When people hear that I work with the middle school ministry at my church, I get this response nine times out of ten: “Wow, I could never do that.”
I don’t know why middle school ministry is made to sound so rough and scary. They’re just tinier, less evolved high schoolers. Yes, they get crazy and are going through weird stages of puberty, but I would pick middle school ministry over high school ministry hands down. Not to say there’s anything wrong with working with high schoolers. I just feel the same way about that as many people feel about working with middle school. Totally not my scene.
In case you have any curiosity as to why on earth working with middle school would be appealing, I am going to give you MY side of things. I think it’s time to set the record straight.
MY TOP TEN REASONS FOR WHY I LOVE WORKING WITH MIDDLE SCHOOLERS
1. I am one.
I’m pretty sure I’m a middle schooler in a college student’s body. You know how in middle school you liked to experiment with fashion and giggle about boys and be super obnoxious? Yeah, I never outgrew that phase. I can work well with middle schoolers because they basically consider me one of them.
2. They’re the right kind of weird.
High schoolers and middle schoolers are both weird, but it’s a different kind of weird. In high school, weird often means that you have really intense feelings you share on Tumblr. In middle school, weird means you watch anime and wear glow-in-the-dark earrings for the fun of it.
I like the latter kind of weird. I’m more prone to enjoy watching anime than sitting down and talking about ex-boyfriends.
3. They’re easy to talk to.
If you’re ever in doubt on how to carry a conversation with a middle schooler, try following my A-B-C plan.
A: Ask about movies.
This is almost always my fallback if I have nothing to strike a conversation with. I guarantee you that every middle schooler watches movies. Unless maybe they’re home-schooled. But that’s a different story.
“Hey, [insert name here]! Have you seen any good movies lately?”
“I saw Divergent.”
“Oh my gosh! I heard that was so good! Who was your favorite character? Is it worth seeing in the theatre?”
“Yeah, I love Triss. You should totally see it.”
B: Be weird.
Pose strange yet almost philosophical questions.
“Do you ever wonder what it’d be like if dinosaurs were still around? Do you think we’d eventually domesticate them?”
“Have you ever wondered if maybe you see some colors differently than other people? Is your shirt really blue or am I just seeing it as blue?”
Also, don’t be afraid to break out into song.
“HEEEEELLLOOOO THERE, LEAAAHHHH! LOVELY DAAAAY WE’RE HAVING TODAAAAAAAAAAAAY!!!!”
If they sing back, you made a friend.
C: Convince them that you’re interested in school.
I use the word “convince” because I am usually not genuinely interested in their classes. Like some of the middle school girls will get together and complain about this one teacher, and I’m just totally lost because 1) I don’t have that teacher, and 2) I don’t even go to their school.
But for the sake of carrying a conversation, I tend to inquire about school or extracurricular activities because that’s what their days usually contain. They don’t have careers or ministries or kids. They just have school and home. That’s what matters to them, hence it has to matter to us.
So, here are some sample open-ended questions:
1) What tests or projects did you have this week?
2) Hey, aren’t CRCTs coming up soon? What’s your least favorite subject and why?
3) Which sports or instruments do you play? How often do you practice?
4) What are your teachers like?
And there you have it. My A-B-C’s.
Now if I were working with high schoolers, I’d imagine my conversations to end up like this:
“Hey, [insert name here]! Have you seen any good movies lately?”
“Yeah, I saw [insert indie film I’ve never seen here]. It’s really obscure. You’ve probably never heard of it.”
“Oh… was it any good?”
“I feel like it revealed the depth of our humanity in the grotesque and raw nature the characters were developed and portrayed. The director really understands the relations between the cosmos and our infallible mortality. [insert more weird lingo I don’t understand here].”
“Hey, do you ever wonder what it’d be like if dinosaurs were still around?”
4. I’m less clueless than they are.
With middle schoolers, I feel like I have the upper hand in that I’m beyond their age by at least six years. That means, I have six years of experience that they have not yet lived, which I can thus encourage and counsel them with. Not only did I survive middle school, but I somehow made it out alive from high school, too. And now I’m in the big bad world of college. Middle schoolers understand that I have knowledge they have not.
Whereas I’m just as clueless as most high schoolers. We’d both be banging our head into the wall from not knowing which major to choose.
Middle schoolers don’t have to worry about majors or careers or the potentials of marriage just yet.
