Middle schoolers lead the way in disciplemaking

So often in middle school ministry, we don’t get much beyond games and general early adolescent craziness.


I contend it’s because we don’t expect much out of middle schoolers. And guess what happens? We get exactly what we expect…not much.

But there is a better way.

Consider the Equip training experience. It’s 2-3 days of encouraging and equipping middle school students to make disciples who make more disciples.

Yes, I said middle school students and disciplemaking in the same sentence.

I know, right?

For some unfortunate reason, middle school students are often regarded as the ugly step-child of youth ministry.

I couldn’t disagree more.

When it comes to disciplemaking like Jesus, I think middle school students can lead the way for high school students and adults.

(Yeah…you’ll probably need to reread that sentence again.) I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. And it thrills my soul.

Okay, let me just say it: After 35 years of youth ministry in a wide variety of settings, I can honestly say Equip is the best disciplemaking training experience I’ve ever seen for middle schoolers.

You and the middle school students in your ministry are missing something very significant if they don’t experience Equip.

equip group middle schoolers

Click here to find out more about giving your middle schoolers an Equip experience.

The gift your students really want

[This post is part of our Batteries Included collection just for people who invest in disciplemaking with middle schoolers. If you’re a youth leader, parent or teacher who spends time with middle schoolers, this is for you. If you’re not—share it with a friend who is!]

Talking with middle schoolers can be overwhelming. I often find myself surrounded by a group of excited girls, all telling me a different story. Sometimes my ears get overloaded as I try to listen meaningfully to all of them at the same time.

In these moments, I’m struck by how deeply middle schoolers long to be listened to, to be valued, to know someone really cares about their lives. These moments make me wonder how often people really do listen to middle schoolers. How often do we, as adults, speak to them with compassion, not just correction or criticism.

The best gift: your ears

As an adult, one of the best gifts you can give middle schoolers is your ears! Here are 3 ways to give the gift of your ears—moving your conversations from casual to heart listening.


Listen more than you speak.

Listen to the kind of words students use. How do they talk about their families? Their friends? What emotions lie beneath their words? What do they share about how they view themselves?

Do you hear insecurity, arrogance, self-defeatism, confidence? What hopes and fears do they express in their stories, in their mannerisms?

Listening well will provide you a wealth of insight on how to love them.

Ask good questions!

Whether students are naturally chatty or reserved, asking great questions helps students share what’s really going on inside. Sometimes the most talkative students are the least likely to really open up. Filling the air with words can keep others from cracking the shell.


Look for open-ended questions—ones that require an answer other than “yes” or “no.” Jesus was a master at asking questions like this! Here are just a few from Cadre’s Ministry is Relationships training that will take your conversations below the surface:

  • What is one thing you would love to smash with a hammer if you would not get in trouble for it and why?
  • Who is crazy about you—and how does that person show it?
  • What story do you enjoy hearing your parents or other relatives tell about something YOU did or said when you were little?
  • What is the greatest misconception people have about you?
  • If you could wave a magic wand and have whatever you wished for in any part of your life, what would it be?
  • What do you think God’s opinion is of you? If you could read His mind, what would God be thinking of you right now?


At ministry events, talk to students more than you talk to other adults.

This is so important. If you spend more time talking with your own friends and peers, students may feel like you aren’t interested in them. While high school students may be more interested in “space” from adults, typically younger ones crave attention from grown-ups. Listening to them is truly one of the best gifts you can give them.

Want to help your team grow in your heart listening skills? Ministry is Relationships is a great place to start. Contact us to find out more.



Taking a missions trip home

Many of us get excited about the opportunities of summer ministry – especially missions trips. And rightly so. It can be a life-changing experience for you and your students. After we get home, we’re excited about giving even more students an experience in missions.

A world beyond

If you’re like me, you’re constantly wanting to expose your students to the world beyond themselves. Middle schoolers can be self-centered. Thinking of others as more important than self (Philippians 2) is a quality we pray for middle schoolers often—and a missions trip is a great way to help students grow in their concern for others.

And yet…overseas trips are typically off-limits for such young students. Even out-of-town trips can be expensive or beyond parents’ comfort level. Often our churches simply don’t have the funds or leadership in place for a missions trip every year.

But we don’t want our kids to miss out on the exposure, the people, the time with God and the friendships we experienced on a trip. I am different because of these times captured in my heart and mind, and I want our students to experience this change, too. But how do we make a missions trip happen when the church is in a financial crunch or students aren’t able to earn enough money to go?

