Ministering to Preteens: The Preteen Zone

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Cue the eerie music…

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“It’s the middle ground between light and shadow…between the
pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge…Enter, if you
will, The Preteen Zone.”

Okay, stop the music!

While it may not make you as squeamish as the old TV show
The Twilight Zone, The Preteen Zone can be as daunting, as
perplexing, and as alien to many of us in children’s ministry
today. That’s what we’ve been hearing consistently as we’ve dug
deeper into the preteen ministry challenge.

We’ve discovered that The Preteen Zone can leave children’s
ministers quaking in their boots and hunting for that special
portal that’ll answer their primal cry for help. We’ve also
discovered, though, that preteen ministry is an emerging trend in
children’s ministry with some churches even hiring a ministry
leader dedicated to preteens only. Welcome to the next ministry
frontier!

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We hosted a Preteen Think Tank with six top-notch preteen
ministers from around the country. As we discussed the challenges
and joys of ministering to preteens, we had eye-opening discussions
about who these kids are — and the best ways to reach them.
Afterward, we wrote the three books that are in the new Preteen
Launchables kit: Understanding Preteens, Preteen
Ministry Blueprint
, and Ideas That Work.

Let’s dive into this challenging ministry area and see if we can
solve today’s mystery of reaching upper-elementary kids — with the
help of three of our Preteen Think Tank experts.

The Way Things Are

It’s almost cliché to talk about how times have changed.
Perhaps, though, with no age group other than preteens have things
changed so drastically. Kids are hitting puberty earlier —
sometimes as young as 8 — so raging hormones are a reality that up
until recently were felt primarily in junior high ministry.

And preteens are exposed to more mature issues earlier. Ty
Bryant, pastor to fourth- through sixth-graders at Perimeter Church
in Atlanta, Georgia, lamented at our Preteen Think Tank that
schools in his area have had to confront the issue of oral sex with
sixth-graders. With sixth-graders!

Yep, times have changed. Preteens are exposed to far more than
we were at their age — no matter what age you are!

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“When I was 10 years old, my parents got a divorce. I was pretty
much kept out of the loop and struggled with issues that dealt with
trivial stuff about my parents’ divorce,” says Joe Puentes,
minister to preteens at Christ Church of Oronogo in Oronogo,
Missouri. “Preteens now are confronted with the raw issues of their
parents’ divorce. They’re in the heat of custody battles and are
asked about who they want to live with. They know if their parent
was having an affair, and they even know what that means. The
bottom line is that preteens are pushed by society, their families,
their schools, and their churches to rapidly grow up.”

It’s not just family issues that have changed with preteens. Our
consumer culture also presses in on kids to age them faster.
Marketers use “age compression” to market to kids so they can
capture a share of the $1.7 billion kids ages 8 to 14 are spending.
Marketers compress the ages by intentionally pushing adult and teen
qualities in products so kids find them more appealing for
purchase. Thus, they promote kids “aging up.”

Add to this the psychodynamic of aspiration, and we have a group
of kids that isn’t sure where it fits. Aspiration is the term used
to describe kids aspiring to be older. So kids dress, talk, and
play older. And with kids aspiring to be older, they’re easily
pulled out of childhood to move more quickly into adolescence.
Emotionally and mentally, though, they’re not ready. They’re stuck
between the two worlds they no longer feel completely comfortable
in.

“In the 10 years I’ve been in youth ministry and children’s
ministry, I’ve noticed that the problems and issues that faced
junior high kids are now placed on preteens,” says Puentes. “The
preteens I minister to are dealing with social issues that junior
high and some senior high youth dealt with 10 years ago. They’re
struggling with issues like drugs and alcohol, sex, more mature
boyfriend/girlfriend issues, unhealthy friendships that deeply
affect them, and materialism.”

A Place Just for Me

Preteens just don’t fit — in ministries not made for them.
Christ in Youth’s SuperStart preteen event director Patrick Snow
says the reason preteens need their own place is crystal clear to
“anybody who’s tried to place a preteen into children’s or youth
ministries. Plain and simple, they’re an age all their own. They
think differently, act differently, relate differently, and learn
differently. Spiritually they’re ready for something deeper than
children’s ministry but aren’t quite ready to be exposed to some of
the tough truths of youth ministry.”

