Cue the eerie music…
“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!
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.
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!
“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.”