I could list reasons why we kind of kicked our 6th graders out of our main service, but there’s only one: developmentally appropriate learning. Now, I say, “kind of,” because we provided an alternative worship experience for the 6th graders but have left the option of participation up to parents. If our current facilities and personnel allowed, we would have made accommodations for our 7th and 8th graders, too, but we’re working towards it.
As a middle school teacher for 15 years and an education major, I have experienced the developmental differences firsthand. Based on their current tween brain wiring, they simply cannot process much of our adult service. Unless your main service pastor includes humor, objects, stories, intriguing questions, visuals, and incorporates these at a quick pace, they will become disengaged and disinterested. It is no one’s fault; it’s just nature. It is merely how the tween brain processes information. And a well-intentioned illustration included in the sermon addressing middle school students simply isn’t enough. As someone has said, “The heart can only receive what our minds can conceive.” I don’t think that’s in the Bible, but it makes sense and fits with the research.
Think about why we separate MS and HS students. Isn’t it because they are at different developmental stages on every level? So, how much more is the gap between adults and middle school students? Imagine asking our adults to sit only in children’s services. I’m sure some would like that since some children’s services are better than the adult ones. How mature would they become taking in a diet created strictly for children? I am only asking us to think about it.
I am all about integrated worship with families as much as the next church leader, but I am also about making the most of the infrequent opportunities we have with our middle school students.
Now, I want to clarify. I am not saying, “This is the way.” You are welcome, Mandalorian fans. But I am saying this is a way to consider. We need to try and put ourselves behind the eyes of our middle school students and see what they are experiencing. I think we have to re-examine our approach to integration, including strategy and frequency, and all of our middle school program experiences based on what we know from the research on tween brains and their physiology. Orange’s It’s Just a Phase, So Don’t Miss It was based on some of these ideas, and Mark Oestreicher, a prolific author, and partner of The Youth Cartel, has discovered some great insight in this field of study.
In an ideal world, every family attending your church would be living out Deuteronomy 6 (parents discipling their children), which isn’t dependent only on the Sunday experience, but instead on the long-term, intentional, and strategic training of families by our local churches. But this isn’t an ideal world, and the church is not an ideal place. We may be making too much of a shared one-hour experience over intentional family discipleship, of which most would consider strategic middle school programming as a crucial part.
I don’t believe this is an either/or scenario. I think it’s both/and. We can create and foster environments for integrated services and middle school only services. My thought is if you have the facilities and the personnel to pull it off, go for it. If you can pull off a once a month or quarterly integrated worship experience, go for it. It’s also okay if you are unable to or simply decide that this is not the best strategic plan for your middle school students. They won’t be damaged by being in “Big Church.” Although perhaps based on your main service pastor, they will. You would know more than I would about that.
I want integrated worship, and we have it. But I also want to maximize the small window of time we have with middle school students weekly. You don’t have to pick; you can do both, and I believe both are necessary. But that is a decision to be made thoughtfully and prayerfully between you and your leadership.
James is the Youth & Family Pastor at Kingdom Church in Morgantown, WV. He has over 20 years of Student Ministry experience and is a Youth Ministry “Lifer.” He adores His wife and is a dad to 2 boys. He enjoys playing golf with his two sons and anyone who is willing to ride in a golf cart with him.
See his DYM Resources here.