They do have real worries. But they’re of a different kind. And I feel a whole lot more equipped to bear those burdens with them than I do with high schoolers.
“Hey, you get made fun of wearing Crocs? It’s okay. You rock those Crocs. I’ll wear them, too” [high-five]
5. They boost my self-esteem.
They don’t know yet how awkward and strange I am because everyone older than them is automatically labeled as cool and awesome. When I stopped by my church to surprise visit the middle schoolers this past Sunday, I got about four or five hugs within the first five minutes as they were gushing about how much they missed me. And all I could think was, Man, I sure am awesome.
If I worked with high schoolers and came back to visit after a month of being gone, they’d probably look at me unimpressed, Starbucks in one hand and iPhone in the other. “Oh, hey… you’re back.” I know they would be nowhere near as excited because 1) I don’t have an Instagram and that automatically destroys my street cred, and 2) they have their own cool friends so why do they need me?
I’m not the cool older sister to high schoolers. I’m just the girl who’s slightly more mature and slightly older.
But with middle schoolers? I could tell them to jump off a bridge and they might actually do it. They’d think it was an improv game.
6. They’re disciplinable.
Tell a middle schooler to sit down and shut up, and they’ll do it. It’ll be a struggle for them at first because their mind is racing like 80 miles per hour, but they’ll be too intimidated to argue or blatantly disobey.
Tell a high schooler to sit down and shut up, and you get a whole lecture on how you’re not their mom and they don’t have to listen to you and they’re sick of people thinking they can disrespect them and they just need to fight the man.
You see, middle schoolers are trained to listen and respect. They haven’t yet entered the ninth grade, where all rebellion ensues and adults become the number one enemy.
7. They’re in danger.
Now I’m all for mentoring high schoolers as they deal with some of the most extreme pressures of life. High schoolers are automatically more susceptible to drugs, alcohol, temptations for impurity, self-harm, and rebellious behaviors simply because they have more access and more opportunities. They need support and encouragement and coaching.
But middle schoolers need encouragement and coaching, too, and it’s especially important this is not overlooked.
Middle schoolers can get into those kinds of harmful behaviors, but usually there’s not as much opportunity as there is for high schoolers, which is great! It means there’s still time to help them choose the better ways of life before they cross paths with such things. I want to walk with middle schoolers and see a love and reverence for God instilled in them before they reach those opportunities.
However, we live in a society where more and more dangerous things are being introduced into the lives of middle schoolers. Drugs are making their ways into these schools, the pressure to be skinny and fit in is at an all-time high, and there are more opportunities for stumbling into sin due to social media and changing standards of society.
We can guide and pour into high schoolers as they are inevitably surrounded by these things, but it’s also vital that we invest in middle schoolers and encourage them to stay on a righteous path BEFORE and RIGHT AS they are becoming surrounded by these things.
Middle schoolers are in danger, too.
8. It’s not hard to impress them.
Want to throw an event that is sure to impress middle schoolers? Have a DJ and free candy.
Want to throw an event that is sure to impress high schoolers? Have a DJ, free candy, glow sticks, paint ball, water fights, sumo wrestling, a celebrity appearance, and a hookah. I’m kidding about the last one.
It’s not that hard to impress middle schoolers because they haven’t seen it all yet.
9. They aren’t all over social media.
Sometimes I have to fight to get middle schoolers’ attention because they’re on Instagram or playing a game. But at least I’m not having to fight Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, AND texts from fifty boys, which is sort of how I feel when I’m trying to talk to a high schooler.
10. They’re just fun.
I LOVE working with middle schoolers because they know how to be fun. Yes, a part of them is scared of standing out and being judged by their peers. But once they get past that feeling of awkwardness, they really do know how to be fun and comfortably crazy. I like seeing them that way because it gives ME permission to have fun, too. We’re weird together, we laugh together, we play games together, and we randomly dance together. It’s just the middle school way of life. And right now that’s all I need.
I know that some people prefer high school ministry to middle school ministry because high schoolers are less hyper and tend to be more serious, but I am all for that hyperactivity and less serious stuff. Those things really are great, too.
I like being able to walk into the middle school room and see kids playing ping pong while screaming at their top of their lungs. It’s wild, but it gives me a boost of life. So I run up to them and yell “HEEEEEYYYYY!!!” right back. They love that.
