Middle School Ministry
Are 12 year olds capable of following Jesus?
As a 22-year-old, fresh out of Bible college and ready to take on the world, I was thrown into jr. high ministry with the promise of “real” ministry opportunities down the road. I had visions of being a “real pastor” and eventually planting a church. It didn’t take long for me to discover that jr. high ministry was as real as ministry gets.
At first, I defined success in jr. high ministry as getting through High Voltage (our 2-hour jr. high program on Saturday mornings) without having to call an ambulance, a parent, or the senior pastor. My job was to entertain (read: babysit) the students and give them a dose of the Bible to file away in their knowledge banks. If the students had fun, wanted to come back, and even brought friends, I was doing my job. But real ministry? Beyond evangelizing the students, I doubted it went any further. After all, they’re just jr. highers!
Twenty years ago, what we now call middle school across most of the US was still known as jr. high school. There was a lot being written about jr. high ministry. There were even seminars, conferences and breakouts specifically targeted to this age group. When I type in “middle school ministry” on Amazon today, the top resources that pop up are all over ten years old. Have we forgotten this age group? Do we think they’re not capable of following Jesus yet?
What do you think? Be honest. Is a middle school student, an 11-14 year old, capable of:
…full devotion to Jesus Christ?
…maintaining a vibrant, daily walk with God?
…compassion for lost or hurting people?
…authentic worship of God?
…praying for deeper needs than Aunt Eunace’s gall bladder?
…using spiritual gifts to serve the body of Christ?
My honest answer now (but not when I started out) is YES!
I eventually did help plant a church. While being the teaching pastor, preaching every Sunday morning, I also started the youth ministry. And I began with jr. high students. Even after we grew to over 500 and were able to bring on a youth pastor, I kept leading the jr. high ministry. Totally Outrageous grew to 120 students and 25 volunteers. Jr. highers were being reached with the gospel and discipled to follow Jesus and reach their friends. Then, we left New Jersey and moved to Florida, where I became Sonlife’s southeast regional coordinator and national jr. high ministry multiplier. We jumped into another church plant, where I became the volunteer youth pastor. Again, we bagan with jr. high students. That ministry we started, Wildfire, is still thriving to this day. And oh, by the way, it’s being led by one of my former jr. high students!
When we began Wildfire, one of our initial students was an energy-laden, obedience-challenged, lou-mouthed sixth grader. I had recruited five adults, and we began with eight students. Not a bad ratio for middle school ministry! By the time our initial sixth graders had become eighth graders, they had become the heart and soul of our ministry. That energy-laden, obedience-challenged, loud-mouthed sixth grader was now a natural leader among her peers. She wanted to see her friends know Christ like she did. I remember the night she brought four friends with her to WIldfire, our weekly high-energy outreach. That night, during their small group discussion, all four girls prayed to trust Christ as their Savior. Two weeks later, they all said they wanted to be baptized. That eighth grader had brought more friends to Christ that year than 98% of the adults in our churches. But she was just a jr. higher…
Through the years, I have traveled and spoken to thousands of middle school students across the country. I’ve had the opportunity to see groups of all different sizes and styles, and it never gets old. I am still humbled and amazed each time I am with a group of authentic worshiping middle school students. I still have the image in my mind- standing in the back of the room, waiting to speak, watching the students worship. The middle schoolers had crowded the stage, jumping, singing, doing hand motions. It was a worship frenzy. Total chaos. Standing toward the back of the room though, still at their seats, were two boys sitting apart from the rest of their friends. Their arms were outstretched, lifted high, heads tilted heavenward, singing passionately to their Savior. They were truly worshiping! But they’re just jr. highers…
My wife served as a middle school small group leader for almost twenty-five years. She would journey all through middle school with a group of girls, then begin again with a new group when they moved on to high school. She did this over and over and over again. One of the girls in her small group years ago had recently trusted Christ. Within a few weeks, she was already bringing friends with her to Wildfire. She was so eager to grow, I wanted to give her a Bible. She didn’t have one of her own. When I handed it to her, she responded, “Thank you so much! I’ll give it back to you when I’m finished reading it.” She actually intended on beginning to read it immediately, and reading it from cover to cover. But she’s only a jr. higher…
