A Focus on Middle School

photo credit: unspalsh.com

I started my “Church Career” as a Middle School Youth & Confirmation Coordinator back in the summer of 2008. It was my first job in ministry out of college, and it was hard work. It pushed and pulled me in ways I didn’t know were possible. It was also extremely rewarding. Middle School is this interesting, awkward time in life where you are just beginning to think for yourself, discover what you believe, walk through changes in your body, and become who you are going to be. The great thing about middle schoolers is that they haven’t learned all the bitterness and snark and sarcasm that high schoolers seem to acquire just by walking in the building (now, not all high schoolers are bitter, snarky, and sarcastic … I might have been though…).

Middle Schoolers are still curious. It’s also not ‘too uncool’ to go to Church, so they are still open to what we have to say.

In my experience at a parish with more than 250 middle school kids each year, they wanted to find out where they belonged, what they believed, and if they were going to stick with it. It’s not just me either, a recent study from CARA asked Millennials why they left the Church and when. There is a lot of information in this article from the OSV Newsweekly, but I’m just going to highlight one thing in particular.

The interviews with youth and young adults [ages 15 to 25] who had left the Catholic Faith revealed that the typical age for this decision to leave was made at 13. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed, 63 percent, said they stopped being Catholic between the ages of 10 and 17. Another 23 percent say they left the Faith before the age of 10.

Article on CARA Study emphasis mine

Did you catch that? One more time for the people in the back!

86 percent left before age 17, 23 percent before the age of 10.

If you need a reason not to sleep at night, there it is. Almost 90 percent of young adults who have left the church (btw, only 13 percent said they might be likely to return) made the decision before they graduated high school. Some before they even got to middle school.

I’m not sharing this to depress you; I’m sharing it to light a fire in you.

It’s time to take religious education, faith formation, youth ministry, spirituality for our young people seriously! We have to remove the former attitude of “baptize, communion, confirmation then forget them until marriage.” We’ve been doing this for a few too many years in the Church, and now we are suffering from a lost generation. This isn’t about ‘wowing’ them with ‘lights, camera action’ – but it’s about engaging and educating our young people in the faith. A lot of the things from this post from a few weeks ago are still applicable.

So, what are you going to do to engage middle school students in their faith this spring? Make this one of your parish’s Lenten Practices. Some ideas:

  1. A Holy Hour: I took some students to the church one Monday I was subbing for a teacher who was out to fill 15 minutes of class time. We sat in the quiet of the Church for 15 minutes in front of the Blessed Sacrament. When we returned to the classroom, one student said “I can’t remember ever sitting in quiet prayer.” EVER! That was my bad as a youth minister, we should have done that more. Bring the students into the Church for Eucharistic Adoration offering some silent time, a reflection, a little music, Scripture, a meditation, etc… and let the Lord work in their lives. An hour might be too long to start with … so start with 15 minutes, or even 5. 5 minutes with Our Lord can be life-changing!
  2. A Bible Study: Middle School teens aren’t too young to start reading Scripture. We used to do this in our 5th grade classes actually. An entire semester was devoted to reading the Scriptures, breaking them open, applying them to their lives, and getting to know what God says to His people. If you don’t know where to start, LifeTeen is a great first step. This book is one of my favorites: Finding Yourself in Scripture by Mark Hart. It was written with middle school students in mind.
  3. Open Questions and Answers: I left this one for last because it’s the scariest. We tend to treat religious education classes more like lectures than interactive sessions. It takes time to develop a relationship with the students so they will be comfortable asking the hard questions that are keeping them up at night. Questions like “Why was I created?” and “What’s my purpose?” and “Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?” and “What happens when we die?” and “Why does the Church say [insert hard teaching here]?” These are hard questions to answer, but student and teacher can discover the answers together.

When students come to an understanding of the faith they’ve been given, they are more likely to remain in the Church. Give your students (and their parents) the tools to make the faith their own. It’s the best chance we have for engaging families in the parish!

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