I like that things tend to be less serious because it keeps me young and refreshed. Working with high schoolers sometimes hurt. It’s hard to pour yourself into a high school girl as she deals with depression and struggles with her purity. You so badly want to see her free from that stuff while knowing you can’t ultimately change her mind or her life. No matter how consistent you are with your encouragement and prayer, there are those who will walk away from their faith in the course of their high school career. And it will be painful to watch. Many will graduate and go off to college and leave this town behind without second thought.
I just want to thank you, high school leaders and mentors. Thank you so much for pouring into high schoolers because it DOES make a difference. We need you. You are an important part of the body. You are helping raise up leaders, the next generation of world-changers. You deal with hard stuff, but you don’t quit on your kids. Just as Jesus has never quit on us.
And middle schooler leaders and mentors, thank you for embarking on the crazy, sugared-up adventure that is known as middle school ministry. People won’t always understand why you work with this demographic, but I do. It IS rewarding. Sometimes the greatest results aren’t seen, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t making a great impact. Middle school is treacherous, too, but having leaders like you working in a safe, God-filled place like church gives kids the freedom to still enjoy being kids.
Both ministries are needed. And sometimes middle school ministry gets discounted. But here me out when I say that it’s the one of my favorite things in this world, and I can’t imagine trading it out for anything else right now. When you see God move, you realize ministry is a lot bigger than you. Middle school ministry is no exception.
It’s bigger than me, and I am enjoying and learning from just about every second of it.
Clarkston, Georgia is the epitome of diversity. If you ask me, it’s comparable to being at the airport, the Olympics, or a United Nations meeting. There are people from literally all across the globe. But the thing about Clarkston is that here you find people of all ages from all different countries living in the same CITY. In the same apartment complex, even. When I step outside of my apartment, I can run into a Nepali man in a colorful wrap skirt, an Iraqi woman wearing her burqa, a Somalian family piling into a worn-down sedan, and a swarm of barefoot Eritrean kids within just a few yards. This is Clarkston life.
Clarkston is this way because it was chosen a while ago to be the relocation center for millions of refugees coming into America. These refugees come from lives of chaos, danger, persecution, and rough conditions in countries such as Iraq, Iran, Bhutan, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Afghanistan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda. And they’re squeezed together into this one square mile south of Atlanta.
A lot of the refugees here aren’t fluent in English or even know the alphabet. They struggle to find jobs and pay rent. Homesickness is the least of their worries. They come here with nothing and are expected to thrive when the most they can do under this pressure and in their situation is simply SURVIVE.
I’m spending my summer in Clarkston (for the second time) because 1) these refugees need love, and 2) these refugees need Jesus. I’m working with an organization that strives to provide those two things in the form of ESL classes, summer camps for kids, gardening, prayer, and day-to-day conversations.
But not until today did it occur to me that they have something to offer me, as well.
This morning, my roommate Hannah and I stumbled across a scene we had never seen: an Iraqi woman with her young daughter, an Eritrean woman with her special needs son, and a Nepali woman with her infant… sitting on the same bench and conversing. We approached the three women and joined in on their conversation to the best of our ability. Do you know what they were talking about? How much our apartment complex stinks. They’re unhappy with the complex manager and how they’re treated. With kids in lap, through broken English and thick accents, they were engaging in a dialogue about these irritating and discouraging experiences.
And there was something beautiful about the way these three very different women were taking turns shaking their heads in disbelief, nodding in agreement, and sharing these burdens. Never mind the fact they come from various war-torn countries and different faiths and backgrounds. They just wanted to sit together and bond as next-door neighbors, as mothers.
In that moment I felt like I knew nothing.
I’m a not-even-twenty-year-old who has much to learn about independence, financial burdens, marriage, and raising a family. If I were to sit with two women of my choosing, it’d be women my own age who have no children, no real responsibility. Our greatest burdens would be choosing a major or dealing with our protective parents. And I don’t say that to talk down those burdens. I say that to show how much I have left to experience and learn.
Who am I to think that I’m here in Clarkston to solely teach and to change lives? No. I’m also here to have MY life changed by these refugees.
I don’t want to let my pride prevent real friendships from forming while I’m in Clarkston.
I want what those three women had: common ground forged in even the mundane trials of life.
I want to knock on that Iraqi woman’s door and ask her to show me the way of motherhood. How do you raise three children? How do you carve time for your marriage? When you’re a stay-at-home mom, do you struggle to find purpose?
