Chapter One.
"Junior Highers? You've Got to Be Kidding!"

"You've got to be kidding!" she almost shouted back to me in the church foyer. You would have thought that I had pressured her for a large donation to the building fund, urged her to preach or inquired about a personal matter. But I had only asked if she would consider helping teach the junior high Sunday School class.

I shouldn't have been surprised. Even professional youth workers cringe when they hear the words "junior highers." The mental image is the Tasmanian Devil of Bugs Bunny cartoons—a whirling tornado of unlimited energy, boundless curiosity and ravenous appetite, devastating everything and everybody in its path.

This caricature arises from our memories of junior high; it is further reinforced by our observations of kids at church or in the neighborhood; it is finally confirmed by our own children as they enter adolescence.

Ask a group of adults what they remember about junior high (sixth, seventh and eighth grades), and you'll get an earful. Painful memories are brought to the fore—struggles with peers, popularity, pimples and puberty. Others remember physical frustrations as they coped with growth or the lack of it—cherubic boys yearning to be bigger and taller, and gangly girls wishing they could shrink.

Our Recollections

"Quiet!" With his face contorted in anger, Mr. Jackson whirled from the blackboard and slammed his fist on the desk. A momentary hush fell over the classroom, but the whispers, notes and flying objects resumed as soon as he turned back to the board.

We tormented that poor algebra teacher all year. He could not control us, and we knew it. In fact, during one class period, he said "Quiet!" 63 times. I know; we counted—out loud.

That's one of my vivid junior high memories.

Jean, 45, recalled the day she lowered a friend out of the school window, so she could run to the store for candy.

Frank, 36, remembered fighting constantly to prove how tough he was.

Betsy, 40, recalled getting her period and the embarrassment of pimples.

What does repression have to do with junior high ministry? Simply this: psychologists tell us that some of life's most painful experiences occur during early adolescence—while we are junior highers. So we repress our early adolescence. We block it from memory. Once we leave those adolescent years behind, we forget them.—Wayne Rice, Junior High Ministry

I also remember going from 140 to 170 pounds in one year, throwing an egg at a car to be accepted by the popular kids in my new neighborhood and trying desperately to impress certain girls.

The stories could go on and on. No wonder adults are wary of getting involved with this age group.

Our Responses

Remembering vividly the painful moments of their junior high years, adults respond in various ways to the real, live junior highers in their world.

Harangue

Some adults react to junior highers with judgment and criticism. Seeing the eighth-grade girls write and pass notes during the worship service or seeing the sixth-grade boys run through the sanctuary afterward, they shake their heads and criticize.

"I can see from their faces that Beth and Kara really want to be here," a young father commented sarcastically to my wife one Sunday.

Your day is coming, she answered silently as she thought of his seven-year-old son.

Others complain to parents and principals and write vitriolic letters about neighborhood mischief. They also point judgmental fingers and comment about today's kids to anyone who will listen.

It's easy to criticize and complain because early adolescents always seem to be getting into trouble, acting silly or displaying bad attitudes. They are visible targets.

Hide (and Don't Seek)

Some adults respond to junior highers by ignoring them, acting as though they don't exist. Babies are "darling" and are smothered with "cootchy-coos" and kisses. Toddlers and preschoolers look and sound so cute and are complimented on their physical progress. Even grade school children receive loads of attention from doting grandparents, church members, neighbors and family friends. But around sixth grade, children become invisible. Adults often avoid them, acting as though they aren't there.

Most people feel totally unequipped to work with kids in the age group where the maturity levels span the spectrum between Transformers and Trojans. All it really takes, however, is someone who will love them in the midst of all their diversity and someone who will look at the big picture and wait for God to bear fruit in his time, not theirs.—Greg Johnson, former editor of Breakaway (Focus on the Family's magazine for teenage boys)

Mark Twain is reported to have humorously recommended to put children in barrels, feed them through the knotholes and then, when they reach adolescence, close up the holes!

Many people respond that way—avoiding, ignoring, sealing off junior highers—virtually hiding and pretending that they don't exist. That's why the junior high age group is one of the most neglected in the Church. There are programs for almost everyone else, from babies to senior citizens. Singles, young couples, parents and older adults have a smorgasbord of activities from which to choose. And when a youth director arrives, his or her commission is usually to work with the high schoolers (and, perhaps, advise the junior high sponsors).

