Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve spent time visiting incoming freshmen and their families in their homes. During these visits, I ask teens to reflect on their experience in our junior high ministry. I also share information about our high school ministry with them. As part of this, I ask parents, “What’s one thing you’d change about our junior high ministry?” In answer to this question, parents of boys typically tell me:

“It wouldn’t hurt to put the boys and girls together sometimes.”

This statement is a critique of our small group ministry, which in junior high we separate by gender. When asked, parents will typically elaborate on this critique, saying something about how “It’d help to control the boys if they were around the girls.”

Truthfully, it’s the last part of this critique that’s hard for me to swallow. The point of junior high small groups isn’t control. It’s relational development and faith formation.

In fact, that’s why we switched to same-gendered small groups several years ago. This separation is one that I wholeheartedly believe in, for three main reasons:

1. Junior high boys and girls are different. At this age, dividing teens by gender enables you to structure small groups somewhat differently. Boy groups can be more activity driven, and girl groups, more conversation driven. Without the other gender present, both guys and girls have the freedom to say things they wouldn’t necessarily express around someone of the opposite gender.

2. Developmentally, dividing junior high students by genders makes sense because they tend to understand their identity first in same-gendered contexts. In other words, for junior high students, identity exploration is safest in same-gendered contexts. Since identity development is one of the primary sociological tasks during this phase of development, it makes sense that we try to capitalize on this with same-gendered small groups.

3. Since same-gendered small groups allow you to structure them differently in order to give teens a safe place for identity exploration, their natural by-product is relationships. When junior high students leave small groups having formed friendships with one another, their entire group is much more likely to transition into your high school ministry together.

When it comes to the identity development and faith formation of teens, junior high same-gendered small groups make sense. I know this because over the last several years, we’ve consistently reaped the fruit of them. Teens are entering our high school ministry with deeper relationships than ever before.

That’s why, even though I hear such feedback regularly, I’m committed to same-gendered junior high small groups… And to educating parents about why they’re important.

After all, when parents realize the why behind the what typically, their understanding of our ministry increases. So, too, does their confidence and trust in our ministry, something that is good for everyone.