What I’ve Learned in 20-plus Years of Middle School Ministry

By Kurt Johnston

My middle school ministry career began when I was 22 and trying to finish college. Over the years I’ve made a lot of mistakes, done a few things right, and learned a ton of lessons. In no particular order, here are some of the more significant lessons and aha moments I’ve experienced.

 

God Is in Control

I’m sure that, like me, you believe that. I’m also sure that, like me, your actions often betray that belief. But I’ve learned that I’m not smart enough, creative enough, savvy enough, or spiritual enough to manufacture the things that happen in ministry or in the lives of students.

Oh, I try! I’ve got goals, plans, vision statements, purpose statements, calendars of events, well-trained volunteers, and all the stuff that makes for good ministry. But when all of those things falter, which they seem to do on a regular basis, God stays faithful. He loves my students more than I do and his hopes, visions, and dreams for them are far bigger than mine.

When ministry is running smoothly, I need to remember that God is in control. When ministry seems to be going through a bumpy season, I need to remember that God is in control. It’s not my ministry; it’s his. He’s just been kind enough to let me play a small role in it.

 

It’s Almost Impossible to Exaggerate the Power of Longevity

I have no idea what the average tenure of a youth worker in the local church is, but I do know that whatever the average is, it isn’t long enough. Being involved long-term at the same church may be the single most effective thing you can do (other than remembering that God is in control). Being in the same church for a long period of time allows you to gain the trust of parents, build stronger bridges into your community, see students grow into mature followers of Jesus, gain favor with the congregation and church elders—and make mistakes.

Certainly there are valid reasons for leaving your church, and God will likely nudge you in that direction at some point, but my prayer is that the benefits of longevity will compel you to stay put until you are certain God is telling you it’s time to leave. It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the power of longevity. Staying involved in the same church for a prolonged period of time is the greatest single contribution to God’s kingdom you can possibly make.

 

Get Close to Somebody Just a Little Older and Wiser than Yourself

At my first church, in Whittier, California, Rick and Melisa Williams decided to pour themselves into my life. They were volunteers in the ministry, but they also took the opportunity to invest in me personally. They were my biggest cheerleaders and when I got married, they became a couple that Rachel and I could look up to and learn from.

When I went to Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, Pat and Cissi Hickerson took over right where Rick and Melisa left off. Pat and Cissi were about 10 years older than us and, from the moment we arrived at the church, took us under their wings.

When we came to Saddleback, Don and Karolyn Thompson played the same role. Rachel and I have learned over the years that there is tremendous value in allowing people who are a little older and a little wiser than we are to play a significant role in our lives. They encourage us, challenge us, stick up for us, buy things for us, pray for us, and simply love us unconditionally. These kinds of relationships were important to me when I was young and single, when Rachel and I were newlyweds, and they are still important today.

Doing a Few Things Well Is Better than Doing a Lot of Things Poorly

The opportunities are numerous, and the expectations are endless. Summer camp, winter camp, the fall retreat, small groups, discipleship, student leadership, mission trips, youth choir, campus ministry, tutoring, visitor follow-up, ministry teams, worship, Sunday school, midweek outreach, volunteer recruitment, volunteer training—the list goes on and on.

How do you possibly do it all? The answer is simple: You don’t! A busy middle school ministry doesn’t automatically equal a good middle school ministry. I suggest you pick a handful of things you want your ministry to focus on and spend the vast majority of your time on those things, and realize that anything you add to that list will only serve to water down your effectiveness.

What you choose to focus on and how you choose those things is up to you. I suggest meeting with key leaders of your church so you’re aware of their expectations and the things they view as crucial; that process certainly looks different for you than it does for me. I’ve learned that when I’ve felt the most burned out and the least effective are the seasons of ministry when I’ve had too much going on. I’ve allowed too many things that aren’t part of the overall vision of my ministry to creep onto the calendar.