So many churches, though, make the mistake of shoving preteens
into a junior high ministry where the topics are over their heads
and the junior highers are too sophisticated for preteens. Preteens
are lost. Or, conversely, churches leave preteens in children’s
ministry where these upper-elementary kids yawn from boredom and
simply endure activities and music that feel too young for them.
Both strategies are ineffective.

“Preteens are physically, intellectually, and emotionally
different than lower-elementary kids and junior high kids,” says
Puentes. “What’s more is that preteens seem to be in a more unique
spiritual situation than the other age groups. Preteens are in
transition spiritually. As a whole, they’re no longer satisfied
with the basics of the Christian faith.”

Preteens are between childhood and adolescence (but don’t call
them tweens or tweeners — they detest those terms). Preteens need
something constant they can hold on to while the rest of the world
changes all around them.

“Preteens are in such a transition of life automatically. It’s a
very stressful and scary time for them,” says Katie Gerber, preteen
ministry associate at East 91st Street Christian Church in
Indianapolis, Indiana.

And it’s not an equitable stage for the transitions kids are
going through. “Some preteens are very mature and look as if they
should be in junior high or even the lower levels of senior high,
but sitting next to them are kids who look like they should be in
third grade,” observes Puentes.

Preteens need a place where people understand their unique needs
and cater ministry to their abilities. They need ministry that
helps them transition from children’s ministry to junior high
ministry — not in a one-time event, but in a two-year transitional
period. They need leaders who structure ministry that builds a
bridge to the next step of their lives and faith journeys.

“Creating a special ministry just for preteens will help ease
them out of elementary and into junior high at a comfortable pace,”
says Gerber. “They’re very excited about leaving children’s
ministry, yet they aren’t ready to go into a room full of seventh-
and eighth-graders. A preteen ministry can be a very powerful place
for upper-elementary kids to grow in their faith and be stretched a
little more than they ever have before.”

Preteen Ministry Ingredients

So what should a preteen ministry look like? It should have each
of these preteen-specific components to maximize kids’ spiritual
development.

  • Bible Teaching — “Teaching a preteen should always be
    energetic and interactive,” says Snow. “They’re small bundles of
    energy ready to explode — and they will if they have to sit too
    long. Include them in the teaching process.”

Since preteens learn at a different level from younger kids and
teen­agers, they need teaching geared to them. Intellectually,
preteens can grasp some of the more abstract concepts, but they
still need the teaching to be in practical terms they can
understand.

“They know and understand the story of Moses, the deliverance of
the Hebrews out of Egypt, and the Passover,” says Puentes. “They
understand that this was a necessary part of the biblical story and
they can even see how it fits into God’s bigger plan in the Bible.
What they might struggle with is how this concrete, but also
abstract, concept, fits into daily life as they learn to follow
God.”

Preteens need teachers who’ll help them connect the truths of
the Bible to their lives. Preteens want to know “Why should this
matter to me?”

  • Unique Environment — “Preteens are just beginning to grasp the
    concept of their identity and they like it! It’s important to them
    to have things that tell them who they are,” advises Snow.
    “Creating a unique environment that screams PRETEEN is important
    because it allows them to worship and learn about God in a place
    that’s their own.”

What screams “preteen”? Bright colors, playfulness, edgy images,
skateboards, loud music, cool lighting, unexpected decorations such
as garage-sale retro lamps or posters. If you’re not sure what
screams “preteen,” ask. Your preteens will definitely have
opinions.

  • Fun Times — Here’s the good news: Ministry to preteens is fun.
    Kids this age are into things that almost all adults can enjoy —
    bowling, laser tag, putt-putt, go-carts, scavenger hunts, arcades.
    Dive in with preteens and have a blast.
  • Small Groups — Ministry to preteens must be highly relational
    — there’s no shortcut to effective preteen ministry. Prepare to
    staff your ministry with one leader per five preteens. It’s the
    only way to impact this age group.

Preteens need a consistent, safe, intimate, and focused
environment. Having the same small group leader for preteens every
week is the only way to provide consistency. Small group
relationships allow for preteens to be heard and valued. When small
group leaders serve as facilitators rather than resident experts,
powerful spiritual growth is possible.

“Our small group leaders seek to create an atmosphere where
preteens feel it’s safe to be real and honest,” says Puentes. “We
encourage our small group leaders to invest in the lives of the
preteens they minister to. Preteens aren’t criticized or ridiculed
by adults or their peers. Instead, they’re encouraged and
challenged to be all that God created them to be.”

