By Mark Oestreicher
President, Youth Specialties
And Members of the Junior-High Pastors Summit of 2003
In late spring 2002, and again in the spring of 2003, a group of leaders in ministry to young teens gathered to discuss the state of junior-high ministry in the church. Compelled to voice what they believed to be one of the most important yet misunderstood ministries in the church, these leaders composed the following open letter to church leaders throughout North America.
For decades – since the beginning of the modern youth ministry movement in the 1950s – ministry to youth has been almost synonymous with high school ministry (church work with teenagers roughly 15 – 18 years old). Until recent times, ministry to young teens (roughly 11 – 14 years old) has functioned as either an extension of most churches’ ministry to children or as a mere preparatory version of the youth group.
However, Rick Warren, Senior Pastor of Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, CA, has said, “Anyone who works in the church knows that junior high may be the single most pivotal period for spiritual decisions in the lives of our children.” While pastors and churches from all denominations are beginning to understand the importance of this young-teen ministry (sometimes called junior high ministry, sometimes called middle school ministry), widespread misunderstanding and confusion – even fear – still lingers in this area.
Two significant life-phases overlap during the young-teen years: the openness and responsive characteristic of childhood, and the forward-looking attitudes of teenage years.
As to the openness of children: Barna Research Group, a leading Christian research group, claims that the overwhelming majority of Christ-followers date their “conversion” prior to 14 years old; indeed, after 14 years old the likelihood of conversion drops drastically.
Evangelistic openness is just one example of the responsiveness of children and young teens. The two years following the onset of puberty are when the second most significant changes occur in life (birth to two years sees the most). Young teens experience change in every aspect of development: physical, emotional, cognitive, relational, social, and – of course – spiritual. With their brand-new ability to think abstractly (a developmental “bonus” of puberty), Christian young teens, thanks to this God-ordained developmental phase, inevitably re-examine their childhood belief systems. This faith-evaluation is normal and good!
When we combine the “responsiveness” data presented by Barna (and confirmed by thousands of observations by workers in the field) and the unique capacity for spiritual development among young teens, we see an extremely narrow opportunity for life-long impact. Working with young teens offers the opportunity for preventive ministry, whereas ministry to older teens is very often corrective – a good reason to begin a program specific to young teens and their needs.
Return on Investment
Effective church ministry to young teens has a significantly high spiritual return on investment – much more so than seen in other age groups. This “return” occurs in many areas: spiritual understanding, faith commitment, vocational calling, maturity, and leadership. Noted leadership guru Peter Drucker has said: “I believe that the junior high years are the most important years to develop leadership skills in people.”
Additionally, many churches are finding that junior high ministry affords a collateral benefit as an effective outreach vehicle to families. The president of a large Internet company, along with her husband, began attending a church in the Silicon Valley because of the transformation they observed in their junior-high son after he began attending a middle school ministry program.
So what is the “investment”? Well, it’s all the stuff churches already allocate to other valued ministries: prayer, focus, exposure, facilities, finances, and, perhaps most powerful, people. Since effective ministry to young teens must be relational, quality adult staffing (paid and volunteer) is a vital factor in junior-high ministries.
The Response: Implementing a Junior-High Ministry Program
Exercise your leadership potential to encourage a healthy young teen ministry in your church.
Consider bringing a full-time youth worker for young teens onto your ministry team. Any church with 40 young teens, or the potential for that many, should have a full-time youth worker dedicated to young teens only (any church with a dozen or more young teens should have a distinct young-teen ministry, separate from the older teens). Hire someone who feels specifically trained and called to work with young teens. Many churches make the mistake of hiring a low-wage intern – often just out of high school or on summer break from college – to lead this critical age group.
When looking to hire someone for young teens, churches should re-examine the old pattern of hiring a qualified, trained youth worker who really works with high school students and for whom junior-high ministry is a side-project or afterthought. Junior-high ministry should be given a special place in a congregation’s overall ministry program.
Think long-term by encouraging longevity in your paid and volunteer junior high ministry workers. Youth workers are often not in their prime until they’ve been at it a few years or more with young teens. They have much to learn about this age group in order to be truly effective, and there is no substitute for experience!
Allocate funds for your young teen ministry: funds for leadership training, funds for programming, and funds for resources.
And, most importantly, pray for your young-teen ministry and especially for its leaders.
Give the junior-high ministry leaders positive exposure. If you, as a leader in the church, talk positively about the young teen ministry, the church’s perspective will change for the better, and so will the health of the ministry. Check yourself against making sarcastic or joking comments (even well-intentioned), like the pastor who habitually calls young teens “pre-people.”
Your church will be a healthier, more effective ministry if you have a healthy young teen ministry. You will attract more families, raise future leaders, and connect with kids of an age that is possibly the most receptive to life-long change and commitment to Christ.
Mark Oestreicher is the president of Youth Specialties. He’s been involved in youth ministry for 20 years, mostly focusing on junior high youth. He’s written numerous books including the popular Wild Truth line and Great Talk Outlines for Youth Ministry. Mark resides in San Diego, CA.