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Keeping the atmosphere of your junior high meetings somewhere between a morgue and a piranha feeding frenzy is the constant challenge of young teen ministry. I've developed a handful of rules essential to conducting a successful junior high meeting.
> Don't mess with other people or their stuff.
> Don't talk when others are talking.
> No making fun of others or calling them names.
> Handouts are not to become airplanes, confetti, or doodle pads.
> Launching airborne objects, paper or otherwise, will result in death. (Feel free to soften the penalty here; but the rule's good).
For more on enforcing rules, see Discipline Is a Happy Word.
HUNDRED TO ONE AIN'T GOOD
To say small groups are important in junior high ministry is like saying snow is important to winter. (See Small Is Good) Junior highers interact in small groups differently than high school students, however. Issues of discipline, self-image, and gender can send a discussion careening off the topic.
Trial and error taught me two good student-to-leader ratios for junior high small groups: 6:1 and 10:2. One adult leader can effectively lead a small group of about six young teens; a group that grows past six works better with two adult leaders. My best format for a junior high small group is about ten kids with two leaders. One leader teaches while the other one polices and supports. And they won't have to find substitutes, since one can cover for the other.
Finally, small groups with young teens always function more smoothly if they are made up of only one gender.
WON'T YOU PLEEEEEEASE WORK WITH JUNIOR HIGH?
Recruiting volunteer workers for junior high ministry turns up numerous skeptics---most of whom fall into one of the following three categories:
> People who hated their own junior high years and don't want to vicariously live them over again.
> People who falsely assume junior highers would never like them and who feel threatened when young teens don't accept them.
> People who falsely assume that only the young, crazy, musically gifted, stylish, funny, and media-savvy will succeed with young teens.
Help prospective volunteers to get past these three objections and you're home free (almost).
Many school districts have moved to a middle school model, grouping sixth through eighth grades together---thereby forcing churches to rethink the positioning of their sixth-graders.
Those not accustomed to imminent teens will undoubtedly perceive them as young and little (because they are). For years I resisted adding sixth grade to our junior high ministry. Yet I knew most churches tended to drop the ball with this crucial age group, boring them with childish curriculum and treating them younger than they are---despite the fact that many sixth-graders are taking their first steps into adolescence.
Now, after several years of working sixth-graders into the youth group, I love having them involved. At least three good options make effective ministry possible to these youngest of teens:
> You can lobby for a fifth and sixth grade preteen ministry. Run it like a youth ministry, as opposed to a children's Sunday school program, making it age appropriate and requiring high parental involvement.
> You can request that sixth-graders be incorporated into your junior high ministry---but still provide separate settings for most activities.
> If your sixth-graders are already combined with seventh- and eighth-graders, you can use grade-specific small groups to tackle sensitive subjects in age-appropriate ways.
SHOOTING AN ARROW
With their newly acquired abstract thinking ability (see Cognitive Development), junior highers can conceptualize what their futures might look like.
So suggest the future. As God gives you insight into the emerging strengths of different kids, shoot an arrow for them---help them see what the future might hold. You are in a powerful position to make an impression on junior high kids.
Case in point: my junior high youth pastor, whom I really looked up to, suggested that someday I'd be a youth pastor. He shot an arrow for me.
Your words carry power among your junior highers. You might question the truth of that statement when kids nod off right in the middle of your talk, leaving large drool stains down the fronts of their shirts. But it's true.
Here are four short syllables for you to remember whenever you use the power of your words: AF-FIR-MA-TION. They spell an important ministry---sometimes the most important. Choose to affirm kids. Do it all the time. Take care to affirm the annoying as well as the likeable kids.
Telling a plain girl she looks pretty today can change her world. Commenting to a short, uncoordinated boy that you really appreciate how he's always on time can carry him for days.
Affirm character. Affirm behavior. Affirm cool T-shirts. I don't care what you affirm---just find a way to do it. Affirming kids earns you the right to be heard, and that increases your effectiveness in ministry directly and indirectly.
SMALL IS GOOD
If your junior high group is small, don't sweat it. Our church culture has created an expectation that larger is always better. This is simply not true.
The advantages of a smaller group can be summed up in three words: intimacy, mobility, and flexibility. Small groups can really get to know each other and create a sense of family. I miss that when I'm working with a large group. With my small group, we could throw the whole gang in two cars and have Sunday school at the donut shop. We were ready to roll at any time---no planning necessary. And it was easy to be flexible. If we changed our plans at the last minute, it wasn't a big deal to call the parents.
Relish whatever size ministry God has given you---large or small.