While at a youth retreat, I shared with the middle school students about Jesus’ desire for us to be others-centered, to love and serve others, and share Jesus’ love with them. I shared the example of traveling to Haiti and being deeply impacted by the impoverished conditions. I shared about bringing money to help feed the children while we were there, and how we were motivated to start a school feeding program so the kids could eat even when we weren’t there. I wanted to share my own example of seeing needs and responding with Christ’s love. My point wasn’t “give to Haiti” but rather “open your eyes” so you can see the needs of those right next to you and meet those needs. The next day, I had a thirteen year old boy come up to me with a baseball cap filled with cash. He said he and his friends wanted to help the kids in Haiti too, so he took off his hat and passed it around his small group. Many of the boys were giving the rest of the spending money they had brought for the weekend retreat. These twelve and thirteen year old boys had given over $100 to help the children in Haiti. I hadn’t asked them to give. We didn’t take up an offering for Haiti. They were responding to the prompting of the Holy Spirit with obedience and sacrifice. This was their own idea! But they’re only jr. highers…
Middle Schoolers in the Bible
The Bible has several examples of God using youth to accomplish His purposes. How old do you think David was when he defeated Goliath? We know that his three oldest brothers were in Saul’s army. Young men were expected to serve in the army from the age of twenty. But David was the youngest of eight brothers, which means he had four older brothers who weren’t yet twenty years old. This would be a strong indication that David was 12-15 years old when he fought Goliath. David took down the giant and won a great victory for Israel! But David was just a jr. higher…
We have every reason to believe, both culturally and biblically, that most of Jesus’ initial disciples were just teenagers, some maybe as young as 14, when Jesus said, “Come, follow me.” There’s the account in Matthew 17 where Jesus sends Peter to the water to catch a fish and remove a coin from its mouth. The purpose of this command was to pay the tax the religious leaders were demanding of Him. Even though all Twelve were with Him, Jesus only paid the tax for Himself and Peter. The tax was to be paid for those over twenty years of age (Exodus 30:14). These teenagers were chosen by Jesus to carry His message to the ends of the earth. But what if John, the youngest, was just a jr. higher…
Jesus as a Middle School Student
We don’t have much recorded from Jesus’ life before the age of thirty. We have the birth narrative and the escape to Eqypt. We have nothing recorded of Jesus in His teen years or His twenties. All we have in between His birth, Egypt, and His baptism is Luke 2:41-52. Jesus was twelve, the age of a modern middle school student.
“When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom.”Luke 2:42
Is this story recorded because it would have been the age of Jesus’ recognition by His family and the community of becoming a man, similar to a modern Bar Mitzvah. We’re not told that, but the age generally fits. Jewish boys celebrate their Bar Mitzvah today at age thirteen. Growing up in a New Jersey town that was 50% Jewish, and being the only non-Jewish family on my entire street, I attended a few Bar Mitzvahs growing up.
Before their Bar Mitzvah, Jewish boys are quizzed by their Rabbi and must “pass the test.” All my Jewish friends went to Hebrew School a few days a week to learn everything they needed to know before being quizzed by their Rabbi. Is this what’s happening in Luke 2?
What we do see in Luke 2 is Jesus’ grasp of the Scriptures. He had a depth of knowledge and understanding. The teachers of the Law were amazed by 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.”Luke 2:46-47
At this young age, Jesus would have memorized Torah, like His classmates. He would have studied the Scriptures and meditated on them. Jesus loved God’s Word, studied God’s Word, and knew God’s Word.
It was through His study of the Scriptures, I believe, that He came to understand His identity. He knew that He was God’s Son.
“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”Luke 4:49
At this age, as a middle schooler, Jesus was growing in spiritual maturity.
“And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.”Luke 2:40
“And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”Luke 2:52
At the age of twelve, Jesus was described as being “filled with wisdom,” having “the grace of God on Him,” and growing in “favor with God and man.”
But Jesus was just a jr higher…
I learned a long time ago to never use the word JUST and jr. higher or middle schooler in the same sentence. They are not JUST middle schoolers! They are energetic, passionate revolutionaries capable of changing their world! Let’s get serious about middle school ministry. God is!