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It's Not So Elementary

Gordon West

Spend time with children's ministry leaders these days and one of the topics of conversation is sure to be ministry to sixth-graders. What works with this unique age group?

THE QUESTIONS

To help answer these questions, we recently asked our sixth-graders, "What would you want in a 'perfect' Sunday school class?" Their answers were enlightening:

  • Lessons for our age; don't treat us like little kids!
  • More social activities outside of class.
  • Moving from activity to activity like at VBS.
  • More games. (This was the most frequent answer.)
  • Decorations in the room.
  • Singing "good" music like dc Talk.
  • More videos pertaining to the lessons, and an occasional "all-video" day.
  • Something tangible like a bookmark to help remember Bible verses or lesson points.
  • Being involved in drama.
  • Candy!

We also asked children's ministers from around the country to share with us their biggest challenges or struggles working with sixth-graders. Here's what they said:

  • "Motivating them to spiritual decisions," said Diane Pitman, the Hot Shots director at Grace Church in Edina, Minnesota.
  • "Those who think they're 'too cool' for Sunday school...those who 'play' church on Sunday and live like those without Christ during the week," wrote Lois Sherwin, the director of children's ministries at Granada Heights Friends Church in La Mirada, California.
  • Terry Buxton, the children's pastor at Concord Missionary Baptist Church in Dallas told us that "there seems to be an increasing lack of interest in what we're doing in our ministry; it's viewed as too 'kiddy' for them. They desire more relationship-building activities. It's hard to keep current with their age-group culture."
  • Others shared concerns about discipline, differing attention spans, differing maturity levels, the challenge of entertaining guys and girls with the same games, transitioning between children and youth ministries, and the struggle of recruiting volunteers.

THE ANSWERS

Our surveys revealed that successful ministries to preteens are using a variety of activities and programs. It seems that there's little in common from church to church. What we did discover, though, is that no matter the size of the church or the region of the country, children's ministers who are having success in ministering to sixth-graders are changing the atmosphere of preteen ministry away from its roots in children's ministry and toward something more like youth ministry.

So what exactly does that look like? How do we give kids what they want (fun and friends) and what we know they need (a vital relationship with God and church) all at the same time?

We have to make it fun. If it's not fun, forget it. For too long, churches have been afraid of offering fun and spiritual in the same venue. If kids were laughing and playing in Sunday school, many people thought nothing good could possibly be going on -- certainly nothing spiritual!

Today, if we want to attract sixth-graders and keep them long enough to impact their lives, we must embrace their culture and characteristics. Preteens just wanna have fun. Here's how to give it to 'em...

Create the funzoid factor. Take an honest look at your surroundings for preteens. Ask yourself, "Is this ministry inviting?" Evaluate the room, the staff, the music, the time schedule, the activities, and the education style. Are they all kid-friendly? If not, make the necessary changes.

Ask your kids to bring in their favorite decorations and CDs. While reserving your right to be selective, you'll stretch your budget and keep current. Ask local poster shops, music stores, and Christian bookstores for any posters they may be giving away. Scope out posters that are hanging in stores such as Target or Wal-Mart -- ask for them when they're finished. Then paint and transform them.

Think "kid fun" and "noise" when you're creating a place for sixth-graders. Recently during a skate party, one adult asked if we could turn down the music. We had enlisted a teenager to help "spin" Christian disks during the skate party. We asked the adult, "Would we be turning the music down for the kids or for ourselves?"

Remember that ministering to sixth-graders is a "local mission." We must step out of our comfort zones to reach another culture for Jesus.

Do your research. Terry Buxton is correct; it is very difficult to keep up with the culture of preteens today. But no one expects you to live on the cutting edge -- just be aware that it exists!

Survey kids in your church -- just as we did. Preface your discussion with your preteens by saying that you want to know what they like and want, but that not all of their ideas or desires will be able to be incorporated. Listening to preteens is important. Letting them run the program is not.

