"Mom, I don't want to go to Sunday School. All Mrs. Debbie says is ‘Now boys and girls, we don't act like that in Sunday School.' She is so boring. All we ever do is sit in our chairs and make cards. The only fun thing is to make paper airplanes out of our learner guide pages."
"Dad, it seems like all Benji ever talks about on Wednesday nights in youth group is purity. He said we're supposed to be pure in our bodies and pure in our thoughts. I know what pure is, but I don't understand what being pure in my body means. I don't say cuss words. Does that mean I am pure in speech?
Although both of the above scenarios from sixth graders are fictitious, the stories that they tell are real. Churches have become increasingly diverse in their methods of handling the middle school issue.
When you and I were younger, we anxiously looked forward to the day when we would be in seventh grade. Then we could finally be in the youth group. Today, some churches put their fifth graders in the youth department, while others are still following the traditional model of waiting until seventh grade.
What is the solution?
Should fifth and sixth graders be a part of the children's ministry or should they be given youth status? My answer is simple: neither! Preteens are an important group of adolescents who have different needs from first graders and different needs from ninth graders. Churches must make a concerted effort to meet those needs.
The consequences that the church must face are ones of serious proportions. An alarming number of parents are allowing their preteens to drop out of church. This will affect the way the next generation church looks. We must rally against this tide and fight to keep our preteens.
What can you do?
Developing a preteen ministry does not have to be a complicated task if you will follow a few simple guidelines.
Develop a heart for preteens. You probably would not be reading this article if you did not have a heart for children. Chances are you are the strongest champion of children in your church. How does that apply to preteens? While they are clearly not elementary in thoughts or actions, they are still not mature youth. They do need challenges, yet they will not be forced inside the children's ministry box. You must become determined to reach the preteens in your church where they are.
Pray out new preteen champions. Okay, so preteens can be different from the other age groups in your church. Perhaps that has more to do with how we treat them, than just a natural instinct to be rude, crude, and impolite. Think about your own actions. How do you react to someone who treats you with little respect for your chosen field? The response is probably not positive. You must recognize that preteens are different from the other children in your church, and they need to be treated that way. You can't do it alone, though. You need to find other adults in your church who can recognize the value of preteens and preteen ministry in your church. The best way to find them is to pray earnestly, then act upon the Lord's leading. Avoid random begging. The preteens and the church deserve better.
Make the ministry different. Many churches have logos for their youth ministry, children's ministry, and preschool ministry. Churches should set their preteens apart from the youth and younger children. Encourage your preteens to help find a unique name for the group. They also need their own space. Preteens often think that the youth rooms are cool! Consider designing a special space for preteens. Make the room exciting and applicable to the preteens. If your church is pressed for space, do anything you can to make the preteen rooms different from those of the children and youth. Make them feel unique and wanted.
Plan special events just for them. Whether it is Wednesday night discipleship, lock-ins, summer camp, or Sunday School, try to make the preteens aware that they have their own ministry. Whenever possible, take the preteens to summer camp on a different week from the younger children. Have a dedicated preteen Sunday School. If you haven't checked out Lifeway's VBX, give it a look. It's designed just for preteens. Plan special get-togethers just for preteens. Make your preteen events different from the youth and children's ministry. Preteens know when you are just trying to appease them. Show them you really care about their feelings by doing something different just for them.
Be available. While the preteens are not ready to hear all of the immoralities of sex, they are mature enough to begin to ask questions. These questions, however, are going to be tough ones. Preteens in the 21st century are more aware of worldly things than they were ten years ago. You, as a preteen champion, must be prepared to answer the beefy questions and not just skirt the issue. Allow preteens a forum for asking questions. Instead of lumping them with first graders who would snicker at the very question or with ninth graders who would look at them with disdain for not understanding something, provide them a comfortable place to share their hearts. By keeping this line of communication open, you are going to make it easier for preteens to come to you when they are faced with a huge moral dilemma.
Maybe you are not convinced yet. Maybe you still think your ministry is too small or maybe you think there is no way you can add another thing to your plate. Why is this so important? George Barna's research shows that 34 percent of children will become Christians before the age of thirteen. If children drop out of church when they are 10 years old, we have removed two to three years of their prime time to accept Christ. Is losing an entire generation of preteens worth it to you?