They take pride in being the loudest, the smelliest, and the fastest. They like goofiness. They move awkwardly, thanks to their growing body parts. They are always hungry. They are squirmy one moment, and the next they are too tired to do anything. They are trying to decide who they are, and find themselves in the middle: not young anymore, yet not old enough. The life of a young adolescent involves a lot of self-searching: who am I? Where do I fit? That encompasses all aspects of life, including the spiritual one.
Terri Kober, Director of Family, Youth, and School Ministry at Trinity, Conklin, has worked with Jr. High youth for about 15 years. She started volunteering in Jr. High ministry when her own children reached adolescence: “I realized that there was no fellowship opportunity for students this age.” She vividly remembers being a young adolescent and being caught in the middle, not knowing where she belonged. She can relate to the students, and loves working with them: “I find these kids to be so accepting of my care and instruction and easier to build relationships with … they make me laugh all the time.
FITTING IN NOW
How are we, the church, including this age group? According to Kober, “Often times, there seems to be a focus on children’s ministry and Sr. High ministry. Jr. High kids by nature have trouble figuring out where they fit in. When there is not a ‘home’ for them in the church it really underscores an already difficult stage in life.” She believes the youth should be given meaningful service opportunities which show them that “they are members of the body of Christ now. That being ‘in’ isn’t something that magically happens at confirmation.”
When asked about the needs of Jr. High students, Kober said, “They need to be trusted with spiritual challenges. They are able to pray and learn important things about their faith. They need to be challenged so that their faith begins to be their own, and not that of their parents. I think their biggest challenge is figuring out where they fit, and knowing that they matter and are important members of the body of Christ.”
There have been dire statistics showing that youth drop out of the church right after confirmation, as if they feel they’ve “graduated.” Churches are looking for ways to engage and retain the students. A group of about 10 congregations in New York State found the solution in joining forces and making confirmation classes so enjoyable that kids bring their friends, as illustrated by this story.
It seems that the key to engaging Jr. High youth is relationships. There is a natural need for friendships, for identifying with peers, for acceptance. In “A Study of Youth Confirmation & First Communion in the LCMS,” the church’s Department for Youth Ministry (1998) emphasized that “The focus of confirmation ministry should include a strong emphasis on relationships. While teaching Christian doctrine is highly important, so is the development of relationships among children of the heavenly Father.” Based on extensive research, the report suggests setting apart a window of time in each confirmation class for conversation and sharing. Perhaps then it shouldn’t be surprising that, when asked what the youth’s favorite activity at Youth Group was, Kober said, “One of the favorite things is doing ‘news’ (a time when all the kids get a chance to say what’s been happening in their lives). If I forget this part of the night I am always called out on it: ‘Hey, we didn’t do news!’”
Another way to encourage these students is to provide opportunities for them to interact with other kids their age in a larger setting, so they can see themselves as part of something bigger. The Michigan District holds a Jr. High Youth Gathering every year. It’s a time for worship, mass gatherings, and small group Bible studies, servant events, arts and crafts, fun, and more – all while bonding with youth from across the state. Check out michigandistrict.org/events/jrhigh14. This webpage sums up the gathering that happened this past summer. Sounds good? Don’t let your Jr. High youth miss “Cornerstone 2015” at the Bavarian Inn Lodge in Frankenmuth, Mich., June 5-7, 2015! Registration is now open. For more information and/or to register, click here.