What 6 things can unleash a love for serving in your middle school ministry?

Photo by Amanda Tipton

Just in time for your spring break service trips, The Sticky Faith Service Guide offers practical and field-tested exercises on how to translate short-term work into long-term change. Whether it’s a half-day local service project or a two-week trip overseas this summer, this resource will benefit both your students and the communities you serve.


When I heard about FYI’s research among high school students revealing the three BIG things they are hoping for in their youth ministries, I thought, wow, the things they want and the things we can provide are really within our reach.

Students responded by saying they wanted more:

  • Meaningful relationships
  • Opportunities to serve others
  • Mission trips[1]

I wondered what it would take to make the latter two happen more often? Honestly, we’re pretty good about making meaningful relationships a priority. But the other two can feel more like seasonal experiences rather than part of the DNA of our weekly ministries.

Serving others in compassion is something God has called all of us to care about, but it can be a difficult thing to make a priority when ALL OF THE 5,008,983 other youth ministry tasks need our attention.

I had to look at what we hoped for, and begin to make choices out of that hope, instead of making choices out of the fear of missing out on something else. If serving is important (God says it is, high school students say it is), then we may need to make some adjustments to reflect its importance.


For me it started with two questions:

“How do we use our resources (time, leaders, ministry dollars, and focus) to influence our ministry program and relationships to deliver the things teens long for most?”

And the equally important question: “How do I do all of that sooner?”

The answer is to the second question is MIDDLE SCHOOL MINISTRY. The answer to the first question is LEADERS.


Why we need to help middle schoolers serve

If we want something to exist in high school ministry, then we need to begin to build the culture and framework in middle school ministry. Starting sooner supports a rhythm we want to see exist later.

Developmentally, we’re working with students who are asking big questions. Who am I? Do I belong? Do I have anything significant to contribute? Even though much of their time during middle school is spent looking inward, giving them opportunities to look outward also affirm their identity, belonging, and feelings of significance. If you want a kid to feel significant, give them something significant to do.

Looking out also widens perspective. A teenager may feel alone, confused, or in need of help. Seeing the needs of someone else can serve as a source of comfort. When they can see that everyone has needs, they realize that being needy doesn’t make a person less valuable.

But how do we go about doing it? How do we build relationships that collectively value serving the poor, oppressed, the sick, or anyone in need? Especially when middle schoolers are in a developmental phase that needs so much personal affirmation and support. How do we get a kid who’s saying “I NEED YOU” to also say “I’LL HELP OTHERS”?

In the early days, I leaned on curriculum and creative programming a lot. I thought passion + good resources + a mission trip = students motivated to serve.

While all of these are catalytic, good, and needed, I think there’s something else that needs to be in place. Without it, it could take away any opportunity to provide what students look for most in a youth ministry.

That something is actually a somebody, many bodies, humans who volunteer in our youth ministries.

There’s a correlation between what they want and who is around them.

They want to serve.

They want to explore.

They want to discover.

But they want to do it in the context of affirming relationships.

Before the plan, we have to build the team, even if it’s small, like one parent leading one kid, and even if it’s a big team, like one dozen leaders leading one hundred students.


Building a team of adults to lead middle schoolers in service

Teamwork makes the dream work.

Which leads us to ask, What does a leader look like? What kind of person helps us launch kids into significant opportunities to serve (and walks them through those experiences)?

You can begin by looking for big-hearted, justice-minded, service-oriented volunteers who are willing to walk with middle schoolers as they are taking their first service steps, as they are learning how to look out, as they are experiencing new emotions. These are also the people who will celebrate the smallest discoveries and see the unique contribution that every kid has in an environment. Middle schoolers often feel like there is no one to sort things out with, no one to bounce thoughts off of, and nobody to notice what is happening in their world. Give them more of those kinds of adults in their lives.

I’ll never forget the time I took a group of middle school students to a nonprofit to do some outdoor maintenance work. The job was to break the concrete from the bottoms of uprooted fence posts.

The smallest middle school guy on the team wanted to swing the sledgehammer. Our leadership team wasn’t so sure he could pick up the equipment. Swinging it may be complicated. But his energy trumped his physical strength and he started killing that post. Concrete was flying everywhere, and his eye goggles fogged with dust and particles. On his final upswing he yelled out,

“I FEEL SO ALIVE!”

It was awesome.

Not only was seeing him find joy in serving awesome, but it was also awesome to have a conversation later about why it made him feel like he was truly living, and how that is different from other days.

In meaningful conversations like this, we find the places where we can take students deeper in their journey toward serving others and sharing God’s love and justice in the world. That’s when I realized that it’s not so much about what we do in this life as it is about who we get to do life with. Middle schoolers need a person, someone who can process things with them, someone who can walk with them, grow with them, be there for the highs and the lows.


Six characteristics to develop in yourself and other middle school leaders

There’s a classic list found in Wayne Rice’s Junior High Ministry used to describe the best middle school volunteers. I love this list. It has been a guide for me since my first day in youth ministry. If you take this list and align it with the priority to create meaningful experiences to serve, you’ll find something really cool happens.

Middle schoolers will feel liked, loved, affirmed, and motivated to do incredible things out of hearts being formed in a culture of love and possibility.

