How to Keep Middle Schoolers Loving Church

 As youth workers, our jobs can be kind of vague at times. There are the basics that we have to do, like show up for meetings and teach the Bible, but beyond that our jobs can seem like an endless pit of possibilities. How do we know what to do or not to do, what programs and teams to launch, what trips to take, what to say yes to and where to put our energy. If you are a workaholic type, this vagueness can be dangerous. You can work yourself into a frenzy and quickly arrive at self-imposed burnout. If you err more on the side of, let’s say, “a little too chill,” you might find yourself on the opposite side of the problem: directionless and ultimately leading a stale, lifeless ministry.
      Over the past 14 years of being in youth ministry, I’ve seen leaders fail by overdoing it and by underdoing it. Today, I want to answer the question of where to put our focus and limited energy in the vague landscape that is our job. After thinking hard about this, I’ve narrowed it down to three areas to put our focus if our goal is to make our students love coming to church.
1. Relationships Are Key!
I’m 100% convinced that even if you had John Crist MC your youth group, Francis Chan speak, and you had free In-n-Out every week, but your students were not known by anyone, they would eventually stop coming to your youth group. Middle schoolers have a deep need to know and are known. They value relationships above anything else. It is equally important that they have relationships with adults as well as peers. (I know what you’re thinking; that I left out the most important one, GOD! Of course, that is the only relationship that truly matters. The purpose of this piece is to put the necessary things in place so that they come and keep coming to church to nourish that most important relationship in their life.)
            Students need adults other than their parents to pour into them consistently. In my ministry, this is accomplished by an incredible adult volunteer staff that lead my small groups. If your youth group is small, you need small groups. If your youth group is big, you need small groups. Small groups are the best vehicle for students to have relationships with caring and godly adults. I challenge my small group leaders to be ready to greet, sit with and hang out with every single one of their students at some point during the night. If they are superstars, they will reach out during the week as well and maybe even attend their basketball games. If everyone does this, then every student will have an involved adult make contact with them at some point during the week.
            Students also need relationships with peers to feel like they belong at church. Again, this is primarily accomplished through small groups. The relational strategy here is that you find ways to bond your small groups. Having a Biblical discussion each week and praying for one another is huge, but people open up and bond after shared experiences too. Some practical strategy ideas for this are: have each small group plan a small group night out twice a year, turn games into small group competitions, plan an escape room at the church in each small group room, or have a small group video competition.
            These shared experiences create bonds within a small group that make sharing and doing life together possible and richer. Small groups should be the hub of our ministries because nothing truly life-changing happens outside of relationships.
2. Keep it Fun!
            Have you ever heard of the “5 Love Languages”? Love languages refer to the way people give and receive love from others. It doesn’t take 14 years with our 6-8 grade friends to figure out that middle schoolers love language is fun! Pastors often make the mistake of thinking that profoundly spiritual and deeply fun don’t go together. I would argue that fun is deeply spiritual, especially for a middle school student. I regularly explain to parents that the reason we play games is not to fill time, but it’s to meet the love language of their student so that their walls come down and they can hear our message. Missionaries in poverty-stricken countries often say that people can’t hear the gospel message over their grumbling stomachs. The people need their practical needs (food) met before they can receive the message. That’s the same idea here. If we want middle schoolers to listen to what we have to say we can use their need of fun to create an environment where they can hear us. I’m always amazed how tangibly the chemistry in the room changes after we’ve played a fun game together. I literally can see the change in students and their respectability to our message and our relationships.
3. Keep it Relevant!
            Lastly, focus your energy on relevance. Become a student of your students. Know what they need to hear from God’s Word and how they need to hear it. Wrap your illustrations, topics, and messages in terms that hit home for them. This isn’t a push for awkwardly trying to use the word “lit” as often as possible, but to deliver messages that reflect we know what they are about, what they struggle with, and what matters to them. Relevant messages flow out of our intentional relationship and time spent with students. This also applies to the space you use, the graphics you design, the videos you show, the music your play, the style of worship you pursue, the games you play, and the events you plan. Everything you do should scream, “middle school”! They need to know that this place was made specifically for them and their friends.
The senior pastor at my church, Larry Osborne, wrote a book called, “Sticky Church.” The main theme throughout the book is that for a church to be “sticky” we need to focus on two things: glue people to God’s Word and glue people to each other. It’s in the context of the power or God’s Word and relationship that we see how the church can be a means of true life transformation. We can’t say “yes” to everything, and we don’t need to. But may I encourage you that whatever you choose to do in your ministry to do it with intention and excellence.

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Guest Blog from:

Kristen Lascola

 

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