adults, and adults. We have segmented their development rather than allowing them to grow through a smooth transition. We believe people aren’t segmented. Relationships aren’t segmented. Development isn’t segmented. Now, I’m not going to deny that there are different needs throughout the growth process, but I can incorperate those needs for the whole during corperate time, and segment the needs for the individual during class time.

    We are having wonderful results with this format. Our middle schoolers are behaving well and our high schoolers are more aware of their actions and the effects they have on younger teens and children. But we also make sure we discuss this in regular intervals. We remind them that “You’re always somebody’s hero.”


  17. Oh, I forgot another key point to our decision to keep a corporate time for middle & high schoolers. COMMUNITY! RELATIONSHIP! We have a generation on our hands that has no REAL opportunity for community and no practice in authentic relationships. We all “talk” on the computer or by text message or through blogs or whatever. As adults, we don’t even know our neighbors anymore. We don’t have relationships with actual people around a table; we have aquaintences with screen names through electronics. What an awewome way to live!

    We try to instill a missionary mind into all of our teens. Meaning they are the missionary to everyone they meet. The kid on the bus. The girl in the checkout lane. The guy selling you a burger and fries. We promote relationship evangelism. You can’t share Christ, really share Him, without extending your hand into relationship. That’s what people need today. Everyone in the world is looking to fill the God-spot with everything under the sun. But we can give them the only thing that will heal their empty and longing heart – Christ. And Christ is a relationship!


  18. Don’t know if you respond to old stuff- but I was searching back through for this article, because I remember reading it. My church is considering moving 5th graders up into my “middle school” ministry and splitting it 5-6 and 7-8. Could I get some thoughts?

Leave a Reply