Transform your teaching. Make sure your teaching style is fun and relevant. Sixth-graders want to move, talk, touch, ask questions, and be respected. Aim to cover a little material well, and in several different ways, instead of trying to lecture through a large chunk of Bible content.

Use examples that are relevant to your kids. Try picking up one of the various teen magazines on the market. They're not something you'll want to make a regular part of your life (in fact, they all begin to look the same after a while), but a quick read will help you familiarize yourself with the latest trends, fashions, buzz words, and "hot" celebrities in the preteen world.

Spend time in a classroom where many of your kids attend school. Go to school awards ceremonies, talent shows, or special events. This is where you'll see what's really going on. But remember, kids aren't expecting you to be like them -- just to be aware of who they are.

Invest in age-appropriate resources that'll help you liven up your ministry activities. No one can come up with fun games and crazy ideas every week without help. The best workers borrow ideas from great resources.

THE POINT

If your program is fun, then you've built a critical aspect of ministry to sixth-graders, and you've earned the right to move on to more spiritual concerns. Preteens want relationships, and a small group is the perfect place to meet that need. If you don't have the advantage of being from a small church, develop small groups (one adult for every five or six kids) in every aspect of your ministry. These groups allow for better relationships to develop between you and the kids and between the kids themselves.

This format is certainly not new to church ministry, but adding small groups to your preteen ministry may represent a major shift from how you've dealt with these kids in their younger years at your church. Small groups meet sixth-graders' felt and real needs. Small groups also help you make lessons relevant. Leaders know how to tailor lessons to the individual needs and interests of their group members. The more intimate setting allows for better interaction and more specific practical application of lessons.

Recently, our community experienced a highly publicized kidnapping of a preteen girl who'd been waiting for the ice cream truck in her neighborhood. The following Sunday's fifth- and sixth-grade lesson was on handling conflicts with other people. Becki's small group quickly gravitated to a discussion of conflict with bad people (the most pressing issue on the minds of kids throughout our city and perhaps our state). Before the end of the class, the children also asked if there really is a hell (where they assumed the kidnapper should be going) and how people get to heaven (where they feared the young girl probably already was).

Without small groups led by caring adults, it's very difficult to have these kinds of meaningful discussions. Without discussion, it's very difficult to know exactly what kids are thinking. Without knowing what they're thinking, it's nearly impossible to make our lessons relevant and meaningful.

A final reason for using small groups at this age is that as children transition from concrete thinking to abstract thinking, they're also relying more and more on their peers for their formation of values and decision-making principles. When sixth-graders are able to discuss application of spiritual truths in a fun, positive setting led by a caring Christian adult, they find positive role models and support for their Christian beliefs. Peer influence at this age can make or break your kids' Christian faith.

THE PURPOSE

The goal of ministry to sixth-graders is lifelong impact. Small groups won't do everything; we need to establish purposeful discipleship relationships between willing sixth-graders and loving mature leaders. Use these tools to accomplish lifelong impact...

Mentoring -- Encourage established small group leaders to choose one to three of their most interested preteens and to spend time outside of church with these kids. Church Law and Tax Report's video, Reducing the Risk, suggests that you have parents sign permission forms allowing adults to meet individually with their child. For obvious reasons, you may even want to require the adult to always have two or more children along or even to meet the child they're mentoring at the child's home while a parent is there.

Authenticity -- In the context of discipleship, encourage your leaders to let kids see them be real. There's nothing like working on a difficult auto repair job together for a young guy to see how a mature Christian man deals with frustration or the inevitable stuck bolt or skinned knuckle.

Use those "empty hours" of your day for profitable mentoring. Why not invite three kids from your group to go grocery shopping with you or to run errands around town? This doesn't add extra meetings to your schedule, and your kids will get to see the real you handling the frustrations of traffic, rude sales people, or other daily challenges.

