separating genders in middle school ministry

my latest middle school ministry column for youthworker journal is online, here. i talk about the value of (sometimes) separating guys and girls.

here’s a tease (you’ll have to click through to the youthworker site to read the whole thing):

It’s difficult to find a middle schooler who doesn’t believe he or she is the center of the universe—a pre-Copernican ego-centered world.

For example, let’s say you rarely will experience a young teen sharing something in a group when he or she is not first-and-foremost thinking of how others perceive him or her. He or she might be horribly misguided in that perception (they often are); but it’s still the lenses through which they view themselves. This is a good shift, by the way, as it reveals their new ability to see themselves in third-person (a psychological skill that comes with abstract thinking).

So such self-obsession is normal, and it’s even present when there aren’t distractions; but one of the biggest distractions for a young teen who’s opening his or her mouth to share a thought, prayer, idea or question, are those pesky other-gender kids: “What are they thinking about me as I’m saying this!??!”

So I like to separate the genders occasionally. Specifically, I think it’s wise to have single-gender small groups.

6 thoughts on “separating genders in middle school ministry”

  1. Love this post Mark. We were recently talking about the unrealistic expectations we place on guys and the oppressive expectations we place on girls at this age.

    Guys: Our more traditional learning settings tend to stiffle guys. At that age they have boundless energy and we want them to sit still, concentrate, and listen politely. It seems counter-intuitive.

    Girls: Girls are expected to be beautiful, capable, articulate, get straight A’s. make the volleyball team, study till midnight and get up at 5 a.m. to do it all over again.

    Gender specific groups can provide great opportunities to explore these issues and provide appropriate outlets for each gender.

    Thanks for a thoughtful post and article.

  2. I am a big fan of occasionally separating genders for middle school ministry. It does seem like the kids relax a bit more!

    Just a thought from the “Girly” and “Burly” events mentioned in the article: The Girly events are not mentioned, but the titles themselves seem to promote the very cultural stereotypes that some kids are feeling judged by at that age.

    I know plenty of middle school girls (and their moms) who would have more fun with a day of rafting and rock-climbing than with having a tea party; and even some boys (and their dads) who would prefer something like cooking or meticulously building a model (fill-in-the-blank) over camping.

    I’m curious how your church loves on the non-stereotypical middle schoolers (and their parents) in your congregation.

  3. My favorite thing about Middle School is that they still almost always sit with all the boys on one side and girls on the other side without us even telling them to.

    Do some people do mixed gender small groups?

  4. We do our small groups by gender and grade, and it seems to work great. The girls hardly EVER get through the questions, the boys are generally done 10-15 minutes early. That isnt a problem, it just continues to affirm my belief that when allowed to, the boys will hide behind the talking girls every single time…

  5. This is EXACTLY what we do, and have been doing for a number of years, and it seems to work well, as our ministry has grown steadily both in numbers AND in mental/spiritual depth of the participating youth. Our middle school and high school meet for a blended time of fellowship, snack supper, and praise & worship on Sunday evenings, and then after P&W, we split off into senior high and middle school. Usually on Sunday evenings, our groups are co-ed. However, for some topics (typically dealing with sex and modesty, for example), we do segregate based on gender on Sunday evenings.

    On Wednesday nights, we have small group/Bible studies divided by both grade and gender. We are blessed with being in the position of having enough girls that we actually have small groups for almost every grade in our ministry from 7th through 12th grade. For our guys, we typically have not had as many, so we’ve combined 7th/8th into one group of guys and high school into another. However, this year we’re splitting senior high into two groups, and this is exciting! 9th/10th will be a separate group from 11th/12th, which is a first in our small group ministry. This structure really gives us an opportunity to be more fully present with them, to meet them where they are in their lives, and to help them through things that may really only be applicable to their age and gender.

    We also have small group opportunities to get outside of the church walls – some opportunities are purely for fellowship and relationship building, while some opportunities focus on more on short term missions (a day or two, within driving distance). Both types are very rewarding, and they go hand in hand. The girls will typically go to the beach, lake, or mountains two times a year or so, and possibly a girls conference in the winter (“Gurly” stuff), and the guys have a group we’ve named Journeys for Christ that does high adventure – camping, backpacking, etc, where they can be off by themselves in the middle of the woods and….wellllll… guys and do “Burly” stuff. :-)

    However, the INTERESTING thing (to me, anyway) is that the girls have wanted in on Journeys for Christ, and we have actually had a couple of co-ed camping and backpacking trips over the past several years – we actually have a backpacking trip coming up next month that will be co-ed. These girls actually don’t mind literally being in the middle of nowhere for a few days with ZERO modern conveniences, which I think is super cool. The hard part (SOMETIMES) is finding female adult counselors willing to go; if there are no female adults it can’t work due to our safe sanctuary guidelines (we’re Methodist).

    So, yes, I wholeheartedly agree! There is a time and place for segregation of gender and age, and there is a time and place for inclusion of all ages/genders…..just liike there is a time and place for segregation of youth from the rest of the church, but there is also a need for stronger inter-generational opportunities for fellowship and worship together as a whole body of Christ.


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