There are certain parts of youth ministry that are programmable, controllable, even predictable. Then there's Jr. High boys. Most of my ministry has been focused on high school guys. There's something special about watching young men slowly grow into maturity. To see them finally grasp hold of Truth, laying it as the foundation of their lives. To listen to them dream big dreams of serving the kingdom of God. To walk along side them as the wrestle with the real life struggles and temptations they encounter. And to watch as they graduate, confident and ready to tackle the future. This is why I like working with high school guys. It's not that I don't like Jr. High boys; it's just that I've always had someone else brave enough and willing enough to deal with them. That's not the case now.These days, I'm the guy dealing with them. And some days I'm not quite as brave (or willing) as those who have helped me out in the past. For the last three years I have been the one dealing with the burping, farting, scratching, squirming, the random stories, the stupid jokes, the B.O., and the rabbit trails. Oh, the rabbit trails . . .
All I can say is, Jr. High boys are strange animals.
But there are some really, really cool things about working with Jr. High students. I've been reminded over and over again that the basics of youth ministry (and maybe ministry in general) still work the best: Simple Ministry. Real Ministry. And Ministry that is Lived Out. As I work with these students, I find myself throwing away the youth ministry tricks, er, I mean, tools that are suppose to lead to deep discussion, enriching spiritual growth, and life-long bonding because, honestly, with this age group many of them don't work. So, I've gone back to the basics. No more growth formulas. No more fertilized, vitaminized soil. No more pesticides or chemicals. Its an organic approach to win their hearts with a simple, real, and lived out faith. Here's what I've learned.
Embrace the Three S's of Junior High Bible Study: Simple, Short, and Sweet.
When was the last time you had a super-deep conversation about a biblical truth with a group of Jr. High boys? Recently, I tried for weeks to force a deep discussion about a Bible passage with little to no success. It was frustrating for me, and exhausting. And it was affecting how I looked at my students. Determination to make them Biblical scholars quickly turn to a determination to find excuses to not have to be with them. But then, I changed my expectations. Instead, of the 20 minute torture session, I started to ask them one simple question and offer one simple thought of encouragement. Altogether, about five or ten minutes. I want them to want to know God's Word, to thirst for God's Word, to seek out God's Word. But to force them into a study and discussion they might not be ready for will leave them complaining about what you're trying to do while pushing them away from you and God's Word. Keep it short and sweet. As they grow spiritually and physiologically, there will soon be a time for great Bible study.
Relationships Matter the Most. Real Relationships.
Jr. High students want to have fun, so have fun with them! When I get together with my 7th and 8th grade boys, I spend a considerable amount of time just talking, laughing, and having fun. I want to know what's going on in their world. Who are their friends? What's happening at home? How's their team doing? Who's are they listening to on their iPod? What movies have they seen? What did they think of last weeks football game? Whatever is happening in their world, I want to know and I want them to share. So we talk, sometimes about stupid stuff. We laugh, at really bad jokes. We have fun. Why? Because I want to build a relationship with them. If I have any hope of gaining their trust, any hope in earning the opportunity to speak into their lives, any chance at being the one they call when they're in need, it has to start with the building of a real relationship.
Live Jesus Into Their Lives
Because I know that merely teaching Jesus in a Bible study isn't the most successful technique, my other option is to live Jesus into their lives. What does that mean? It means showing them Jesus in how I live. They need to see Christ in my words, in how I speak to people and about people. They need to see how to love, demonstrate compassion, and serve with a willing heart. They need to see Jesus, and not me.
Jr. High students eventually grow up (well, at least the girls do). Some day I'll be able to sit down and have that deep discussion. One day I will be the call they make when they are in need. Any one day I'll actually be sad when they graduate and move on. But until then, I'm going to get a little messy, and my ministry to them is going to have to be more organic and less formal.