It’s Not So Elementary

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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?

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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

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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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