Join us for in Kansas City, MO, and learn from youth pastor Vince Greenwald in a workshop on fruitful ministry to middle school students. Vince will share a word about the significance of ministering to middle schoolers, along with practical tips and resources for how to present the gospel in ways they can internalize. Hear more from Vince on this topic !
When I started my role as a youth minister, I liked half of my job. Ministry to high schoolers felt deep and fulfilling. Students were asking good questions, locked in during lessons, and becoming more deeply involved in the broader church.
The other half of my job—ministry to middle schoolers—felt like a slog. I didn’t understand middle schoolers. And when I opened my mouth to teach, they didn’t seem to understand me either. I was frustrated by the small groups going off the rails, the distractions, the blank looks on faces when I asked a question about the text, and even the smells of the middle school room. Maybe you can relate.
Not the Junior Varsity Team
There is a tendency for youth ministers to think about middle school ministry like a high school football coach might think about his Junior Varsity team. The Varsity team gets the robust game plans, the thick playbook, the best practice field, and the Friday night lights. The JV team gets whatever is left over, which is not much. The same mentality spills over into our ministries. Our high schoolers tend to receive the bulk of our teaching time, our individual discipleship efforts, our most committed youth leaders, and most of our summer trips and camps. Our middle schoolers get the leftovers. And as long as we treat it like this, middle school ministry will be frustrating, not fruitful.
Middle school ministry isn’t the JV team, and it doesn’t have to be marked by frustration. Our God delights in drawing middle schoolers to himself and in using sixth, seventh, and eighth graders for his glory. With that in mind, here are three ingredients for a more robust and effective middle school ministry:
Take Them Seriously
Too many middle school ministries are hindered by low expectations for students. In my experience, middle schoolers will follow our lead. If we set the 2 Timothy 4:2 tone— … reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching,—they will follow us there. If we build a middle school ministry on going through the motions, shallowness, and silly games, we will reap what we sow.
It is remarkable to see how the Lord uses our earnestness and diligence in ministering to this age group. The healthiest Bible study context that I have ever been in was not a study with adults but a group of 12 middle school guys whom I had the joy of leading in 2021. Their reverence for the Scriptures, love for one another, and desire for growth was off the charts. Approach middle school ministry reverently, thoughtfully, and seriously and watch the Lord work.
Bridge The Gap
Middle school ministry requires more translation and contextualization work than high school ministry. There is a bigger cognitive and maturity gap between adult leaders and parents and their middle school students. This makes middle school ministry inherently more time-consuming for youth leaders. It takes work to enter their head space and teach effectively.
When teaching middle schoolers, avoid using words like “righteousness” or “gospel” or “redemption” without defining them. This is good advice for teaching adults, too, but this translation work is especially needed for middle schoolers. It’s also helpful to use clear and concrete illustrations for abstract theological concepts. When you’re teaching on propitiation, dump a cup of water on a willing co-leader. When you’re teaching on the imago dei and the effects of the fall, bring in a cracked mirror. These provide hooks for students to hang weighty concepts on.
Lastly, look for opportunities to provide training wheels for middle schoolers as they begin to obey Jesus. We have three practices of “gospel culture” at Immanuel that we practice with our middle school students, , , and . These simple, repeatable practices help students confess sin and pray for one another (James 5:16), honor one another (Rom. 12:10) , and bear each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). In my experience, our theology rarely gets lived out in our youth groups unless we teach, model, and create space for these actions.
Give Them Gospel + Safety + Time
As I minister to middle school students, the ministry paradigm of is never far from my mind. What middle school students most deeply need is the gospel, God’s love for sinners through the finished work of Christ and the endless power of the Holy Spirit. Everything we do is about the gospel, the good news at the heart of our faith.
And middle schoolers need to hear and see the gospel lived out in a context that is safe. Safety means that our middle school students can stop trying to fit in and can start being honest. Middle schoolers need a safe environment shaped by the gospel, a place where the easy yoke of Jesus (Matt. 11:28-30) is not just preached but felt and embodied.
And then we must play the long game in middle school ministry. Time means week after week of teaching gospel doctrine while embodying gospel culture. We just keep showing up, keep teaching, and keep praying, while the weeks turn into months, which turn into years. Little happens quickly when ministering to middle schoolers. Growth in Christ is not a linear, overnight process, so we seek to offer multiple exposures to the gospel, week after week, year after year, as the Lord works in the hearts of middle schoolers We don’t offer deadlines. We provide a consistent, patient, non-anxious presence.
A mentor told me a few years ago that an hour of intentional discipleship with a middle school student was worth ten hours with a high schooler. In my experience, he is right. Middle schoolers are curious and hungry and eager to learn. Lead them to Jesus. Take them seriously. Bridge the gap. Give them gospel + safety + time. And treat the unique challenges of ministering to middle schoolers as opportunities to trust in the God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:6).