I want to sit down with that Eritrean mom and hear her experience of having a special needs son. Were you scared? Are you still? How does it change you?
And then I want to spend time with the Nepali woman and her infant son and see how a love for a newborn grows from the start. What was it like when you first took him home from the hospital? What are your dreams for his life?
And then I’d ask them all about living. Not just living as a refugee, but day-to-day living. Is it hard to pray and pursue God in the busyness of life? Do you have unrealized dreams and how do you cope with that? How do you get stains out of clothing?
I know nothing. And these women know something. Instead of trying to teach, I think it’s time to learn.
And while doing that, perhaps I’ll be opening up doors for giving them the two things I still want to offer: love and Jesus.
I’ll keep you updated on how this goes. I’m nervous, but excited. Maybe I’m on the right track here.
Right now I am in Clarkston, Georgia, the most diverse square mile in America. It’s true.
I’m working with an organization that is aimed at serving refugees and sharing the gospel with unreached people groups. It’s amazing work, my friends. I can’t brag enough about the selfless, life-giving work being done here in Clarkston.
I worked with this same organization two years ago and I finally decided this past January that it was time to return.
For the next few months I get to play a role in what’s been unfolding here for years with the help of so many hands, tears, smiles, and acts of love from all over the world. This is a community, a beautiful family that just wants Jesus to be made known. And I, Jessie, get to contribute something, too. I get to pour my heart out into this mission. I get to be a part of what God’s doing in Clarkston and in the lives of these refugees.
And what I want to share with you right now is one of the things I love most about Clarkston.
I love that people are recognized.
And I don’t mean the sort of recognition where everyone stands up around you and applauds the great things you have done. No, this is the sort of recognition where you’re just known. You’re not a stranger. Your stories, your past, your gifts, and your vision are known and cherished by the people who serve alongside you.
In Clarkston, sacred memories are made, each one serving as a reminder that you are loved, you are appreciated, you are known.
Sacred memories like the one of four of my roommates huddled around me and praying over me on the floor of our living room as I cried over a break-up I didn’t know how to cope with. It didn’t matter that I had just met them the week before. They recognized my pain. My hurt and my burdens were welcomed there.
Sacred memories like the one of having my feet washed, reminiscent of the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus. This person, this strong servant of Christ, knelt on his knees before me and washed my dirty feet. He wanted to anoint me for a greater mission, a mission I couldn’t fathom myself. He saw Jesus in me. He saw a calling in me. Even the things I felt unworthy of were recognized in me by others.
Sacred memories like the one of neighborhood kids screaming my name as I step outside my apartment each day. I felt like a celebrity. I felt like a big sister. All I had ever done was remember their names and play with them, and that was all they needed. They recognized the love I had for them and they reciprocated.
Sacred memories like the one of my friend and I sitting on the couch in our apartment, sharing our deepest thoughts and feelings as we read together through the book of James. I was fascinated by her life and she was fascinated by mine. We wanted to know each other’s past and present so we could support and encourage each other in the present and future. We weren’t there to teach or to gain. We were there to listen and give. The value of her story was recognized by me, and the value of my story was recognized by her.
Sacred memories like the one of crying in the arms of two beautiful ladies as we were all just completely moved by Jesus. I don’t even know why we were all crying, to be honest. But there we were, praying and crying and wiping our noses. This fellowship we had, this honest and freeing relationship between us three women in that moment, demonstrated just how deeply Jesus can forge love between those who are willing to know and be known by others.
These are just a few of the memories I hold on to from that summer I spent in Clarkston two long years ago.
Now there are new sacred memories to be made.
I’ve been here for three days and I see it beginning again already.
Not every neighborhood kid remembers me, but there are the few who do. I see the recognition in their eyes as connections are being made. I’m somewhere in their memories, maybe some of their own sacred ones. They call out my name as I step outside my apartment, just as before. It almost feels like I never left.
I felt recognized for the briefest of moments last night as a girl I had met just days before touched my shoulder and asked if I had eaten dinner.
The staff I work with remember little things about me, things I thought maybe wouldn’t be worth mentioning after two years of absence. They remember and recognize my gifts and abilities. I am celebrated.
These little things I hold sacred because they are some of the truest demonstrations of the power of recognition. I am moved by these moments because they whisper, “Jessie, I know you and you are loved.”
And I’ve decided this will be my task for the summer while I’m here: to recognize those around me.