Those who hide want to leapfrog over the junior high years. (By the way, when these kids are ignored, they tend to act up even more, doing almost anything to be noticed.)

Hope

This reaction is similar to hiding but relates more to parents. Nothing strikes fear into a parent's heart more than having his or her oldest child about to enter junior high school (I'll discuss this more in chapter 4). These parents have read about teenagers, have heard stories and are scared to death.

Often they talk as though early adolescence is just another stage through which their children must pass, like thumb sucking or the terrible twos, and they hope their kids will survive.

These parents tend to withdraw, treating older children with benign neglect while hoping for the best.

Unfortunately, this reaction can blind parents to their young teens' problems and related symptoms. Junior highers who experiment with drugs, alcohol or sex are not experts at camouflaging their actions. Mom and Dad are often shocked when the habits come to light, because they haven't seen the obvious signs.

Simply hoping for the best is foolish and irresponsible and, in fact, will only make a challenging time even more difficult.

Hire

Another response to the presence of junior highers at church or in our families is to employ a professional youth worker to deal with them (few churches do this). Aware of the problems and pressures of early adolescence, concerned adults believe that the only answer is to hire someone who has been specially trained to work with this difficult age group. The profile for the youth worker usually includes the following: young, good-looking, athletic, musical, funny, creative, spiritual, intelligent, firm, married and willing to work for peanuts—a combination of Michael Jordan, Mother Teresa, Steven Spielberg, Rebecca St. James and Ray Romano. This person is expected to attract, entertain, teach, discipline and lead young people to Christ and spiritual maturity—a most unrealistic task.

Never mind the youth director's philosophy of ministry, stated objectives, creative programming or well-intentioned efforts. When evaluating their church's youth group, the bottom line for most parents is" Does my child enjoy it?"—Clayton Baumann, veteran youth worker with Florida Youth For Christ, Palm Beach County

On the positive side, adults who respond by hiring help are aware of and very sensitive to the needs of this age group. They will form a powerful lobbying influence within the church, forcing church leaders to remember early adolescents when setting the budget or adding staff.

The problem with this response, however, is that it assumes a person can be found who meets the ideal profile and that one person will be able to minister to all the kids in the group. In reality, every child is different and represents a unique set of challenges and opportunities. Unrealistic expectations for those we hire usually result in discouragement, disappointment or disillusionment.

Another problem with this response is that it pushes the responsibility onto other people, assuming that they are more qualified and will be more effective than we could be. Actually, it is a common North American reaction to think that we can hire a specialist to cover any situation or that we can throw money at a problem to solve it while we sit and watch. Professionals can offer great expertise, and money certainly helps, but human beings and their problems are more complex than any simple solution.

Help

The final response is "What can I do to help?" Obviously this is my punch line—the response I was getting to and the one I endorse.

Adults who care about the junior high children in their churches, families or neighborhoods can have a significant ministry with these young people in a variety of ways. Instead of criticizing or avoiding them or expecting someone else to do everything, they can do the following:

The importance of church life in the spiritual devel opment of people cannot be overestimated—nor should it be minimized. But we also know that teenagers are still in a formative stage spiritually. They attend churches for a variety of reasons—and those experiences will shape their desires and expectations regarding church life as they age.—George Barna, Third Millennium Teens

Junior high ministry is important. It is also demanding. If you do it, you will be stretched like never before. You will also lose your mind. (How do you think I lost mine?)—Len Woods, pastor of Community Life at Christ Community Church, Ruston, Louisiana

Think again about your own junior high years. What adults played a significant, positive role in your life? And what did they do that you still remember today? You can be that kind of person for the early adolescents around you.

Think It Through

  1. What kind of person were you in junior high (sixth, seventh and eighth grades)?
  2. Describe a negative experience from those years.
  3. Describe a positive experience from those years.
  4. List the names of the early adolescents you know.
  5. Which word best describes your response to this age group (circle one): harangue, hide, hope, hire, help. Explain.
  6. In what ways would you like to help minister to junior highers in your world?

—Dave's Complete Guide to Junior High Ministry