Thoughts On Middle School Ministry

I recently had the privilege of being part of a small-scale survey of local church middle school students. Our desire was to gauge the spiritual mindset of these young students in regard to church, God, the Bible and worldview. The survey was anonymous and designed to allow students to express doubt rather than only choose an absolute right or wrong answer. Keep in mind that 95% of these students claim to know Jesus as their personal Savior, so our thinking was that they mostly would know the “right” answers and would be tempted to give the “right” answer rather than the “wrong” one if forced into a corner. We wanted them to feel as free as possible to let us know what they truly thought about these spiritual issues. Though this was a pretty small group of students, I found the responses quite interesting and thought that I might make some conclusions that could potentially prove useful to others.

The first thing we discovered is that these students still enjoy going to church. Though about 20% of them felt like church was mostly for adults, over 90% like going to church, would go even if they didn’t have to and plan to go when they are adults. With so many teens and young adults dropping out of church and developing some pretty serious disillusionment with the established church, I was thankful (if not a little surprised) that these young students still find church attendance an enjoyable part of their lives. This could certainly vary from church to church, but I do think that middle schoolers in general are still open to the idea of church being a normal, enjoyable part of their spiritual lives.

We also discovered that despite their claims of a personal relationship with Jesus and enjoyment of church attendance, they struggled with some fundamental truths about God Himself. Perhaps the most alarming find was that 60% wondered if God was even real. With that doubt in their minds, it isn’t surprising that 65% wonder if God hears and answers prayer and half don’t regularly read their Bibles or see how the Bible is relevant to their daily lives. In fact, the Bible seems to be a significant hang up for many of them. Over 30% doubt the creation account or think some parts of the Bible might be untrue and admit that what their friends think shapes their decisions more than what the Bible says.

While these struggles should be taken seriously, I think that we must resist the temptation to panic. Remember, these questions were asked to determine doubt, not an aggressively oppositional attitude. These students are not hardened against truth or firm in disbelief. They simply have questions; and the good news is that they want the answers. In fact, every single participating student said they would like to know more about how to grow closer to Jesus.

To me, that is the biggest take away from this student survey: my middle school students (and probably yours, too) have big questions, but they are willing to hear the answers. It is up to us as parents, teachers, pastors, and church volunteers to step up and offer the truth. For too long, we have treated our younger students as if they weren’t ready for the truth. Not the real truth, anyway. I’m not saying that we routinely lied to our students, but the church as a whole has traditionally kept pre-high school students on a steady diet of Bible stories, morality tales and soft “do the right thing” principles. When they have big questions and we give them small answers – or worse, deflect and refuse to answer – they begin to decide that church and God and the Bible must not have all the answers. So they go somewhere else. Don’t believe for a second that they quit asking the questions. They just ask them until someone answers and too many times that answer is found in a secular, anti-God school curriculum or a television show or a well meaning friend with the same struggles.

I am becoming increasingly certain that the middle school years are crucial for determining the faith a person will have as an adult. Obviously, faith is always a personal decision, but I believe we need to be aware of how susceptible these middle schoolers are to falsehood. Additionally, we must be intentional about engaging them with real, practical, substantive truth about God and His Word. They need to understand that the church is a place where they can belong. They need community of their own. They need to see adults living out their faith outside of church. They need safe places to ask their questions about God and life. They need teachers and mentors who can explain how the Bible impacts real life. And they need it now! As they grow closer to high school and adulthood, the window of teachability closes. We the church need to embrace this opportunity and begin urgently engaging our young students with God’s love and truth.

You can start today. Get involved with middle school ministry at your church. Talk to a middle schooler (gasp). Ask them questions and listen to their answers. Join a conversation like this one. Share your ideas about how you are reaching students or ask how others are engaging them. Above all, begin praying for middle school students you know and their parents. And as you pray, listen to the Holy Spirit as he tells you how to make a difference. God loves each one of these students and would be happy to use you to draw them to Himself.

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A Change of Heart

I recently heard a godly, well-meaning older gentleman tell a young father that raising kids was just like training dogs. He explained that you just need to develop a routine of simple, specific commands that you repeat regularly and you can train them to respond on command. While most people don’t state it in that fashion, this advice reflects a behavior based understanding of parenting that is extremely common – even within the church. As parents, it is incredibly easy to make our children’s behavior the focus of our parenting. Raising “good” kids that behave “properly” is the assumed end game for many parents. While there is nothing wrong with desiring and working toward good behavior in your children, this should not be the goal you are working toward as a parent.

The responsibility of a Christian parent, the very heart and soul of all we do, is to shape our children’s heart toward God so that they will have a thriving personal relationship with him. In a word, it is “discipleship.” The focus of our parenting should be discipling little followers of Jesus so that one day they become grownups that genuinely and faithfully follow Jesus.

It should be overwhelmingly obvious that the task of discipling a child – shaping their heart toward God – has to be all about the condition of their heart. Unfortunately, this is something that many Christians miss in their personal walk with God as well as in their parenting. We are always trying to make the Christian life about performance, rather than about identity in Christ and personal relationship with the Father. God himself spoke of this problem, condemning his own people because they “…come near to me with their mouths and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught (Isaiah 29:13) .” In this instance, the problem wasn’t their behavior – it was their heart. They said the right things and did the right things, but it was merely outward conformity to a bunch of rules.

Tragically, this outward conformity to religious standards that God hates and condemns is precisely what many parents are encouraging through parenting that focuses on behavior modification. Yes, you can train your child like a dog to follow your rules and do what you want them to do, but without a heart that is chasing after God they are no better off simply because they’ve followed the rules. Instead of always focusing on changing and curbing bad behavior, we must use bad behavior as an opportunity to look into our child’s sinful heart and shape it toward God.

The shortest answer as to how to do this is simply to give them the gospel.  We must give our children the gospel faithfully, constantly and relentlessly because a man-made training program of rules and commands might change behavior, but only the gospel can change a heart. When sinful behavior presents, take a step back and remember your goal. It is not conformity; it is genuine heart change. So you need to take the time to understand why they misbehaved. You need to empathize by sharing your own struggle with sin and then explain that this is a universal problem for all of humankind. Give correction and help them understand why consequences are good and necessary. Also, make sure to share the good news that God offers forgiveness and He offers to help us have victory over sin. Over all, you should place drastically more emphasis on God’s goodness than on your child’s badness.

Of course all of that takes time – much more time than a harsh word of reproach and a swift punishment. And the results take more time to. You may not get immediate conformity, but that’s ok because the goal is not to shame them into conformity but to drive them toward God’s heart. Make this the central focus of all you do as a parent. I urge you to make your child’s relationship with God more important than their behavior. Work toward shaping their heart toward God more than you work at changing their actions. Make discipleship your aim because if good behavior is your goal, you may one day reach the finish line and find you have run the wrong race and lost your children in the process.