I spent the last year leading a small group Bible study for teenagers. This in itself is no big deal. I've taught small group Bible study to teenagers as a volunteer for over a decade. So why would I lead this post by drawing attention to this last year of Bible study? This particular small group experience was a watershed moment for me because of one specific factor . . .
For the first time in my youth ministry "career" I taught junior high boys. 7th graders to be exact.
And the effect it had on me was . . . profound. I could not have imagined how different this experience was going to be. After all, I'm no rookie. I've worked with teenagers in local churches for 12 years. I have worked for several para-church youth ministry organizations. I am Seminary trained with a concentration in Youth Ministry. I have taught, or discipled, or led conferences or retreats for literally thousands of teenagers over the years . . .
Please hear me: I'm in no way trying to brag or boast! I have so much to learn and hope I never feel like I've "arrived." I simply say this to make one very simple point:
I got humbled in a big way. And I never saw it coming.
Here's what I learned (and am learning) from my first year discipling junior high students:
I Had An Agenda (And I Didn't Know It)
Until things started to "get off track," and boy did they, I didn't realize I had an agenda. Maybe not an agenda, but I definitely had some pre-conceived notions of how it would go, what my role would be, and how we would progress. This in itself was not a bad thing. Except that . . .
My Agenda Bombed From The Get-Go
Discipleship principles are the same regardless of age. The process looks entirely different based on differences in age, spiritual maturity, cultural context, etc. I knew this. Which makes it more humorous that it caught me totally off guard. Which leads me to my next point . . .
Flexibility Is VITAL . . . And I Need More Of It
I really struggled the first few weeks with how to lead this group. I loved the fellowship. My guys are great. But I was lost at how to make these times meaningful from a spiritual perspective. I got disillusioned when my "plan" didn't go as I thought it would. Then, after some time, I realized I needed to be much more flexible in regards to my expectations of relationship.
Meaningful Bible Study Is A Challenge
Maybe it's not for you and your students. But it was for us. I love the Bible. I found that my guys did not share my love for it. Or so I thought. Then I realized their engagement with God's Word simply looks different than mine. It happens in shorter doses. And in more concrete terms. Again, I knew all of these things! But I forgot them in the moment. There's another thing I forgot that I remembered almost immediately . . .
7th Grade Boys Are Not Far Removed From Wild Animals
This has nothing to do with the personality of the guys in my group. I LOVE these guys. They are hilarious, pretty respectful, and really fun to be with. They are what you would call good kids. But the developmental issues that go on in 7th grade are quite literally mind-blowing. They pass gas. A lot. They can't go three minutes without hitting each other. For no reason whatsoever, one of them will routinely stand up in his chair. They interrupt incessantly. They smell bad. They are messy when they eat. I found myself loving (almost) every minute of it.
Spiritual Disciplines Are Tough For 7th Grade Boys
Let's face it . . . they are virtually impossible. They just are. (Though my guys really enjoy service projects and missions. They get it, and it's cool to see.) Expecting 12-year-olds to read their Bible each day is probably too much. Desiring that they have an active prayer life is a lot to expect. I didn't get this at first. But, I came to understand it. It doesn't mean I can't work to lay the foundation. It simply revealed to me that I had un-realistic expectations of them.
Frustration Came Easy For Me
This surprised me. But it did. I don't think I ever really let it show. It surfaced hours after the meeting when I was faced with not feeling I had met my own expectations of what was supposed to be happening. But I learned as time went by to adjust my expectations and relax. We ended the year stronger than we began.
My Admiration For Those Called To Junior High Ministry Skyrocketed
I know many of men and women who are called to lead middle schoolers and junior highers. They are worthy of our admiration and respect. We should celebrate them. Plaques. Parades. Ballads. Epic poems that tell of their tales. They are the princes and princesses of youth ministry.
More than anything, I think I was reminded that discipleship is a marathon, not a sprint. Again . . . I knew this. But it took me hanging out with a bunch of smelly, goofy, totally awesome 7th grade guys to truly understand this. OK, those are my observations. I'd love to hear yours. What did I miss?