Real-life experience -- Help children experience "the God who is there." When the Chinese communists attempted to shut down Christianity behind the bamboo curtain, they did the church in China one of its greatest favors of all times. The church exploded in numbers and faith even as its members had to meet secretly under the threat of death or imprisonment.

There's nothing like adversity to cause Christians to truly rely on God, and therefore, to see God at work in their lives. Most of our children have yet to experience persecution for their faith. Even the poorest Americans have more material well-being than many of the world's hungriest children.

Without adversity, kids can start living as though they have no need for God. It's up to us to place them in situations that'll stretch their faith. Give preteens opportunities to "need" God and to experience relying on the God who is there. Try these ideas...

Faith-sharing -- Teach your sixth-graders how to share their faith. Then take them out to a mall or park to share their faith. Your kids will be scared to death and will really look to God for help!

Poverty field trip -- Load up a church bus or a mini-van and follow a route through your town's "needier" areas, including a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, an orphanage, a boarded-up part of town, a women's or family shelter, or even an emergency room at the community hospital.

Where it's safe to do so, have the kids get out and tour the location. (If it's not safe, simply drive by and let the kids get a good look.) Keep reminding the kids that the God who is there loves the people they're seeing just as much as he loves us!

When you return to church, debrief your preteens with questions such as these: How did you feel about what you saw today? How do you think God feels about the people in these places? What can we do to reach out to the people we saw?

Close your event with ample time to pray.

Wealth-and-riches field trip -- Load up your kids again and drive through the wealthiest parts of town. Ask your kids to watch people's faces as you tour a swanky housing development. Stop in front of an upscale restaurant or boutique. Visit a building filled with high-powered lawyers. Park in the parking lot of a casino.

When you return to church, ask the same questions from the previous activity. If you've already held the "poverty" field trip, ask these questions too: Who looked happier -- the people in the poor sections of town or in the wealthy sections? Who do you think loves God more? Who do you think God loves more? (Of course, God loves everyone equally.)

Close your time with prayer to the God who is there for everyone!

Pediatric-ward visit -- Have your kids prepare a puppet show or get well cards for the hospitalized children. Tell your preteens ahead of time to choose one sick child that they'll pray for after this trip. Arrange for a time that your kids can visit with the patients.

Have your kids give their "prayer pal" a card with your church's address and telephone number. Ask your kids to tell their new friend that they'll be praying for them to be comforted and healed. Have your kids ask their partners to write them a letter after they leave the hospital. Take a Polaroid camera along with you and take two pictures of each prayer duo -- one for each child to keep to remember the other.

After this trip, provide opportunities for your children to update the rest of the group on news that they receive from their prayer partners. Remind your kids to keep praying. Discuss why God would allow some children to be sick, or even to die, while others are healthy and living. This activity will move your kids out of their comfort zones and into an area where they need to trust God's wisdom and goodness.

Miracle watch -- After a lesson on prayer or the power of God, have children spend reflective time thinking about one amazing thing they'll ask God to do in the next six months. Give specific guidelines such as making it something you'd like to see happen, but also, something you believe God would want to happen. Choose something that only God can do. Ask for something big, such as having a parent become a Christian or helping the child repair a damaged relationship.

Then have your preteens write their prayer request to God on paper. Ask them not to share their request with anyone else for the next six months. Collect the papers.

For the next six months, remind children to pray for their requests and for the unshared requests of the others. (You may find yourself praying like crazy, too, asking God to make this project work!)

At the end of the six months, pull out the requests and read them. Throw a party to celebrate the God who is there!

• • •

Are you up to the challenge? You may feel intimidated by these sophisticated young people or overwhelmed by the demands of their fast-changing culture. Are you the right person to work with sixth-graders? Can you move them from entertainment to discipleship?

You bet you can! If you're willing to love them with all your heart, as you love God with all your might, you'll be able to vitally impact the young lives that God has entrusted into your care. When all is said and done -- it's a God-thing -- and so are you.


Gordon and Becki West are Christian education consultants in Mesa, Arizona. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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