I am not a great missionary. I don’t really know how to share the gospel and I’m awful at discipleship. The fact I didn’t come back to Clarkston to visit during the two years I was gone speaks of the lack of drive and dedication I tend to have. I feel guilty because I know I am a college student stuck in comfort, easy living, and non-committed relationships. I keep to myself because it’s comfortable here. And I can’t guarantee that I’ll branch out enough to truly change the life of any of these refugees this summer.
But what I know how to do is recognize people. I remember names and stories. I like to listen. I like to encourage. And sometimes that’s all a person needs.
I want to be the breath of fresh air to the people I’m working with and to the people I’m serving.
I won’t have the most eloquent speeches planned out, and I don’t have much advice to give. But I can give my heart and let people give theirs. I want people to be recognized here because I’ve seen how it changes lives. It’s changed mine.
Please pray for me as I continue on this journey here in Clarkston. I don’t really know what the summer will contain, but I earnestly desire fruit to come out of my time here. I don’t want to be a waste of space, time, or money, so I am praying that I figure out my niche and how I can serve. Most of all, I want to do those things, whatever they may be, wholeheartedly. I want to wholeheartedly love.
Thank you to all who have recognized me and are continually encouraging me. We need people like you. More people need to be recognized. They’re all around you, just begging to be noticed and heard. Continue to be those eyes and ears.
And if you know how to create, then be a mouthpiece, too.
The medium I choose is words, but it’s not the only one.
Let’s continue recognizing each other. In this forgetful, neglectful world, we need it.
On my dresser mirror in large font, I have written in Expo marker the following statement:
“The foundation of ministry is character. The nature of ministry is service. The motive of ministry is love. The measure of ministry is sacrifice. The authority of ministry is submission. The purpose of ministry is the glory of God. The tools of ministry are the Word and prayer. The privilege of ministry is personal growth. The power of ministry is the Holy Spirit. The model of ministry is Jesus Christ.”
When I first stumbled across that quote, I absolutely loved it. I wanted it to be displayed as a reminder of my goal and passion for ministry, something to live by and encourage me. After a few weeks, however, it no longer registered as there. Now when I check my reflection in the mirror, I look past the words. I must pass it at least 10 times a day, yet not once since its discovery have I actually really let it sink in. That is, until today. When I happened to glance over at the mirror today, I was surprised there were words I don’t even notice half the time. I began to read. That’s when it hit me- If this is what I say I want to do and this is who I say I want to be, why am I not really striving for that goal?
In the distant future, I see myself accomplishing all my dreams and being an amazing woman of God. Right now, I find myself not taking many steps to actually get there. I think that amidst all the high school drama and freedom from any heavy responsibilities, I’ve forgotten the distance I still need to cover to reach my goal in life. I want to live for the glory of God, but I’ve put it off as something to do in the future when I have time and money and I’m not just a kid. What I don’t realize is that every single one of those traits listed above are something I could be exemplifying now. For the most part, I just choose not to.
If the foundation of ministry is character, am I actively molding my character to build a worthy ministry?
If the nature of ministry is service, am I involved in helping others and am I gaining more wisdom and love for others through experience?
If the motive of ministry is love, am I loving others in such a way that people see Jesus through me?
If the measure of ministry is sacrifice, am I giving up the things I love and cherish to help build His kingdom and display His glory?
If the purpose of ministry is the glory of God, am I not at all seeking worldly riches and fame through my work and service for others?
If the tools of ministry are the Word and prayer, am I continuously using these to gain more wisdom and understanding to bring others closer to God?
If the privilege of ministry is personal growth, am I going to never subconsciously preach something without taking it to heart?
If the power of ministry is the Holy Spirit, am I completely trusting my life to the Holy Spirit instead of believing I can accomplish something apart from God?
If the model of ministry is Jesus Christ, am I pointing to Him?
Right now, the answer is no for the majority of these questions. But by surrendering to God and using the time and skills I have now to build what I dream of accomplishing, I can transform the answer for each question to a yes. Throughout my day, I want to remember who I’m living for and what I can be doing at that very moment to bring myself closer to where I one day strive to be. I know God has an amazing plan for me, and by continuously seeking His will and trusting Him with every aspect of my life, I will slowly but surely be shaped into the woman I know I’m meant to be. I still have quite a distance to cover, but I have no doubt in my mind that I can do this.