 

Most of My Fellow Staff Members Just Don’t Get It

They don’t understand why this age group is so important; they can’t figure out how I can actually enjoy ministering to young teens; they seem puzzled every time I turn down a “promotion” into a different area; and they constantly make little comments that reveal a lack of respect or understanding of my call to middle school ministry.

These things used to really bother me, and I found myself constantly defending this ministry and my commitment to it. Most of my colleagues on our church staff have no idea how hard I work, how important this ministry is, or how strongly I believe that God has called me to this age group. And guess what? I’ve learned to be OK with that.

 

It’s Good to Be Me . . .

I’m a handcrafted masterpiece. I’m good at some things and not so good at others. I have some really interesting personality quirks. I’m insecure about some of my shortcomings. I grew up in a poor, but loving, Christ-centered home. I think I’m way funnier than I actually am. My spiritual gifts are teaching, giving, and leading. I’m a people-pleaser. I’m not as good at sports as I once was, but that doesn’t keep me from trying.

I’ve learned to be comfortable in my own skin because I’ve discovered that it’s in my own skin that I’m the most effective. Nobody wins when I compare myself to other youth workers or try to be somebody I’m not in an attempt to create a more appealing me.

I try to work on my weaknesses and grow in areas where I know I come up short, but my ministry, my marriage, my friendships, my relationship with God, and virtually everything else seem much healthier when I remember that I am God’s child and he knew what he was doing when he created me.

 

. . . I’m Not as Important as I Think I Am

Some of the best outings have been the ones I didn’t attend. Some of the best lessons have been the ones I didn’t teach. Some of the best small group curriculum has been the stuff I didn’t write. Some of the best volunteers have been the ones I didn’t train. Some of the best meetings have been the ones I didn’t lead. Some of the sharpest students have been the ones I didn’t mentor. Some of the best ideas have been the ones I didn’t come up with.

Almost everything in my ministry can, and has, worked really well without me.

 

People Matter More than Programs

I’ve heard that, and I’ve said that. You’ve heard it, and you’ve said it. But the nature of middle school ministry makes it tough to live out. Middle school ministry is a program heavy ministry. And because middle school kids can be so intimidating, it’s tempting to create a bunch of programs to do the hard work of ministry for us. After all, it’s way easier to organize a dodgeball tournament than to mentor an at-risk 12-year-old. But life change rarely happens from dodgeball tournaments.

In fact, the real reason behind a dodgeball tournament or any other program is simply to open doors for relationships between middle school kids and caring adults. It’s people who make up your ministry . . . students, parents, leaders, and volunteers. Don’t let the pressure to have a bigger, better, cooler, louder, more exciting program get in the way of what really matters.

 

My Family Matters More than My Ministry, But That’s Easy to Forget

My pastor publicly says he expects his staff members to keep family as their top priority, and I believe he means it. But it doesn’t keep him from asking more and more from us as the church continues to grow. It doesn’t keep parents from asking for more and more of my time. It doesn’t keep students from calling at odd hours of the night. It doesn’t keep other people from asking if I can play a role in this or that. I’ve learned that people will always ask for more of me, and it is my responsibility to figure out how to keep my family as a higher priority than my ministry.

Learning how to do this is one of the toughest (I’m still learning) but most important challenges I face. The earlier you can begin to develop healthy boundaries and create places for margin in your life, the better off you’ll be in the long run. I’ve learned that people who burn the candle at both ends when they’re young and single usually have a hard time breaking those habits when they get married and have children.

 

Students Don’t Remember My Talks

One of my spiritual gifts is teaching. I find it fairly easy to put together and deliver a good lesson for middle schoolers. Even so, students don’t remember much of what I say for more than about 10 minutes! What they do remember is the time my car broke down when we were on the way to the beach, or the time we pulled the bus over to give some food to a homeless man, or the time we secretly let the eighth-grade guys go on a late-night hike at camp.

