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.