Sometimes it’s not about knowing the right people, it’s knowing someone who knows the right people. The middle school pastor we serve with knows a lot of really tall trees on the landscape of youth ministry. We have had the opportunity to hear from folks from Marko to Kurt Johnston and Mark DeVries to Chap Clark. One of the middle school ministry friends that I have gotten to know a bit myself is Johnny Scott.
Johnny is the program director of Jr. High Believe, in our opinion the best middle-school-intentional touring event there is today. The energy of 2,000-3,000 middle school kids and leaders gathered in one room to worship Jesus and have a blast is hard to beat, and Johnny and his team do an amazing job. We’ve been going for 6 straight years, every February or March. But for all the strobe lights, smoke machines, high flying stunts, rip-roaring comedy, and inflatable-game zaniness of a Believe event, Johnny’s true heartbeat is small groups. We love the Tulsa event because the venue is attached to a hotel, so we can quickly transition from a big group meeting to discussions and life-on-life with the kids in our rooms. The weekend is carefully designed to allow for fantastic interaction in small groups.
It came as no surprise, therefore, that Johnny’s most recent book is
Redefining the Win for Jr. High Small Groups: Strategies, Tips, and Encouragement for Leaders and Volunteers (Amazon Associate link). As quick a read as you wish, this little book is chock full of nuggets of encouragement and challenge for those who seek to invest in the lives of middle school students. Woven throughout the pages are sidebars called “So You Get Paid,” “So You’re a Volunteer,” and “So You’re in a Small Church.” He’s done his homework, as this material finds a way to connect with each unique group with clarity and insight into its specific concerns.
After affirming that the junior high years are among the most critical in a student’s life, Johnny describes and then smashes the ideal of what he calls “Small Group Fantasy Land” (SGFL). “In short, young Billy is never going to look at you and say, ‘Your lesson tonight has touched my life in a profound way. Because of your sacrifice in sharing this insight with us I am compelled to implement this spiritual discipline in all facets of my daily walk with Christ.’ It’s simply not going to happen!“ Rather, the “win” in small group ministry comes in recognizing and celebrating the multitude of moments of spiritual and personal transformation that happen much more organically than we are usually willing to concede. It’s not all about our brilliance and wisdom. Shucks.
Paid folks will find help as they launch or tweak elements of a small group program. Small churches can think through the challenges and rewards of including both middle school and high school kids together in small groups. Of course, my interest is in how volunteers can be wildly successful as they walk alongside both parents and their paid leaders to pour into kids.
While some aspects of the structure of the small group program are outside my control, I do have autonomy in what exactly we do in any given session. Johnny gives us volunteers permission to go completely off-script if that’s what the group needs. I’m not sure I’m ready to fully embrace cell phones in the middle of small group time as he suggests, but the times they are a-changing. Redeeming technology is an ongoing conversation well worth the effort. I loved the chapter that dealt with contacting kids outside of small group and planned events (see my “reach out and touch” posts for more of my thoughts on this topic), as the one on creating rites of passage within the context of church community.
The most critical chapter to read, in my opinion, is the one on working with parents. Parents are not our enemies! They are absolutely the #1 influence in their children’s lives, especially in matters of faith. (That said, Johnny points out that a healthy small group with caring leaders can turn the tide for a student whose parent(s) don’t place a high value on faith.) Sometimes parents will take frustrations and concerns to the youth pastor; other times a volunteer will hear them over coffee and doughnuts in the foyer, or on the bleachers at a little league game. Every youth worker, paid or not, needs to be prepared to not only work with parents but indeed to minister to them as well. I suppose I initially may have been drawn to student ministry in part because I was more comfortable with kids than older adults. But now that many middle school kids’ parents are my age or even younger, it’s the water I have to swim in. This chapter is worth several re-readings.
Of course, no singular perspective is complete, and it’s in a community of faith working through the mess that we grow closer to Christ’s ways. I wish the book didn’t tend to relegate parents to support roles (meal prep, transportation, etc.) to “free up” younger leaders who are implicitly better equipped to relate to the kids. Some of our best leaders have been parents, often with a child in their group. I’ve got two new co-leaders this year with sons in the new group. My job is to stand with them as they transition from Sunday school teacher mode into student ministry mode, doing my own thing that may perhaps serve to inspire (or caution).
The #1 thing I took from this book was, ultimately, to take the longest view possible of middle school ministry. It’s not about solving all their problems by the time they exit 8th grade, or even high school. It’s about helping to orient them in a way that it will feel completely comfortable and natural for them to turn to the church throughout their lives. We can’t keep them in a silo until they’re 18 and dump them into “big church.” Of course they’ll bolt if we pull that. It takes many adults being intentional in the life of every student all along their journey, and junior high small groups are a great place to start to see that happen.