If you’re under the impression that your most important, most effective teaching time is the 30 minutes you allot for your formal lesson each week, you are mistaken. Be encouraged by this! Lessons on grace, compassion, kindness, generosity, and other super-important things middle schoolers need to learn are caught more often than they are taught.

 

Ministry to Parents Is Still the Untapped Key to Middle School Ministry

What I know is that doing a better job of encouraging and equipping parents of middle schoolers would radically change the face of young teen ministry. What I don’t know is how to do a good job of that while juggling all the other demands that come with leading a middle school group. The parents who need it the most seem to be the ones most resistant to input. The busyness of families makes it unlikely that parents will show up to extra workshops and get-togethers. The fact that so many parents can barely keep their own lives on track makes me wonder how I expect them to be healthy models to their kids.

I realize one mistake youth ministries have historically made is being great at pitting themselves against parents and vying for time and influence. But I’m not a proponent of the move away from youth ministry to a completely family-based model, either. I really don’t have good answers to this one, but the importance of this issue forces me to keep on trying.

 

Pride Ruins Everything

Through the years my pride has caused me to compare my ministry to the ministry down the street, to fudge the attendance numbers, to point out the flaws of other team members in an attempt to bolster my own image, to spend more time writing a funny joke for a lesson than on the lesson itself, to say yes to speaking and writing opportunities when I should have said no, and almost to break my neck trying to learn how to drop into a half-pipe at summer camp—and those are all just from the past month or so!

I have yet to see anything good come from a prideful spirit. Pride always seems to bring out the worst in me, manifesting itself into some alarmingly ugly stuff in the ministry I lead. Allowing the Holy Spirit to gently (and not so gently) chip away the rough edges of pride in my life has been a career-long journey, and it’s a journey I’m sure I’ll be on the rest of my life.

These are some of the more significant lessons I’ve learned. Of course, I’ve also learned that you really can poke an eye out playing the Lifesaver/toothpick relay game, that middle school kids shouldn’t be trusted with power tools, that parents don’t appreciate it when you strap their child to the surf racks on your car roof, and that a dog that looks really slow still runs a lot faster and bites a lot harder than most eighth-grade guys think.

But here’s the most important point I can make: If you’re spending time with middle school students and if you’re paving the way for other caring followers of Jesus to do the same, you have a great middle school ministry! All the other stuff is just icing on the cake. The truth of the matter is that really good middle school ministry happens when a caring adult who loves Jesus decides to invest in the life of a young teen.

 

Kurt Johnston has been in full-time junior high ministry for several decades and serves as the junior high pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. This article is excerpted from his book Middle School Ministry Made Simple. Order number 40400 at www.StandardPub.com or from your local supplier.

________

 

YOU Can Do Middle School Ministry!

Kurt Johnston has more than 20 years experience, with a nationwide reputation for his know-how in junior high ministry.

But he says, “You do not have to be an expert to minister to middle schoolers.” In Middle School Ministry Made Simple (an expanded version of Kurt’s classic, Controlled Chaos), he gives proven advice for relating to junior highers, understanding their parents, and nurturing volunteer youth workers.

The book is practical as well as inspiring. John Maxwell said, “Kurt’s heart for junior high students, his experience as a leader, and his lighthearted nature have combined for a great read in this book.”

Order number 40400 at www.StandardPub.com or from your local supplier.

Middle School Ministry Made Simple  •  Item 40400  •  $16.99

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2 Comments

  1. Brent C
    May 1, 2012 at 3:37 am

    Great Post, working with this age group is often a thankless task. It is also nice to hear something about how to minister to this age group. I just put in an order for 10 of the books for my youth leaders.

    Thanks, again.

  2. Lisa
    May 2, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    Thanks for sharing your journey. I teach 3-8 year olds on Sunday mornings but I also guide monthly activities/outings for all ages and am about to undertake my first ever “mini VBS.” Even though my focus is not soley on middle school aged children, I think the challenges are the same and the lessons learned are just as valuable. I enjoyed reading your post. Thanks again.

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