How To Create a Culture in your Middle School Ministry where Disciple-Making Can Thrive

“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

Hebrews 12:11

Koske was a middle school leader’s worst nightmare. He came into our group as a fun-loving kid who made everyone laugh, only it was always at someone’s expense. Koske wasn’t just an energy-laden, bouncing off-the-walls middle schooler. He was a problem child! He had no respect for people, property, or authority. Koske mocked his own parents, who spoke no English, in their presence to impress his friends. In our small group time, he was always interrupting with some off-handed remark that torpedoed whatever lesson we were trying to teach. His main objective in whatever game we might play was to see how quickly he could ruin it. Koske was single-handedly derailing our youth ministry.

Into every middle school ministry a few Koskes must fall.

Do you have one… or more? How do you handle them? Is your “Koske” derailing your ministry and robbing you of the joy of serving? We as leaders have the critical responsibility of guarding the ministry and protecting the flock God has entrusted to us. I’ve seen firsthand how fragile momentum in ministry can be. Leading well means corralling your Koskes before their disruptive behavior threatens to derail all the good you’ve seen God do – while continuing to love the Koskes in your group.

Do you want to create a culture in your middle school ministry where disciple-making can thrive?

Let me share FIVE IMPERATIVES for working with toxic students in your middle school ministry. How can you cultivate a healthy environment for disciple-making, maintaining discipline without turning your ministry into a boot camp?

1. Cover your ministry in prayer. 

Prayer is your first defense against the wolves hijacking your pen and terrorizing the sheep. Pray with your fellow leaders. Enlist parents and others in the church to pray, specifically for protection against division and derailment. If you’re a volunteer leader, responsible for leading an array of youth programs in your “spare” time, don’t succumb to the temptation to cheat prayer. Even if time is limited, make sure prayer is on the list!

2. Love students with a supernatural love.

Koske needed a love I didn’t possess. My ability to handle Koske and other students like him with patience and grace directly depends on my love relationship with God. I need God to fill me with His love, patience, kindness and strength, or I’m doomed, and so is Koske. James tells us that love covers a multitude of sins, and I have found in many cases that as a genuine relationship develops with your “derailer,” his or her respect and responsiveness grows. Disciple-making happens in the context of relationships. Give love time to grow before you resort to the “whip.”

3. Empower your leaders to act.

Your leaders are engaged in a spiritual battle on the front lines of ministry. Give them permission to confront and care immediately whenever they see problems arising – once they’ve informed you of the problem (if you’re the point leader). Leaders should receive respect, and you empower them when you invite their influence and back up their correction. Don’t play good cop/bad cop with your leaders, caving to the pressure to be liked by the students and unwittingly undermining your leader’s authority. Present a united leadership front on discipline issues. One caution – make sure your leaders are on the same page with the standards you’ve set (and make sure those standards are known and affirmed by your church’s leadership). Gestapo-type leaders can wreak as much havoc in a middle school ministry as any Koske ever will.

4. Make both your expectations and your consequences crystal clear.

Clearly-defined boundaries are important for preserving a respect for students’ feelings and leaders’ decisions.

  1. Confront and correct their behavior the first time it happens. This is a must. If you give the behavior a pass the first time, it will grow like mold.
  2. The second time, involve their parents and clearly define the consequences that will follow if it happens again. This might be removing a privilege, like attending a retreat or camp, or asking them to not be involved in youth group programs for a period of 4-6 weeks while they meet one-on-one with a youth leader for encouragement, correction and accountability. In every way, make parents your allies in this battle. They need to know, and preferably be on board, with the consequences if their child’s behavior goes awry again.
  3. Follow through with the guidelines you’ve set. Sometimes you have to make the tough call and remove a student from your ministry’s group context for a period of time, while a leader is available to meet with them. This way, students who want to be connected to your ministry are being cared for, but the group’s purposes aren’t being compromised by constant distraction. Parents might be upset. Students might be angry. There might be fall-out. But know that the fall-out will be greatly reduced if you have followed these guidelines. Your ministry will begin moving again toward health when students are being shepherded through the challenges.

5. Be discerning. There might be more to the story.

In extreme cases, keep in mind that students who act out may be struggling with serious issues at home or in other relationships. Don’t be deceived. Even in what may appear to be a perfectly “normal” home, students can live in the midst of various forms of abuse, alcoholism, relational dysfunction and mental or emotional instability. They may need more than discipline. Know that there is a time for counseling or crisis intervention. Have clearly defined policies and appropriate responses in place that are established by your church in accordance with city, county and state guidelines.

Disciple-making happens within the context of relationships. A ministry culture that fosters healthy relationships among students and leaders is essential for making disciples. Discipline isn’t fun, but it is necessary if we’re to create and protect that kind of a culture.