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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Most Important Age Group for Spiritual Decisions

JrhiThis link and letter is a little dated (a few years back); but presents a great message for churches.  Maybe it just hit me because I have two junior highers... but it's a shame if churches don't at least look at making this age group a priority.  Here's the text from the link at YouthSpecialties.com:

Anyone who works in the church knows that junior high may be the single most pivotal period for spiritual decisions in the lives of our children."
—Rick Warren, Senior Pastor of Saddleback Church

In late Spring of 2002, and again in the Spring of 2003, a group of leaders in ministry to young teens gathered to discuss the state of junior-high ministry in the church. We feel compelled to write a letter to North American church leaders about what we believe to be one of the most important yet misunderstood ministries in the church.

A Small Window of Opportunity

For decades—since the beginning of the modern youth ministry movement in the 1950s—ministry to youth has been almost synonymous with high school ministry (church work with teenagers roughly 15-18 years old). And until recent times, ministry to young teens (roughly 11-14 years old) has functioned as either an extension of most churches' ministry to children or as a mere preparatory version of the youth group.

And while pastors and churches are beginning to understand the importance of this young-teen ministry (sometimes called junior high ministry, sometimes called middle school ministry), widespread misunderstanding and confusion—even fear—lingers in this area.

Two significant life-phases overlap during the young-teen years: the openness and responsive characteristic of childhood; and the forward-looking attitudes of teenage years.

As to the openness of children: Barna Research claims that the overwhelming majority of Christ-followers date their "conversion" prior to 14 years old; indeed, after 14 years old the likelihood of conversion drops drastically.

This evangelistic openness is just one example of the responsiveness of children and young teens. Yet, the two years following the onset of puberty are when the second most significant changes occur in life (birth to two years sees the most). Young teens experience change in every aspect of development: physical, emotional, cognitive, relational, social, and—of course—spiritual. With their brand-new ability to think abstractly (a developmental "bonus" of puberty), Christian young teens, thanks to this God-ordained developmental phase, inevitably re-examine their childhood belief systems. This faith-evaluation is normal and good!

When we combine the "responsiveness" data presented by Barna (and confirmed by thousands of observations by the writers of this letter) and the unique capacity for spiritual development among young teens, we see an extremely narrow opportunity for life-long impact. Working with young teens offers us the opportunity for preventive ministry, whereas ministry to older teens must often be corrective.

Return on Investment

Effective church ministry to young teens has a significantly high spiritual return on investment—much more so than in other age groups. It is a "return" in many areas: spiritual understanding, faith commitment, vocational calling, maturity, and leadership. Noted leadership guru Peter Drucker has said: "I believe that the junior high years are the most important years to develop leadership skills in people."

Many churches are finding that junior high ministry affords a collateral benefit as an effective outreach vehicle to families. The president of a large Internet company, along with her husband, began attending a church in the Silicon Valley, as a result of the transformation they observed in their junior-high son under ministry.

So what is the "investment"? Well, it's all the stuff churches already allocate to other valued ministries: prayer, focus, exposure, facilities, finances, and—perhaps most powerful—people. Since effective ministry to young teens must be relational, quality adult staffing (paid and volunteer) is a vital factor in many ministries.

How Should I Respond?

We ask you to exercise your leadership potential to encourage a healthy young teen ministry in your church.

If you are a senior pastor or a board member, consider hiring a full-time youth worker for young teens. Any church with 40 young teens, or the potential for that many, should have a full-time youth worker dedicated to young teens only (any church with a dozen or more young teens should have a distinct young-teen ministry, separate from the older teens). Hire a professional, someone who feels specifically trained and called to work with young teens. Many churches make the mistake of hiring a low-wage intern—often just out of high school herself—to lead this critical age group.

Churches should re-examine the old pattern of hiring a qualified, trained youth worker as a "Student Ministries Pastor" but who really works with high school students and for whom junior-high ministry is a side-project or afterthought.

Be prepared to think long-term by encouraging longevity in your paid and volunteer junior high ministry workers. Youth workers are often not in their prime until they've been at it a few years or more with young teens. They have much to learn about this age group in order to be truly effective—and there is no substitute for experience!

Allocate funds for your young teen ministry: funds for leadership training; funds for programming; funds for resources.

Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Pastor of Wooddale Church, says: "Every church needs a strong Junior High ministry. It's top priority. Can't wait."

Pray for your young-teen ministry and especially for its leaders.

Give them positive exposure. If you, as a leader in the church, talk positively about the young teen ministry, the church's perspective will begin to change for the better, and so will the health of the ministry. Check yourself against making sarcastic or joking comments (even well-intentioned), like the pastor who habitually calls young teens "pre-people."

We firmly believe that your church will be a healthier, more effective ministry if you have a healthy young teen ministry. You will attract more families, raise future leaders, and connect with kids of an age that is possibly the most receptive to life-long change and commitment to Christ.

