Every adult who works with middle schoolers is going straight to heaven. I have been telling youth ministers, teachers, coaches, and directors for years how their involvement with this elusive age group guarantees it. So, if this is you, please accept an extended standing ovation because you are a hero. Yet, even as I salute you, I recognize some of my enthusiasm comes from relief that it is not me.
I worked in church ministry for a long time, positioning my involvement in proximity to middle school youth ministry. (I have the evidence documented in retreat and camp T-shirts.) I was just close enough to develop a genuine appreciation for the youth ministers and core members but not close enough to commit to a year-round official association with Edge.
Yet I felt God calling me to venture into the deep, so I joined an Edge core team. It has been a surprisingly incredible journey to accompany middle school youth. God was patient with me and waited until I was ready to say “yes” to middle school ministry. Now that I have, I’m in; there’s no turning back.
It is a joy to walk a MILE in the shoes of a sixth, seventh, or eighth-grader. Here are four tips I have learned for reaching middle schoolers.
Be attentive to the middle schoolers’ energy and match it. For example, if you approach a quieter, more reserved youth, do not begin the interaction with too much enthusiasm. It will make her shrink back, and you will lose relevance. Instead, note her demeanor, vocal tone, and eye contact and match them. On the other hand, if an extroverted middle schooler is holding court, you will need to match his charisma – without overshadowing it – to gain credibility. Meeting the middle schooler where they are is like sitting down in their sandbox and building something side-by-side. Match their energy and then move to the next tip.
Once you have their attention, quickly build a good rapport. Trust is necessary for a favorable response when you invite a middle schooler to behave a certain way or think deeper. Compliance with a basic invitation, such as asking a middle schooler to store her phone during the Edge Night, is a good starting point but needs to move beyond routine expectations. The ultimate goal is to effectively invite middle schoolers to learn more about Jesus, the Catholic Church, and their faith journey. The next tip will assist with the invitation.
We honor a person when we listen to them. Receptive listening is one of the best ways to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It involves being present, reflecting on what you hear, asking questions, and using open body language. Middle schoolers spend a lot of time listening to information at school, so be patient when they display signs of underdeveloped conversational skills. Some youth may be unnerved sitting across from an adult. They may be more comfortable talking while doing an activity, such as sketching, playing cornhole, or making a prayer bead string. Great conversations can happen while you sit beside the youth and join him in an activity. You can model good social cues without the expectation of receiving them back. Listening pro-tip: Follow up on something from a previous conversation with a youth the next time you see her.
Middle schoolers are goofy, funny, and usually highly receptive to people they trust. It is beautiful when youth endeavor to live a life for Christ. Show the joy of the Gospel by having fun with middle schoolers! Find the humor in their jokes, celebrate their victories, and invest in their successes. Leading a middle schooler closer to Christ is an incredible privilege, and there is plenty of fun to be had along the way. Enjoy the journey!
See you in heaven.