Making Middle Schoolers Suffer Through Church

Josh (my 6th grader) at church with us EVERY Sunday morning 

My Sundays look ALOT different than they have in a VERY, VERY, long time. I used to wake up, run to get kiddos ready for church, pack a diaper bag, frantically gulp down some coffee, find our Bibles and race out the door. There was always this kind of mad dash to get to church early. Early so I can run a jammed packed morning of multiple student services. Oh wait, BEFORE I get to church early, I have to run to the store to purchase whatever I forgot for some Sunday morning youth group game (or beg my husband to). After being at church all morning for multiple services, we would all be so incredibly hungry my husband and I would attempt to take tired children to a late lunch. NOT a good idea. Then wonder why it was melt-down city five minutes into the meal. By the time we got home all of us are grumpy and TIRED!!! A 2 hour nap for everyone was the normal post-Sunday morning recovery ritual.

Back in over-programed land [I wrote about that here] life was a lot different than it is now. As a response to research from both the Fuller Youth Institute and findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), many churches, including the one I am working at now, have transitioned to a “less is more” approach to Sunday morning student ministry programming. Not that we’ve abandoned student ministry programs, we simply cut down on the amount of time we take students (and our volunteers) away from their own families and move programming to only once a week. Ours is on Sunday nights (we don’t compete with as many sports/homework conflicts that way).
Admittedly, I used to be pretty against the “get rid of Sunday am programming” idea. Why?  Because my own child LOVED LOVED LOVED his “Middle School Service” and I kind of also liked being kid-free for an hour. You can read more about that here (and see the tension I struggle with!) I also hated to hear older adults say:

“kids need to learn how to sit through church like I did when I was a kid.”

Barf. Really?

As though church was something kids had to learn how to endure and how being bored builds character or something. If you know me at all...I am a huge advocate for the educational/formational benefits of fun. I love FUN and can’t handle boring anything to an almost shallow fault. Come on... I am from land of the "Wanna go to Disneyland every weekend because we have annual passes?" I LOVE entertainment and fun. This spills into church too. I sheepishly admit most church services are far from fun and often do a poor job of engaging a wide spectrum of age groups. I've spent the last 4 years (previous to Michigan) BARELY handling church boredom as an adult! Why make my middle school child suffer with me by shutting down his (really fun) middle school service?

The more I thought about my own role as a parent, and the constant reality of so many of our youth group students not being able to even i.d. our Senior Pastor in a line up if they had to...made me wonder. We as a church had spent YEARS (and tons of $) providing age specific programing and separate spaces for students...without paying attention to developing them into “adults” who are richly connected to the larger church body beyond their own age group. If you’ve paid much attention to “Sticky Faith” from Fuller, you’ve heard it over and over...intergenerational connections matter and PARENTS are the #1 influence in a child’s life. Not youth group. The studies I mentioned earlier along with scripture, reaffirmed my role as a parent...to be the primary influence of my child's spirituality.

So all you evangelists out there...I can read your mind. So what about the unchurched kids who DON’T have Christian parents and possibly come from extremely toxic family environments?

4 quick thoughts off the top of my head:

1) They need the larger/intergenerational church body more than ever.

2) Still provide programming that doesn’t compete with family worship experiences.

3) Familys should be missional...and reach out to other families and at risk youth.

4) Campus Outreach...partner with para church organizations like Young Life or Campus Life.

Things have changed for me A LOT this past year (see more here) and my Sunday mornings have too! Where I work now has ZERO for me to do on a Sunday morning. I am proud they have strategically cut Sunday morning programming to help foster faith conversations. Grades 5 and up go to church with their parents 50-100% of the time depending on their age/grade level. Why? Because when children worship with their parents there are more opportunities for faith conversations to naturally happen. This is exciting, isn’t it? Programs are always second place when it comes to the transmission of faith to students. Conversations parents have with their children trumps everything.

Something I learned from being here at Mars Hill is the Church (as in The CHURCH...everywhere) needs to do a better job of fostering spiritual conversations between parents and children. Students need to see parents practice their faith first hand. Our FiftySix pastor pointed out to me,

“Our young middle schoolers are at an age where they can begin to think and talk about spirituality and faith on a deeper level. They are not afraid or shy to talk about it with their parents. Yet the research from the Fuller Youth Institute shows that only 12% of children are having regular faith dialogue with their mom and only 5% with their dad.”

