At ages 10, 11, and 12, preteens are still technically in the children’s ministry category but they consider themselves too old for elementary activities. They want to be treated like grown-ups, and they have unique spiritual needs.
While this is an exciting, change-filled age, it’s also a crucial time to nurture kids’ faith development, to make a difference in their lives, and to incorporate them into the larger church body.
Children’s Ministry Magazine talked to preteen ministry experts about sure-fire ways to help these kids grow spiritually before they’re out of your ministry’s reach.
Preteen Ministry: Crossing Into New Terrain
What makes preteens noticeably different from even 8- and 9-year-olds? The key is their growing desire for freedom.
“Preteens yearn for independence and desire to escape being smothered by parents, especially if parents tend to be overprotective,” says Rebecca Peterson, children’s pastor at Community Bible Church in San Antonio, Texas.
“Typical 10- to 12-year-olds are beginning the process of separating their identities from their parents, which continues on through adolescence,” says Sarah Killelea, preteen ministry director at San Clemente Presbyterian Church in San Clemente, California. “At the start of this journey, they need a place where they can connect with adults other than Mom or Dad or teachers.”
This need to slowly cut the apron strings translates into opportunities for children’s ministers to be caring adult mentors.
Entering a Spiritual Expanse
To grow in their relationship with Christ, preteens need special attention, customized programming, and opportunities to question and be challenged. They also need:
Strong Adult Mentors
Preteen ministry staff and volunteers must “be there consistently” for kids, Peterson says. “Kids’ lives are changed by that dedicated individual who’s there every week when the kids arrive, asking them how their week went, spending time listening to them, and joking around with them. These are the heroes who make a difference in children’s lives and lead them to spiritual maturity.”
Most preteens who’ve grown up in children’s ministry have been exposed to the basic facts about Christian faith. But once they reach fifth and sixth grades, kids are ready to own their beliefs.
“Preteens are just starting to understand that God is very real and the Bible actually relates to them,” says Katie Gerber, preteen ministry associate at East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis. “The Bible isn’t just some old book full of stories they’ve heard since preschool. It’s a living, active book that relates to their problems or situations.”
Preteens “need to know this isn’t just their parents’ church,” adds Peterson. “What we have to offer them each week is the spiritual air and food they need to survive in today’s culture.”
In addition to consistent relationships and foundational knowledge, Killelea says, preteens need plenty of fun moments with spiritual significance.
“Most students fail to remember the details of a 10-minute message or the exact content of small-group discussions,” she says. “However, my students constantly recall funny skits we’ve performed, songs from months back, and life-changing experiences from camps. Kids remember what was fun for them.”
Alan Root, a “kid musicianary” to the preteen set, says these kids “need to lead.” They’re “ready to be seriously challenged: challenged to memorize Scripture, challenged to worship in spirit and truth, challenged to make a difference at church, at home, at school, and in their community,” he says.
By fifth grade, Root adds, kids are ready to switch “from being under the ministry of a children’s pastor to being ready to assist the ministry of the children’s pastor.”
Preteens’ emerging ability to think abstractly plays a big role in their spiritual development. “They’re able to question and challenge things they ‘firmly’ believed only months before,” says Killelea. “Their minds are eager to question their faith…and the validity and content of Scripture.”
The big spiritual challenge for preteens, Killelea adds, is defining for themselves exactly what “relationship with Christ” means. Kids regularly ask Killelea questions such as “Is God with me right now?” and “Does God care about me personally?” So it’s essential, she says, for preteens to have “a place where they’re free to ask questions” and receive “solid, age-appropriate” answers.
Because preteens are curious and are venturing out into the world more, Root says, they need to know the dangers and consequences of certain behaviors. “Many of them know that what pop culture calls ‘freedom’ is a dead end,” he says, “but they need a real answer to [resist] an invitation to plunge into the kingdom of darkness.”
A big dilemma for preteens and people who work with them is that “they want more freedom, yet can handle only so much,” says Gerber. “Preteens want to feel older, yet they’re still kids. They don’t want to be in elementary anymore; they want something special, just for them.”
Building Strong Support
Incorporating this knowledge of preteens’ spiritual needs into your ministry leads to powerful results.
Express genuine interest.
When working with preteens, you can’t just show up and serve your time, Peterson says. Instead, you must “show you care about what they’re facing.”
If you fail to get on preteens’ level, earn their trust, and show real interest in their lives, kids are “going to tune you out,” says Gerber. It’s also important to think outside the classroom. “Go to their cheerleading competitions or basketball games,” she adds. “That’s when they’ll come up to you and say, ‘I really need to talk to you about something.’ ”
Make lessons applicable.
