We all have mostly hilarious, and sometimes horrifying, stories of middle schoolers at their worst, but I want to share some of the brightest moments where I’ve seen some of my middle schoolers reflect a pure love that can only come from an outpouring of God’s love in their own life. I also want to share ways we as educators, teachers and leaders can provide opportunity for our youth to exercise their servant hearts–especially middle schoolers.
Service is Formational in Middle School
Middle school is the start of one of the biggest projects of a person’s life: identity achievement. This is the beginning of a child testing the waters of who they are and to what extent their faith is a part of their identity. We know and should continue to teach them through God’s Word that their ultimate identity is found in Jesus Christ and given through the waters of Baptism. We must push further though and not teach, but show them how this identity in Christ Jesus is lived out through every aspect of a person’s life. One of the best ways I see this happen with my middle schoolers is through mission and service projects. It breaks down compartmentalization in their faith. It takes Jesus out of the Sunday school classroom and puts Him squarely in a one-on-one interaction with someone else in real life. It knocks down the mental block that faith is tied to a certain building or day of the week and time. It forces middle schoolers to confront reality in this world through the eyes of Jesus.
Mission Projects for Middle Schoolers
So how do I set up mission projects specifically for middle schoolers? Middle schoolers are a species all to their own, and so there are many specific considerations to take in mind, and I give these as practical suggestions for all mission projects involving middle school kids:
Middle schoolers need a mission project that is tangible. They have a really hard time seeing far-reaching impacts of their service and have a hard time connecting to a hypothetical or far-away cause. Something that is immediate and right in front of them is most impactful for helping them understand how who they are as Christians (identity) plays such a great role in their actions. Second, I would choose relational projects every time over physical service with middle schoolers. The relationship developed with another person is where kids “get it”– the concept of who they are ministering to and why. In many respects it is similar to being tangible: they can see, talk to and share a small part of their life with the person they are serving. Also keep in mind that middle schoolers are developing conversationalists. They are learning the art of conversation, social cues and social interaction, so they need prompting, encouraging and few other things that we’ll get to shortly. Expectations: Specific expectations are crucial. Kids in middle school need a set of lines to play in–a basic framework in which they can function. For mission projects this means a clear, concise set of instructions or directives so they can easily tell if they are operating within the bounds of the mission project. Lastly, example: The example of a servant’s heart needs to be right in front of them. Middle schoolers need to see a servant’s heart in action from a mentor, leader or other youth. They see it and have something to model themselves after.
Family is Essential in Middle School
Which brings us to the next big consideration in middle school mission/service projects: family. Middle schoolers must see adult leaders, and more importantly, their own parents, in action when it comes to service. Study after study will continue to show the necessity of this, and we must continue to entreat our parents and leaders to step off the sidelines and into the action. I honestly could care less if anyone did dishes at Hope Lodge. I would gladly stay an extra hour later to do the dishes myself after everyone left if it meant that every one of the parents and adult leaders there spent their time engaged and setting a great example for the kids. In whatever manner possible, get parents to serve alongside their kids.
Joys of Middle School Servants
I hope that you, too, witness some of the same heart-moving moments in kid’s lives through your service and mission projects and share in the joy and blessing of being a youth leader. I’m not sure I have been able to put my finger on it yet, but there is something unique about the compassion and love a middle schooler has toward someone they are serving. It is as if they combine the pure, innocent love that comes from Christ alone that we see in little children with a growing hint of an adult’s sense of Christian service and righteous duty to stand up for the poor and orphaned.