How to Unleash the Untapped Potential of your Middle School Students

Middle school kids are high energy!!  No surprise for anyone that’s spent 5 minutes with middle schoolers.  What is surprising is how, knowing that, we try to get them to be calm, quiet, sit still and think, with their not yet fully developed brains.

Once upon a time I was a part time Jr High Youth Pastor and a part time substitute teacher in the local Middle Schools.  Being a sub was an intentional decision both as a compliment to my ministry and a supplement to my income.  Just because I’m up for a challenge, I also chose to sub often in the behavioral disorder department.  It struck me as crazy that kids with labels that mean they can’t sit still were told to sit in a chair all day.  Kids whose diagnoses meant they couldn’t be quiet were told, all day, to not talk.  Then I started to look at Jesus.  There were times when he taught in a possible monologue fashion, but often we see Him interacting, asking questions, entering in to dialogue and engaging in active situations; fishing, walking, parties, etc.  As I studied Jesus, I began to wonder about how we do ministry in general but especially in my department – middle school ministry.

Renewable energies are and have been a great topic of discussion for a long time.  The sun is already shining, so why not capture that energy?  The wind is already blowing, so why not harness that energy?  We’ve been leveraging hydro electricity for years, which seems smart.  Wouldn’t you agree that if we could bottle up the energy of a tweenager and sell it, we’d be rich!  So, why is it the least used resource on the planet.  What I mean is this: why do we fight against this incoming tide?  These kids are full of energy – why not engage in high energy, active ministry?

In our programming, there will be quiet times.  Scripture says to

Be still and know that HE is God. 

Psalm 46:10

This will require incorporating times to train students how to be still at an age appropriate level.  There will be times we need to teach truth.  During these very years of growing up, Jesus grew in “wisdom”. This doesn’t mean though that there’s not plenty of space for active ministry.  By “active ministry” I don’t mean playing games!  Mixers, games and the like can be beneficial times for making new kids feel welcome, building relationships and more – but that’s not what I’m speaking of.  I’m talking about developing a pattern of life, beginning in middle school, where students learn to serve others, looking for needs and then figuring out how to meet them.  Like Hebrews says,

And let us consider how to stir one another on toward love and good deeds.

Hebrews 10:24

This is an opportunity for students to learn that Christianity is about loving God, loving people, and making disciples.  It is not simply about playing some games, memorizing some truth, and keeping some rules.

Youth pastors can wear many hats. Let me grant you permission to set aside your “entertainer” hat and put on your “minister” hat. Understand this important fact. Every event on your calendar doesn’t have to entertain your students.  In fact, I’d say every event should have a purpose that ultimately serves as a platform to make disciple-makers.  What if instead of another lock-in, we gathered students to help a widow in our church?  What if instead of visiting another amusement park, we visited a nursing home?  What if instead of “teaching” another series, we exposed students to learning that very truth through active engagement?

What could that look like?  Could middle school students help serve a meal at a shelter?  Could students help rake leaves for a senior?  Could students help run a children’s back yard Bible club?  I’ll bet you could come up with ten ideas better than these off the top of your head!  Go ahead, and write them down.

I asked a football coach once about the time ratio he spent lecturing players about an idea, a play, a skill, etc. versus the time spent practicing that idea, play, or skill.  On his team, it was at least 70% or more practice. This football coach also happens to be a Youth Pastor, so I asked him the same question about his ministry.  He just shook his head and admitted, “100% teaching.” Spoiler alert:  After several years of studying Jesus together and implementing HIS model, that ratio is now radically different in his ministry.  Just last week, at summer camp, he had students (on their own) leading other students to faith in Christ.

Sonlife has a long history of experiential training dating back to our early years in Chicago.  ReVerb is a training resource we released several years ago.  ReVerb’s focused on equipping the Head, Heart & Hands.  During the training, students are equipped with heart messages, structured training, and opportunities to practice and develop new ministry skills.  Students who experience ReVerb are equipped to Love God, Love People & Make Disciples.  This training was created in such a way that it could be flexible and inexpensive for ministries to use.  One youth ministry in Nashville uses it every year as the opening event for their incoming 6th graders.  When asked why they schedule this way versus a “fun” first event, the Youth Pastor said, “We want kids to know what they’re getting into.”

Containing middle schoolers is kind of like squeezing Jello.  But Jello can be a ton of fun! So can middle school students!!! We just need to acknowledge reality and stop being frustrated about slimy, cold gunk squirting out between our fingers. Instead, let’s work with their high energy and unleash it for God’s Glory! Let’s teach them how to actively Love God, Love People and Make Disciples.
Do you want to see your middle school students equipped and unleashed to reach their full potential in Christ? Consider hosting, leading or joining a ReVerb for your middle school students this year.