Taking a trip without the travel

A few years ago, this was the cry of my heart for our students! I spent much time in prayer, fasting and sitting quietly before God, seeking his way for our summer of middle school ministry. And God began to give me the idea for a missions trip at home.

A “Missions at Home” trip costs little money and little of you! High school students, parents and other leaders can simply come alongside you to make sure the experience is one to last a lifetime. That summer God gave me a passion for reaching our community for Christ like never before.

What is your heart’s cry for your students to experience next summer? What is God nudging you to do about it?

Becoming a safe place

[Psst, here’s a secret: Middle schoolers are some of our favorite people. This post is part of our Batteries Included collection just for people who invest in this awkward, amazing age group. f you’re a youth leader, parent or teacher who spends time with middle schoolers, this is for you. If you’re not—share it with a friend who is!]

I often challenge our middle school students to make our group their safe place. They get cut-down and kicked around enough everywhere else. As people of God, we’re called to be different—to be full of the grace and truth of Jesus. This is a brand new concept for most middle schoolers.

Following Jesus isn’t “safe”—it’s full of risk and adventure. But fostering an accepting, loving environment gives students the courage to trust the dangerous message of Christ.

(Actually, I think this is the same for adults.)

And if we’re going to follow Jesus together, we need to build an environment of trust and kindness—the kind that flows out of mutual community.

I know, I know, this all sounds good…except that I mentioned this is middle schoolers we’re talking about, right???

You might think it’s impossible for middle schoolers to be nice to each other.

It’s not!

Pulling students in from the fringe

It does, however, take a lot of prayer, patience and intentionality on your part. The prayer and patience are easy enough to understand. So how can we be purposeful about helping students feel safe in our midst?

  1. Introduce students to each other. You may know all of them, but do they know each other? Don’t assume. Play name games. Show core students how to walk over and introduce themselves to new students by doing it with them.
  2. Play games that build bonds rather than break them. We seldom use elimination games that quickly disengage half the group. It’s not because I no longer believe in competition—it’s because students get bored when you cut them out of the game. Instead of eliminating, you can give students “disabilities” like using only one foot, running backwards or being blindfolded to penalize but keep them participating. Competition can build great bonds, especially if teams are working together toward a shared goal.
  3. Model words of kindness, encouragement and hope, and help your other leaders guard their sarcasm. When you hear students tearing each other down, challenge them on it! Cut-downs are second nature for many middle schoolers. They need help recognizing what’s not okay to say to each other. Just be careful that the way you challenge them still models the compassion you want them to have!

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8

equip sign, middle school

Want to Equip your middle schoolers to help create a safe place for following Jesus together? Find out how!

Disciplemaking through games

Sure, games are great way for your students to burn energy before you get into a lesson—and they need it. They’re also fun! But ministry is about making disciples, not “fun and games.” So what’s the point? Is game time just a thing you have to do to get students to calm down—or are there other reasons to spend your precious time planning games every week?


What if your games were all part of disciplemaking in your ministry? What if they could help your students and leaders follow Jesus together?

Younger students, especially middle schoolers, are at the height of insecurity and confusion about who they are. Their relationships are often complicated, awkward and emotional. They often start asking big questions about God. But games can help students grow toward mutual community as they learn to depend on each other.

The best games are not only fun; they help us make disciples by

  1. Breaking down barriers
  2. Building trust
  3. Building confidence
  4. Illustrating biblical truths

Bonus: Check out these TED talks on how taking time to play is good for us.


Study & Share tool: Romans 12:9-21

Read it together and discuss: How can playing together help us live out this passage? Then, brainstorm & dig to create a list of games that will help you reach your game goals.

So games are totally worth it—but if you want to suppport disciplemaking, avoid games that…

1. Embarrass or mock students. If we’re doing a game that could be especially messy or put a student on the spot, I let them volunteer to be embarrassed. If they’re choosing to let others decorate their face like a frosted cookie, they’re much more likely to enjoy it and not feel humiliated by it.

2. Isolate students. A lot of games are elimination based, and this is one of the quickest ways you can lose students’ attention. There are ways to tweak elimination games to keep everyone involved instead of leaving them to roam awkwardly while the game continues. In a large enough group, you may be able to draw the eliminated in to cheer on who’s remaining. In our smaller group setting, this almost never works.

But you can change the rules to make it work. For example, at the point where a student should be eliminated, you can instead give them a handicap (“Okay Ben, now you have to play with your eyes closed / standing on one foot” etc.) Or, come up with a “silver bracket” where the eliminated can keep playing.

3. Are more about competition than about fun and connecting. Keeping score is a great way to keep students engaged in the game, but don’t make winning more important than the people who are playing.