Having students in “big church” or what we call the “Shed” on Sunday mornings is one way we hope to foster dialogue between parents and their children. About 9 Sundays a year, we have what’s called Fifty6 Morning Edition (during Sunday am services) to help students feel more comfortable in the Shed by the time they graduate Middle School. Our Fifty6 pastor teaches them how to participate and learn in big church. He is super intentional about helping parents learn how to have increased quantity and/or quality of conversation with their kids. Fifty6 students also get a “Shed” resource each Sunday (called From Me to You) which is an interactive handout for them to engage, interact, and participate in the Sunday morning “big church” experience.

It isn't always perfect. Sometimes kids ARE BORED... I struggle with that. I hate boredom. As we gradually and intentionally transition our youngest students into more and more shed experiences, we see an overall win. Not immediately. Not every week. But more and more interactions with adults and a larger comfort level in the shed helps students see church as "their church" and not just their parents church.

As a mom of a 6th grader, I was honestly worried about my son liking this change. In California he loved having his own Sunday AM Middle School service each week AND Wednesday night Small Group. Now he attends big church with us, attends his middle school Small Group on Sunday nights and our Wednesday nights are spent at home [giving us more time for dinner conversations TOGETHER]. There is less “programming” for him to participate in...but a whole lot more time for our family to be together and more time for him to hang out with his LifeGroup leaders, Joe and Jeremy. More time for things like Frisbee Golf or bowling with older adults [LifeGroup leaders] who love Jesus. Sounds like a recipe for Sticky Faith and “incarnational” ministry doesn’t it?

As worried as I was that my own middle schooler would be bored during big church on Sunday mornings, has proven to be a [mostly...not always] non-issue. Remember... I am a fan of fun! I hate if kids are bored in church. It was an overall effortless adjustment. The "big church" service here intentionally speaks to a wider variety of ages so it's more engaging than any us of were previously used to. A pastor in skinny jeans and Converse shoes is much more relatable to a middle schooler (and to me!) than one over 70 wearing a suit. On Sundays in the Shed, Josh grabs his From Me To You (FM2U)  handout. Sometimes only punching mindless holes into it with a pencil...sometimes interacting with it as it was designed to be used. I don’t pressure him. If he plays on his phone the entire time...I don’t care. Well I do care, but I don’t freak out about it.

Instead of making “rules” about church behavior, I ask him questions or start a conversation.
Like this...

Example One:
“So Josh, when you have your iphone on the entire time playing games, do you think you are still able to learn? If you don’t think you are learning anything, maybe you should only use your phone for the Bible App or for notes. Just something to think about.”

Result: The following week...he used his phone only for the Bible and for writing notes or to take a picture of us in church for his Instagram account.

Example Two:
On communion Sundays he ALWAYS stayed in his seat and refused to get up with us to take communion. I don’t know if it was insecurity, laziness or him not knowing what communion was about. He said it was because “the wafers taste bad” (he probably tried a gluten free one). So guess what? Instead of me making a rule or lecturing...I let him decide. After a few months of this, we (my husband and I) asked him casually at breakfast if he knew what communion was about. We had a CONVERSATION about it and the very next Sunday he got up on his own to partake in the Lord’s Supper WITH US. Something that would have not happened in “Let’s keep them Segregated” over-programmed world.

Example Three:
Do you know what’s really beautiful? The times during the week when he quotes a sermon and reminds me of something Pastor Kent said (our teaching pastor). We talk about who is teaching on Sunday, what they said, what we learned. Sometimes we rate who our favorite guest preachers are...or are not. We talk. We converse. It’s a beautiful thing.


In closing, do you know what my Sunday mornings are like now? I sleep in til 9am, make breakfast, drink coffee and show up for the 11am service with my family. It’s amazing. It’s something I’ve NEVER experienced unless it was Christmas or Easter with student programming canceled. Jealous aren’t you?

Interested in reading and re-thinking your “over-programmed” youth ministry model?

Check out these resources:

Sticky Faith

Redefining the Role of the Youth Worker by April Diaz

Almost Christian by Kenda Creasy Dean

Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry by Andrew Root

Have other books/resources you recommend on this topic? What’s working or not for you?


  1. I'm not sure if I can explain how much I enjoyed this post. Thank you for sharing your experience.


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