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A group of sixth graders give their small group leader a hug.
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Tips for Effectively Ministering to Sixth Graders at Your Church

Spend time with any group of children’s ministers these days, and one of the topics of conversation is sure to be ministry to sixth graders. What works? Are there any helpful resources out there? How do we balance entertaining sixth graders with trying to disciple them?

The Questions Ministers Have on Sixth Graders

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.
  • 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..
  • 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.”
  • “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.”
  • “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 in your sixth grade ministry.

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.

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 on sixth graders.

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 to fit sixth graders.

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.

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 of Ministering to Sixth Graders

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.

Without small groups led by caring adults, it’s very difficult to have meaningful discussions. When there’s no 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. 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 of Ministering to Sixth Graders

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.

Mentor sixth graders.

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.

Be authentic.

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.


The Right Staff for Sixth Graders

Finding enough of the right kind of staff is a challenge, but here are helpful tips.

 Break it down.

The more “bite sized” you make the volunteer’s job, the easier it is to find willing workers. There are very few people in your church who are willing and able to lead a large group of preteens in a Bible study. But there are probably several (or many) who would be willing to lead a small group of five or six kids (with the proper training and support).

Break out of the box.

As you make your ministry more kid-friendly, or fun, you’ll also be making your ministry more volunteer-friendly. The right people for sixth graders will be ones who are drawn by the fun approach that’s necessary for this age level. If your volunteers are hesitant about letting kids have fun, it may be time to bring on new staff.

Break into families.

One question that frequently arises is “Should we use the kids’ parents as staff or not?” The answer is yes — if they’re fun people who truly desire to minister to preteens. However, you may not want to put parents in their child’s small group. Let a parent work with another group of kids. The payoff for the parent can be wonderful. It’s great to have kids tell a child, “Wow! Your mom is cool!” What a shock that’ll be to many of our kids!

• • •
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 West is a Christian education consultant in Mesa, Arizona. 

Looking for more preteen ideas? Check out these posts!

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