I recently came across a book as I was doing some research in the area of middle school ministry. The main premise of the book is that many students have determined what they believe about God and the Bible by end of middle school! Finally, someone had the research to back up what I knew to be true! I knew as a middle school pastor that students were making up their mind about the faith much earlier than their college years! I was so glad to finally have this research, but to my horror it was written in 2009!
Ken Ham and Britt Beemer published a book by the name Already Gone. I do not have much memory about it or the interest surrounding it, because I began my ministry in 2010. I was 23, married for a month, just got my bachelors, and was ready to be a youth pastor. I had so much more to learn, that if you had told me how much I would have been offended. Maybe you did, and I wish I would have listened better back then. The research interviewed students from evangelical churches who had at one point attended church. The purpose was to find commonality for why they were leaving. 95% of these students attended in the elementary and middle school years, and only 55% of them attending during high school (31). This means that nearly 50% of students turned away from the faith before 9th grade. 40% of the students left during high school and a small 10% left during college (31). This means that the majority of students left before the completion of middle school.
However, I was not the only one to not heed the words of this book. This research is now 11 years old, and sadly I have seen few churches and thus few families put the lessons from this book to good use. Think about how you family discussions at the dinner table might would change if you knew that your children will statistically have made up their minds about faith by the age of 13. What would you choose to talk about? How would you interact with them? Would you have an intentional plan for what and when you would communicate to your children?
If you are a pastor at a church, how is your ministry engaging this critical time in the lives of their students? What I see most churches do is they eat, excite, and entertain this age. They do not think that middle school students are asking deep theological questions. Instead, many youth pastors prefer to have debates with teens and college students about such topics. Meanwhile, we haven’t asked the question why this is problematic. The reason we are debating these things with students in their high school and college years is because we casually neglected them in their middle school years. Unbeknownst to many youth pastors, these students are associating the faith with the pizza parties of their middle school years not with the apologetic debates of their high school years.
This is one of the main reasons I love middle school ministry, because I view this as the most important time for discipleship. This is the perfect opportunity for parents to have meaningful conversations with their children. I believe there are 3 keys to reversing this trend.
- Be Honest and Transparent
Your faith is not always perfect. You have doubts about God, because everyone does. Your faith has been shaken very likely because of circumstances in your own life. Be honest with your kids about your struggles. Of course you need to keep it age appropriate, but I promise you, our children are likely not as naive as we want them to be.
2. Invite Questions
Some faith systems do not allow doubter’s questions, much less invite them. Instead, I believe we should encourage our children to ask hard questions of God. If we discourage it, then we send the message that the Bible and our faith are unable to stand up to criticism. If we invite the questions it displays our confidence in our faith that it is reasonable. If your kids do not bring up the questions, then you can. Break the ice by raising a question that makes them think.
3. Find Answers Together
When you are honest and invite questions, there will be times that you will not know the answer. That is fine, because now you have to opportunity to grow in your faith with your child. Pretending to know the answers when you do not only exposes you and presents faith as weak. However, when you seek to find the answer with your child, your maintain your confidence in Scripture and God, but you also disciple them in how to find the answers as well. You cannot face all the answers because your life has an expiration date. Eventually, you need your children to be able to grow in their faith without you and become a mature Christian! One day they will have to do the same for your grandchildren.
In the middle school ministry at Fruit Cove Baptist, we seek to accomplish all of these things. We seek to be honest but also to invite questions and to seek out answers. This has led to some amazing conversations with students that has led to greater faith. An unanticipated consequence is how more willing students are to share their faith with their peers. I believe this is because students are more willing to share their faith when their faith has been tested and proven as reasonable. Food for thought!