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The Most Awkward Age: Ministering to Middle Schoolers

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“Alex, what size camp shirts are we getting this year?” I stared back blankly into the crowd of parents trying to process what I was just asked.

The more I thought about it, the more confused I got. Wouldn’t parents just buy whatever size shirt fit their kid best? 

My blank stare must have said a lot because the mother asking the question kindly helped me, “Middle schoolers are the most awkward for t-shirt sizes—they don’t fit nicely into adult sizes yet. Can you give us options for youth and adult sizes?”

With that, all the pieces fell in place and I understood, so I retorted back with a smile, “middle schoolers are the most awkward, aren’t they?”

Middle school is an awkward, transitional stage. 

 Some middle schoolers still have the innocence of a child and others are too-cool-for-school. Some students are content playing Minecraft all day while others are already asking what looks best on their college applications. Some are painfully (for us) growing mustaches and others’ voices are higher than Alvin the Chipmunk. 

At times, it can seem like every aspect of middle school life is caught in-between. I would contend that this tension emerges in our approach to biblical instruction too. Can these 12 to 14-year-olds really handle thoughtful, verse-by-verse, expositional teaching from God’s Word? Won’t it go over their heads? Or, worse, won’t it bore them to death? 

While thoughts like this will come, I believe that regularly preaching and teaching God’s Word to middle school students is necessary for them and biblically faithful. Here are five encouragements that have sustained me in teaching my students the Bible:  

  1.     Give your students food, not medicine

Food and medicine are both important. However, we all intuitively know the greater of the two is food. Medicine is necessary for some; food is necessary for all. Those that take medicine take it as prescribed; yet we all eat food constantly. Medicine helps us when we are sick; food grants us our daily sustenance. 

How should we apply this metaphor to middle school ministry? While youth ministry generally survives off pizza, I would suggest that ‘food’ is preaching and teaching the Bible exegetically. Jesus affirms the daily necessity of God’s word by saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Preaching the Bible is food for your students. Medicine, on the other hand, is teaching the Bible topically or thematically. Both forms of teaching are good for your students, just like food and medicine. Yet only one of these is needed daily for vitality and life.  

Therefore, give your middle schoolers God’s Word—explained in simple, clear language; proved in compelling, wooing arguments; applied in relevant, personal ways. 

  1.     Know the Biblical Goals and Tools of Ministry

In Colossians 1:28, Paul says, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”

Therefore, your aim in ministry is nothing less than leading your middle school students to maturity in Christ. It doesn’t matter if the person you are ministering to is in 8th grade or approaching 80, the goal of ministry is the same—Christian maturity. How do you present someone mature in Christ? Well, Paul tells us that too. We do it as we “proclaim” Jesus Christ, showing God’s grand plan of redemption in his Son throughout all of Scripture. 

Middle school might be the most difficult time for your students to mentally handle deep preaching of God’s Word. However, your aim is for a lifetime of discipleship. By preaching Christ, you are doing two crucial things for them. First, you are discipling them with the method God’s Word prescribes. Second, you are preparing them for life in the church for years to come where they will (hopefully) receive a steady diet of sound preaching. 

  1.     Embrace the foolishness of preaching

The apostle Paul tells us what to expect when we preach about a crucified Messiah: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). 

Notice: it isn’t the age of the audience that makes our preaching foolish or wise. Rather, it’s God’s sovereign grace that makes preaching wise. Therefore, the choice to preach Christ to middle schoolers isn’t entirely a question of teaching method or ministry philosophy. It’s a matter of trusting the means and message that God has provided. 

Preach God’s Word to your students knowing that, to some, you will be foolish, but to those being saved, your preaching will be wisest thing they will ever hear. 

  1.     Minister in the confidence of the resurrection

There is that moment every time I teach that I look out into the eyes of my students and wonder if what I am saying is doing anything at all. Yet, God’s Word has a great promise for the doubting minister. 

First Corinthians 15 is mostly known for its beautiful truths about the hope of resurrection. Yet consider how Paul concludes his thoughts about the resurrection hope that is ours in Christ: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). 

Because of the certainty of Christ’s bodily resurrection, because of the certainty that I will bear the image of the man of heaven, because of the certainty that in the twinkling of an eye my mortality will be clothed with immortality, and because of his certain victory over sin and death, all of my labor is meaningful. None of it is in vain, ever. 

Praise God for this. What sweeter promise is there for the Christian minister?

Therefore, we can teach, knowing and believing that God will use every minute of our sermons, even when our audience is young.

  1.     Don’t Despise Your Students

Paul encourages Timothy not to let others despise him for his own youth (1 Timothy 4:12). Perhaps there’s a word here for us as well, namely, that we shouldn’t despise or underestimate those who are younger. 

Don’t set the bar low for your students based on the assumption that they cannot handle sound, verse-by-verse teaching. Instead, honor them and take advantage of their God-given faculties. They can listen, focus, and learn about God through preaching. Honor them by challenging them to grow in their knowledge of God, to deepen their love for God’s Word, and to appreciate the gift of sustained biblical teaching. Don’t assume that teaching them hard truths from the Bible is too much for them. They can handle it.

Like that mother pointed out to me, middle schoolers don’t fit into any nice and convenient bubble—they may need a youth or an adult-size shirt any day. Yet, that should not stop us from seeking to faithfully preach the Bible in our middle school ministries. God will use it for his glory and their good. 

Alex Schroeder serves as the Associate Youth Minister for Junior High at Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and as a Resident Director at Boyce College. He has a Masters of Divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Claire and has two children, Annie and Evie.
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