Mark Oestreicher, President, Youth Specialties

Rick Beckwith, Director of Middle School Ministries, Young Life

Kurt Johnston, Junior High Pastor, Saddleback Church (Mission Viejo, CA)

Jeff Piehl, Director of Student Ministries, Evangelical Free Church of America
Representing the Evangelical Free Church of America

Louis J. Chaney, National Middle School Director, Youth for Christ, USA

Phil Human, Junior High Pastor, Christ Community Church (Omaha, NE)
Representing the Christian & Missionary Alliance

Mark Carroll, Director of Student Ministries/Middle School Pastor, Kentwood Community Church (Kentwood, MI)
Representing The Wesleyan Church

Kevin Dean, Junior High Pastor, Lakewood Evangelical Free Church (Brainerd, MN)
Representing the Evangelical Free Church of America

Sr. Ann Cassidy, FMA, Assoc. Director for Early Adolescent Services, Archdiocese of San Antonio
Representing the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry

David Gibson, Pastor of Middle School Students, Crossings Community Church (Oklahoma City, OK)
Representing the Church of God, Anderson, IN

Eric J. Venable, Minister to Middle School Students, Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (Menlo Park, CA)

Lynn McKinney, Middle School Minister, Johnson Ferry Baptist Church (Marietta, GA)

John Wilson, Junior High Pastor, Lake Avenue Church (Pasadena, CA)

Andy Na, Junior High Pastor, North Coast Church (Vista, CA)

Heather Flies, Junior High Pastor, Wooddale Church (Eden Prairie, MN)

Alex Roller, Middle School Pastor, Journey Community Church (La Mesa, CA)

Alan Mercer, Pastor of Middle School Ministries, Christ Community Church (Leawood, KS)

Nate Severson, Junior High Pastor, Hillcrest Covenant Church (Overland Park, KS)
Representing the Covenant Church

Jeff Buell, Pastor of Student Ministries & Middle School Pastor, McKinney Memorial Bible Church (Ft. Worth, TX)

Jeff Mattesich, Director of Junior High Ministries Forest Home Ministries (Forest Falls, CA)

Ken Elben, Student Ministries Pastor & Junior High Pastor, Shadow Mountain Community Church (El Cajon, CA)

Scott Rubin, Junior High Pastor, Willow Creek Community Church (S. Barrington, IL)

Andy Jack, former Junior High Pastor at Community Fellowship (West Chicago, IL), current doctoral student


Bob McCarty, National Federation of Catholic Youth Workers

Tom East, (Catholic) Center for Ministry Development

Leith Anderson, president, National Association of Evangelicals

Rick Warren, senior pastor, Saddleback Church

Howard G. Hendricks, Distinguished Professor Chair, Center for Christian Leadership, Dallas Theological Seminary

William H. Willimon, Dean of the Chapel and Professor of Christian Ministry, Duke University

Rev. Chris Hill, Youth Evangelist, The Chris Hill Evangelistic Association

Chris Tomlin, Recording artist and worship leader

Denny Rydberg, President, Young Life

Jay Kesler, Chancellor, Taylor University

Most Rev. Patrick F. Flores, DD Archbishop, Archdiocese of San Antonio

John Ortberg, Teaching Pastor, Willowcreek Community Church
Author of If You Want to Walk on Water You've Got to Get out Of the Boat

Dr. David Jeremiah, Senior Pastor, Shadow Mountain Community Church, and radio preacher, Turning Point Ministries


FOR DISCUSSION:  Is this age group a priority at your church?  Why or why not?

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April 25, 2006 in Outreach and Evangelism | Permalink

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Yes. It is a priority at our church. We are blessed to have 2 youth ministers. One is a single female who focuses on senior high and girls and heads up the ministry as a whole. The other is a married male who focuses on middle school and males. Truly the work as a team though. Discipleship is a HUGE priority. It is taken very seriously. SO much so that if a student wants to go on the mission trip - they must attend a weekly discipleship group (for their age group), Worship service, Bible study, AND get a recommendation from their leaders of each. It does not matter who their parents/grandparents are or how much money they can throw at the church. They must have excused absenses if they should miss. And yes, there are so many absenses allowed.

We had a meeting back in the fall to discuss the new calendar for our students. Several parents raised questions about why "their" children were being asked to share Christ with inner-city kids in Chicago for their summer mission trip. They expressed concerns over the dangers of doing so.

How I know it is a priority? Shelley replied, "I do not want your children just to go on a trip that is fun. I want it to have meaning and real purpose. If they cannot share their faith away from home, can we really expect them to share it when at home around their peers? Frankly, I think there is more danger in that they cannot share their faith at all if they have it to begin with." (Some comments just really stick with a person.)

She had just come on staff. She has had our complete support ever since.

Posted by: Camey | Apr 25, 2006 10:50:13 AM

We've probably got the opposite potential problem than most in our church. We just changed youth pastors (perfectly ambicable--old one wanted to go back to school, and it's his college roommate coming in), and our new youth pastor actually has a huge heart for middle schoolers.

We have about 30-40 teenagers altogether, but don't have the financal budget to hire another youth minister. And of course, it's only been about 3 weeks that this guy has been the new youth pastor. It'll be interesting to see how his passion for middle schoolers will affect the high schoolers.

Great article!

Posted by: Sarah | Apr 25, 2006 11:14:02 AM

Kind of reminds me of a drug study funded by a drug company.

I would suspect that effective early childhood training in the faith is probably more definitive of those who are serving the Lord today as adults.

Posted by: pjlr | Apr 25, 2006 12:44:48 PM

All age groups are important even up through the widows.

The foundation for good decisions in Junior High is laid in Elementary School.

Parents getting involved in their children’s spiritual growth in K-5 are the most important time. From there, they can know and understand the deeper things of God in Junior/High School. Scripture memorization and some form of Catechism (Heidelberg or Westminster are good).

Posted by: BeHim | Apr 25, 2006 6:23:58 PM

We need to remember that 86% or so leave High School and the Church to never come back.

We need to ake sure that kids are being soundly saved and not just asking Jesus into thier hearts.

Posted by: Franklin Reeves | May 2, 2006 3:10:57 PM

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