“Small groups are a must for preteen ministry!” says Snow.
“Preteens are at a point in their lives where everything about them
is transforming. Not only are preteens changing, but they’re each
changing at different rates. The only true way to guide them
spiritually is to help them each where they are individually. Small
groups are critical because they provide the opportunity to do just
that.”

Preteens can become overwhelmed if every aspect of the ministry
is done in a large group setting. They need time to collect
themselves and focus on what’s being taught.

Puentes’ preteen ministry uses small groups. “Small groups are
the biggest cog in our ministry to preteens. It’s where it all
happens,” says Puentes. “This is the ‘meat’ of what we desire to
accomplish. Preteens meet in small groups divided by grade and
gender to discuss the teaching point and learn how it applies to
their world. They build community with each other by discussing
issues they’re dealing with. Large group time is the setup for
small group time, not the other way around.”

  • Worship — “In a preteen ministry, you have a very unique
    opportunity to teach your fifth- and sixth-graders what true
    worship is,” says Gerber. “True worship is all about God — not us.
    Preteens can begin to handle deeper concepts and start developing a
    deeper understanding of who God is.”

Musical worship with preteens can look like a lot of things —
including worship with a live band, an acoustic guitar, or CDs. Be
creative in leading preteens in worship with ideas such as these
from Katie Gerber:

  • ABC Worship — Go through the alphabet saying a different
    praise attribute for God: Almighty; Beautiful; Cornerstone;
    Delightful; Everlasting…
  • Artsy Worship — Have preteens listen to a praise song and draw
    a picture for God about what they hear.
  • Worship Sculpting — Give kids sculpting material (foil, clay,
    pipe cleaners) and have them create something they think is cool
    about God.
  • Connecting With Parents — Not only are preteens in transition
    and experiencing abrupt changes, their parents are, too. And
    parents need support, encouragement, and resources — from you.
    Watch out, though. While preteens’ parents want to know what’s
    going on in your ministry, they don’t necessarily want to be
    involved. And if they do want to get involved, steer them away from
    their preteen’s small group. Preteens need other “voices” in their
    lives at this key developmental stage.
  • Service — “Preteens are very inwardly focused, yet most are
    willing and want to help others,” says Gerber. “They want to be
    like Jesus and they want to help others. If you provide them ways
    to serve God, he’ll do amazing things through them.”
  • Events — “Events are a powerful tool to form relationships
    with your preteens,” says Gerber. “They want to know that you care
    about them; what better way to show them than by spending time with
    them?”

Events take preteens out of a normal teaching environment and
open them to learning and growing in fresh and creative ways.

“A preteen is more likely to remember a biblical truth when it’s
taught in a way other than what preteens are used to,” says
Snow.

Preteens are at an age where it’s easier to get them out of the
church building and into “real world” settings. And studies show
that one powerful way to impact teenagers’ spiritual growth is
through events — mission trips, camps, and retreats. Use this
power to impact your preteens.

Transition and Anticipation

More than any two words in the English language, these two words
define preteen ministry succinctly: transition and
anticipation.

“Preteens are in one of the key transition points in a person’s
life (college age is the other),” says Puentes. “Preteens are
leaving kiddy world and entering the world of teenagers. All that
they knew is about to be wiped away and replaced. Preteen ministry
is the area of preparation for that transition.”

Understand that as kids leave childhood, they’re nervous and
fearful of what lies ahead. “They either drop away from that
transition or they struggle and barely exist in the next world,”
says Puentes.

That’s where the second word comes in: anticipation. Preteen
ministers are poised at the precipice of what’s next for kids. You
have the tremendous opportunity to lead kids in anticipation of the
wonderful things God has in store for them. Give them a vision of
how God can use them. Entice them with the excitement of how
amazing youth group will be. Paint the picture of hope and
fulfillment that only God can provide.

A very practical way to do that, according to Puentes, is to
“introduce them and give them a taste of what lies ahead — build
that anticipation so they’re excited and looking forward to the
time when they can experience and contribute to that future world
of student ministry.”

And if you don’t, your preteens may drop out for good. Take the
challenge — enter The Preteen Zone!


Christine Yount Jones is executive editor for Children’s
Ministry Magazine. Please keep in mind that phone numbers,
addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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