How To Grow Spiritually Mature Middle School Students

Spiritually mature middle school students? Does this sound like an oxymoron? A pipe dream? Isn’t the best we can possibly hope for simply surviving middle school? Maybe it’s good for us to remind ourselves what Jesus looked like as a middle school boy.

“And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him…. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”

Luke 2:40,52

At the age of twelve, Jesus was maturing spiritually. He wasn’t fully mature. He was still growing. He was maturing. Jesus grew in wisdom  and stature, in favor with God and in favor with man. The grace of God was upon Him.

Was Jesus fully mature relationally at this point? I don’t think so. That doesn’t mean He sinned. He was sinless. He was fully obedient to everything the Father asked of Him. But was Jesus thinking about His parents as He stayed behind in Jerusalem without them knowing as they began their journey home to Nazareth? Would the relationally mature thing to do have been to tell them He needed to stay in Jerusalem longer? Unless the Father specifically told Jesus to stay behind and not tell Joseph and Mary, the relationally mature thing to do would have been to communicate with mom and dad. If the Father didn’t say, “Don’t tell your parents about this plan,” then that choice was left up to Jesus as a twelve year old. And He neglected to tell mom and dad His plans.

“After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

Luke 2:43-48

What can we expect spiritually from a middle school student?

Middle school students are capable of following Christ, but you’ll only see it if you know what to look for.

The Jeckyl & Hyde Principle of Spiritual Maturity

Because middle school students are in a state of emotional, mental, social and spiritual flux, in one moment they may appear to be the next Billy Graham, and the next, an alien being. The pendulum may swing wildly back and forth, from one extreme to the other, from week to week.

Don’t take a snapshot of a middle schooler at their very best and set that as the expectation for what they will be able to immediately live up to every day. This is a picture of the potential of who they can and hopefully are becoming.

Don’t take a snapshot of a middle schooler at their very worst and believe that’s who they really are and always will be. Aside from the obvious, sin, there can be a multitude of developmental factors at play in producing the worst version of themselves spiritually.

Capture a snapshot of the pendulum as it swings between these two extremes, and call that normal spiritual maturity for a middle schooler.

A middle school student who has trusted Christ as their Savior can grow to:

  • Understand their identity in Christ
  • Read the Bible on their own
  • Pray on their own
  • Tell their friends about Jesus
  • Serve others inside and outside the church
  • Treat others with kindness and respect
  • Explore their spiritual gifts
  • Pursue purity in every area of life

These areas of maturity are covered in Sonlife’s discipling studies: IDENTITY, WALK, TALK, FEED, CLEAN. With each of these areas of maturity, we must remember that a middle schooler is maturing in them. They are not yet fully mature. They will not get it right all of the time, or maybe even most of the time. They are capable of showing progress though. Progress means they are in process. They are maturing.

One SECRET to Greater Spiritual Maturity

The consistent investment of a spiritual leader in the life of a middle school student can dramatically shorten the length of the spiritual “pendulum swing” they experience. Relationships built on trust offer encouragement and accountability that can bring greater consistency in a middle schooler’s walk with Christ.


Twenty years ago, as a volunteer jr. high pastor, I blogged on these keys to maximizing the spiritual growth potential of your students. These keys still unlock your ministry potential today, because they are principal-based.

  1. GO SMALL!

If you view your middle school ministry as a program, you greatly reduce the likelihood of seeing this kind of maturity realized in the students with whom you work. Programs don’t produce disciples. Programs produce consumers.

Ministry happens in the context of relationships, and when you begin to view your programs as your platform for relationships to take place, you will begin to see disciples being made. Discipleship isn;’t a program. Discipleship is one life impacting another. You can impress from a distance. You impact from up close. The closer the proximity, the greater the impact.

Because of this, I have always broken down my ministry into small groups of 4-8 students. Even on our outreach nights, I have a small group component integrated into the night so that students immediately get connected to other students and to a leader. This requires more of my leaders, since they have a group of students to shepherd, to call, to pray for, and to get together with outside of our programmed events. It also requires more of me as a leader. I recruit leaders so that I have a ratio of one leader for every 4-5 students. Our ministry currently has about 50 students, and I’ve recruited enough leaders, 18, for a growth potential of 80 this year. In the Fall, I don’t recruit for my current need. I recruit for my vision of where I’m trusting God we will be by Spring. It also requires more preparation, coaching and encouragement to equip that many volunteers.

But going small pays huge dividends. Our students are cared for. They have a mentor modeling Christlikeness for them. We are able to walk with them as they take significant strides in their spiritual journey. And for our leaders, they own the ministry. These are THEIR students. Through the years, I’ve seen many stay with the same group of students all through their middle school experience and then step up to the plate for another tour of duty.

  1. GO WIDE!

Your ministry will have middle school students at all different levels of spiritual interest and development. With your current ministry structure, are you able to minister wide enough to meet students at their points of need and challenge them to the next level? Think about your students being at three different levels of spiritual development: KNOW, GROW and SHOW.

For the middle schoolers who do not yet have a relationship with Christ, your ministry needs to be able to challenge them at that point of need and help them to KNOW Christ.

For the many middle schoolers in our ministries who do know Jesus, they need to be challenged to GROW in Christ in their Identity, Walk, Talk, Feed & Clean.

For those middle schoolers who know Christ and are growing in Him, our ministries need to be positioned to equip and encourage them to SHOW Christ through serving others and sharing their faith so they can help their friends KNOW Jesus like they do.

It’s really simple. What is our target? We want middle schoolers who KNOW Christ, GROW to become more like Christ, and SHOW Christ to the world. If that is our target, then we need to be intentional about creating environments where KNOW, GROW and SHOW can optimally take place. Which students are stymied in their spiritual development because we have failed to challenge them?

Have we settled for our middle school students being consumers instead of revolutionary disciples?

  1. GO DEEP!

Don’t be afraid to take your students deeper. Give them an opportunity to worship. Teach them about their spiritual gifts and give them an opportunity to use those gifts. Teach them about the Holy Spirit and how they can live each day in God’s power. Provide devotional journals and hold the students accountable to using them. Help students set up and lead a Bible club on their campus. Take them on a mission trip where they do more than just paint fences.

As you challenge your students to go deeper, remember that you must also go deeper relationally with them. If your students are to go deeper, they need you as a leader to walk there with them. If you challenge students without providing encouragement and accountability, then hear me clearly. You have failed them. Never expect what you fail to inspect!

If I want students to begin reading their Bibles consistently, I must equip and encourage them continually to take this step. First, I challenge them with the truth. Then, I equip them with teaching and tools on how to read the Bible, maybe providing a simple monthly Scripture reading plan. And finally, I make sure they are encouraged. Small group leaders need to connect with their students 2-3 times a week and ask how their time with God is going. At least then, we are almost guaranteed the students are reading their Bibles 2-3 times a week. What a great start! And after three months of reading the Bible 3 times a week, a habit has been established and a value for God’s Word has been birthed.

If you’re going to challenge your students to go deeper, know that their success depends largely on  the investment of a shepherd in their life. Are you and your leaders ready to make that commitment to walk with them?

Do all this and the moment will come. 
What moment? The moment when, amazed and overwhelmed, you see 12-year-olds taking God seriously, impacting friends, owning ministry, and you say, “WOW! And I thought they were JUST middle schoolers! I Can’t wait to see what God does next in their lives.”