Preteen ministers have to be a little more creative with lessons so they relate to kids’ lives, Gerber says, adding that lessons require more preparation because preteens “know when you’re winging it.”
Programming must remain on the cutting edge and be constantly revised to meet kids’ needs, Peterson says.
Root, whose new book for preteens is Disciplification (self-published), says preteen curriculum must be real and must explore kids’ leadership gifts. “There’s nothing more real than the transition from being a kid in children’s church to being a minister in children’s church,” he says.
Provide lots of welcoming activities.
Gerber’s BLAST program (Belonging, Laughing, And Studying the Truth) features at least nine special events per year. All these get-togethers, retreats, and trips are tailored to preteens. “Kids know when they get into fifth and sixth grade that programming is going to be totally different from elementary,” she says.
Because friendships are so important to this age group, activities are open and attractive to kids’ friends. Gerber recommends assigning one regular attendee to each visitor because “most likely, if visitors feel like they made a new friend, they’ll be back.”
Assign responsibilities gradually.
The best way to meet preteens’ spiritual needs, Root says, is to “give them real responsibility and follow up on how they’re doing.” He says preteens can lead worship, teach part of a class, participate in prayer, and even help with the sound system.
“Find their gifts and turn them loose under your watchful eye,” Root says, adding that when preteens are given responsibilities a little bit at a time, they’ll prove their faithfulness and their age won’t be an issue.
Facilitate spiritual growth.
Being honest and real is essential because preteens “can see right through you,” Gerber says. “They’re more aware of you than you think.”
She adds that preteens “need to see that you struggle with things, too-that they’re not alone. Never, ever be afraid to be honest with them about your flaws.”
Offer identity and freedom.
Providing preteens with their own identity makes them feel special, Peterson says. At her church, everything preteens do-from Sunday events to VBS to summer camp-carries the Club 56 label. The group has its own worship band, a separate game room, and separate snacks and crafts.
Just calling fifth- and sixth-graders preteens makes them feel more grown up, says Gerber. And expanded activities such as rock climbing, laser tag, and movie outings provide kids with the freedom and growth opportunities they crave.
Making the Connections
Preteen specialists keep kids’ needs in mind with all aspects of their programming. They agree that lots of interaction, messy games, good food, and a friendly atmosphere are all essential.
Focus on discussion groups.
Small groups are “key to life change, which is what we’re really all about,” Peterson says. “Discussion questions connect the Scriptures kids hear to their everyday lives and make God’s Word relevant to them.”
When using a discussion format, Killelea advises, remember that it’s okay to go off-topic with kids’ questions and concerns. “I’ve found that it’s most effective for preteens to experience the freedom to question,” she says.
Help them bond with adults.
Look for extra opportunities to build relationships between preteens and ministry leaders. In her LightForce program, Killelea offers parties, girls sleepovers, and boys bowling nights to encourage student-leader bonding.
Peterson recounts an 11-year-old girl who made major life changes with the help of an accountability partner assigned to her at a retreat. Through commitment and support, the girl reached her goals to quit bullying, change her circle of friends, and stop smoking.
Offer challenge and expect results.
Effective preteen programs challenge kids in their deepening relationship with Christ. Members of Club 56 attend Wednesday night discipleship classes and just completed their first missions trip. “This group of 22 kids is so on-fire for the Lord,” Peterson says. “I’m expecting mighty and powerful things to come from them.”
Maintain a separate identity.
Attach the name of your church’s preteen ministry to everything the group does. And, whenever possible, keep preteen activities separate from younger children’s activities. The only time Club 56 meets with younger kids, Peterson says, is during an opening session for drama, offering, and announcements.
Because Killelea’s church is the only one in San Clemente with a program specifically targeted to fifth- and sixth-graders, LightForce serves as an important outreach. She tells about a girl who was having a tough time making friends at school. During fifth grade, this girl got involved with LightForce and immediately clicked with the leaders. She made new friends and even started bringing her parents to church on Sundays.
Last November, when the senior pastor invited the congregation to share expressions of gratitude, this young girl was “the first person under age 40 to share, and she stood up to say she was very thankful for LightForce because it brought Jesus into her life and the life of her family,” Killelea says.
“That moment was the most encouraging experience in ministry for my team and me,” says Killelea. “The Lord clearly used the program, curriculum, and staff of LightForce to reach this young girl and her family.”
Stephanie Martin is a freelance writer and editor in Colorado.
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