If you want to build a solid serving ministry in your middle school group, you’re going to want to build a solid group of volunteers who are committed to doing that together with you. Here are 6 things I adapted from Wayne’s list to help you be the type of leader that leads students to justice, to serving, and to having missional hearts.

  • A desire to understand middle schoolers. If you can understand a middle school kid, you can create better experiences for them to serve others. You will better know what will make sense to them developmentally or what will frustrate them. You’ll be more creative and able to think with their shoes on, think with their backpacks on, and think with their need for affirmation and exploration in mind.
     
  • A heart that likes middle schoolers. Middle school students can tell if you like them and they’ll be more likely to say “yes” when someone who likes them asks them to serve. How many of us wanted to do work for a grumpy teacher who had a passion for teaching but was missing the ability to like their students? The kids who feel most connected in small groups, or with an adult leader, are the first ones to jump to their feet when we ask for help putting away chairs or volunteering for a project.
     
  • A patient spirit. Things take time. Regardless which age group you are working with. But you can be sure that with middle school students you will not finish most of the projects you begin. You will not usually raise all of the money you hope to raise. You will not have more kids show up for serving than you do for the sugar. If you let frustration defeat you, you’ll give up before the good conversations can happen. You’ll give in and miss a chance to go deeper. Persistence guarantees results. Your commitment to working with squirrelly middle school kids will help them grow into people who believe that no matter how chaotic or slow serving or seeking justice is, it matters, and is worth the time it takes.
     
  • An awesome listener. Never miss an opportunity to talk to kids while serving. Start at church, or in your home. What are you thinking about? What valuable things are you learning while you’re serving? What special gifts do the people you’re serving give back to you? How do you feel when you do something without needing anything in return? Sometimes middle schoolers get frustrated when they serve because they see a mirror image of their own life (my family is broken too, we don’t have much money either) or they feel such empathy for something so different than their life (they see the contrast and wonder why). Let them ask questions and be good about encouraging them to form answers.
     
  • A positive perspective. There was a time when our youth group showed up to serve and we weren’t quite early enough to get a spot serving the food, passing out waters, or greeting. There were simply way too many volunteers and we had missed the chance to be on the frontlines. Instead we walked around the neighborhood and talked. We prayed a little, but mostly talked and tried to keep everyone’s spirits high. We didn’t get to do the thing they had been hoping to do, share a meal with friends who needed one. But we had a chance to learn about a neighborhood, learn about each other, and at the end of our walk someone thanked us for being well-behaved kids in the street. It was a little thing, but I was so proud. They had set an example. That was their act of worship, their opportunity to serve, on that day. When nothing seems to get done. When everyone spends five minutes each working and the rest of the time is spent goofing off. Think about how many chances you get in a year to spend time showing you care and be positive. Kids have enough negativity in their lives. Try to overwhelm them with the good you see, camp out in that, and let the times you do have be the tools you need to share what it’s like to serve as a lifestyle.
     
  • A flexible posture. What if you’re too busy to serve? How will you convince kids with homework that weighs more than they do that they can make time? If we want to lead students to serving, we need to take a look at our own lives and ask ourselves how flexible we are being. What can go from your life in order to make room for the priority of loving others? Make time in your family or youth ministry calendar for serving others. If you do it as a team, family, or as a leader, your ministry will reflect the priority. It’s one thing to say you want something in your ministry, another thing to go after it.

Pablo Picasso did some nice things in his lifetime. Some would even say he was inspired; okay, maybe a lot inspired. He was rejected a lot, but persisted until his art made an impact. He was known to say, “inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

I believe the same is true for us as we try to balance the youth ministries (in our homes or in our churches) to reflect God’s care for the poor and for those in need. We can’t ignore it if we believe there is a pathway to doing it. So we need to show up. We need to build a team of people who like middle schoolers so much that they are willing to sweat with them and stay with them, no matter what happens. And that team begins with us, and with who we are becoming as leaders who love our students and lead them well.

Literally being willing to sweat together, ask questions together, understand each other, and making time together will change the landscape of your middle school ministry. Maybe even the landscape of your own life.


Action Steps
  1. Ask a question. Is serving others a priority in my life? Checking your heart and making serving a priority will give you credibility when you ask others to join you. You’ll be able to empathize with others as you reflect during the times when you don’t feel like serving. You’ll be able to share both the joys and lessons learned. But most of all you’ll be able to set an example for the kids and adults in your ministry.
     
  2. Help your team listen by providing great questions. Sometimes finding out how your students would like to serve is as easy as asking a question. “What kinds of things would you like to do to help others? Is there something that really blesses you that you’d like to give back to?” If you use small group material, add an additional question about how the lesson can help everyone look outward. Get small groups serving together. Make it a point to connect with leaders and get feedback.
     
  3. Make a list of 100 things you like about middle schoolers. Start an email with your team and keep replying until you have 100 things. You’ll be amazed at what your team comes up with! It’ll also serve as a double win for your team on those days when it’s easy to be negative. If you have someone with a design mind on your team, capture the list in a PDF and make art for your walls, include it on your ministry website or social media page. (100 things we like about middle school people”) Keep the positive vibes in front of you!

 

 

[1] See Kara Powell, Brad M. Griffin, and Cheryl Crawford, Sticky Faith, Youth Worker Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 141.