With a little faith, these young teens have the potential to change everything.
In 2008 I was at the Canadian Youth Workers Conference, sitting in a specialized workshop with Mark Oestreicher (the Godfather of Middle School Ministry). For 8 hours he talked about Jr.High Ministry. I can pinpoint that as the moment I fell hopelessly in love - with JR.High, not Mark-O. I then shifted responsibilities as a Youth Pastor to focus on the Jr.high Ministry at our church which opened my eyes to recognize that it is an area that is largely underestimated in our churches.
Today, if you are involved in (Jr.High) Youth Work, let me encourage you with 7 thoughts:
1. You are not alone
We are a unique tribe, those of us that enjoy spending time with Jr.Highers, but we are a tribe! In every church and every community there are young teens in need of caring adults walking alongside them through this crazy time of life. It may not be easy to find PAID Jr.High Youth Workers, but that doesn't mean you are alone as someone investing time in this generation and wondering how you can possibly get through another week of this. There is a growing tribe of us, and with this tribe you can find encouragement and strength to keep going!
(see resource list at the bottom of this post)
2. There is SO much going on in the life of a Jr.Higher (age 10-14)
The research is out there (and can actually be a lot of fun to read), the only time a person goes through more impactful changes than young adolescence is between 0-5 years old. WOW. From 10-14 everything changes, again! And now they are adding abstract thought to the mix while they try and figure out what's going on with their bodies, relationships, emotions (see 'Inside Out' clip, brain, and spirituality.
Every time you spend time with a Jr.Higher you are with a beautiful mess of creative changes under the surface of a fun, awkward, wonder-filled young teen. Tread lightly.
3. They are supposed to laugh, a lot!
This might be the last time they are encouraged to be completely goofy before they get caught up in being 'cool' and trying to impress people. So don't try too hard to stop them,
let them laugh.
One of the best things you can do as an adult in leadership is to encourage silly stories and random thoughts, and skits, and songs, and anything else that levels the playing field for all present in the room.
Watch their eyes light up when you laugh with them at their stories, it is completely worth the time.
4. You will be remembered
They might remember your name. They might remember a sermon you gave (2% likelihood). They might remember a question you answered. They might remember a retreat. Maybe a mission trip. Maybe a game you played with them. Maybe the time you stayed with them late waiting for mom to pick them up. They might remember when you prayed with them. They might remember when you gave them a note of encouragement. They might remember when you were there through tragedy. They might remember when you went on a bike ride with them. Maybe it's the time you played video games all day with them. Maybe when you took them to the mall, or the movies, or McDonalds.
If you spend time with them, you will be remembered.
Stop worrying about how you're remembered and just keep focusing on giving what you can, confident that you are part of their story.
5. They are listening
Some will stare at you with an intense gaze of concentration, and not be able to repeat a word of what you were saying.
Some will lay on their back poking their own eyeballs, ears, nose, and teeth for 10 minutes, then restate every word you said while adding their own insight.
They may not specifically interact with each deep theological point you are asking about, but over time they will certainly hear and absorb the larger messages of God's love for them, and how they will have an impact on this world with love, compassion, and generosity. Keep talking about stuff that matters.
6. They want to work through their questions
Jr.Highers are coming out of years of concrete thinking (this is a table), to abstract thinking for the first time in their lives (why is it a 'table'? who made the table? where did it come from? why do I care?).
You can imagine what this does to a person that has been taught for years about God in a specific way, or not taught about God for that matter. They will likely have all kinds of new questions about God, the world, and our role within it.
"Doubt isn't toxic to faith, unexpressed doubt is." Kara Powell
If your young teens are asking a ton of questions and never seem to quite understand, embrace that! Allowing them to ask is creating a safe place for them to work out all the stuff that matters in life. It's not as important for you to have the right answer as it is for them to feel like they're asking the right questions.
7. You were there once
If you ever wonder what it's like to be a Jr.higher, just take some time and think back to you in grade 7. Yikes, scary right? It might be really difficult for you to feel those emotions again, and deal with all those insecurities. Allowing those to come to the surface again will help you relate to those young teens in your group and recognize the deep need for someone like you in their lives.
I kept a picture of me at my grade 8 graduation on the wall above my desk in my office, just so I would never forget how awkward, and strangely confident I felt at that time. Time and again, I wish I had someone like me (now) willing to invest time and hang out with me (then), I wonder how life would have been different.
(Jr.High) Youth Worker - don't underestimate the impact you have, and don't you dare underestimate the impact each young teen you spend time with can have on this world! Every single moment makes a difference.
A few things to help you out if you're in the weeds:
Book -- Middle School Ministry - Mark Oestricher
Curriculum -- XP3 MS
Facebook Group - Youth Pastors Only (it is for anyone in youth work, lots of support here)