Prepare for the Challenges of Preteen Ministry
Preteens . . . here they come! The problem is that we often are not ready for them. We either throw preteens in with youth, or keep them with children. Ask sixth graders and they will tell you that they are not children, that they should be in the student ministry. Ask a youth leader, and he or she likely will tell you preteens should stay in the children's ministry. Which, then, are preteens - children or youth? The answer is, both and neither.
Here are some things to consider in reaching preteens for Christ.
Preteens should be in the children's ministry. However, that does not mean you have to treat them like children in every way. Consider sixth grade to be their "senior year" in the children's department. Make their room special. Furnish it with adult-sized tables and chairs (chairs 16 to 17 inches from the floor). Decorate the walls with teen-looking Christian posters. Avoid childish-looking animated characters. It is amazing how something so simple will change preteens' attitudes - and those of their leaders.
Preteens are noisy and boisterous, and they enjoy challenges and competition. Make sure teachers have space to incorporate these activities in their lesson plans.
Encourage leaders to talk to preteens about their schools and friends. Kids want adults to listen to them and to respect their ideas. Remember, they are almost teenagers! At this stage in development, and especially as the year progresses, older children are beginning to grasp abstract ideas instead of only concrete facts. Capitalize on this stage in group discussions of the Bible and with the Bible stories you teach. Encourage preteens to imagine how a character must have felt and relate that instance to a time when the preteen felt the same way. Preteens still need hands-on learning activities.
Recognize differences in Bible knowledge and skills
In looking back at classes over 10 years of classes, I can see similarities among groups of sixth graders. A portion of the class usually is familiar with Bible stories and where to find them. Another portion falls into the category of "I've heard the stories, but I don't really remember them." These students have limited Bible knowledge and skills. The last group is those preteens who have been in church only sporadically, if at all, and have not heard the stories you casually mention.
Our responsibility is to teach every child. Your teaching methods used should help all children gain a comfort level with, and basic understanding of, the Bible. Do not assume anything. Sixth grade is when the lights start to come on, and learners assimilate for themselves all the Bible stories they know, putting them in chronological order, and drawing some personal conclusions.
Focus on content
Most important is to instill in these tweenagers that the Bible, God's Word, is where they can always go to find truth. These children already are exposed to values and belief systems far beyond what their leaders were exposed to as children. Our schools expose kids to world religions. Children are asking, "How do I know that what I believe is right?"
When confronted with moral dilemmas at school, preteens need to know that they can find the truth, the right thing to do, in God's Word. When their parents are going through a divorce or a disaster strikes our country, they need to feel confident looking to God's Word for answers.
By using the Bible in the classroom and referring to it often as the source of truth, we teach children to look to God in all circumstances. The curriculum we use to teach is helpful in getting this message across. However, it will pass away. Sunday school books from sixth grade are not likely to be the first thing they pack when they leave for college or move out on their own. Learner guides will not be a source of consultation when kids face a crisis of belief. The Bible, however, will always be available to them.