I asked five preteen ministry friends from five different areas of the country about what challenges they feel preteens face. The answers were enough to keep me up late at night thinking about the preteen world and how to build some confidence and structure into their unsure insecure worlds. What are the challenges for your students?
Mike Sheley, a preteen pastor in Indianapolis, described the demands of extra-curricular activities. By fifth and sixth grade, our students who have been playing sports are already being asked to choose one sport and focus on it so they’ll become outstanding. This is an age when students are just beginning to develop an understanding of themselves and need the opportunity to experiment. Instead, they’re expected to think like adults and make long-range choices rather than just playing like a kid.
Divorce is also a big challenge according to Mike. What preteens really need is stability. So many families today are struggling or being divided by divorce. Recent brain studies have shown that major disruptions in a student’s life actually retard (or even stop) brain development for a time. So, it’s not just the relational havoc of a divided family that affects our preteens, it’s also their neurological development.
Chip Henderson, a preteen pastor in southern California says the biggest challenge for preteens is understanding who they are in Christ. Wow, think how different the world would be if our students actually did understand this! He mentioned, too, about how they’re just learning about the impact of their words. They can say the meanest things, then add “jk.” Only, it’s not taken as kidding. No one is sure if it was meant to be serious or fun. You can probably give several examples of this from your preteen ministry just this week.
Katie Gerber, a preteen pastor in Maryland, said that friendship is a big challenge. Preteens are beginning to move from their early elementary best friend to a new stage of friendship—the stage where they begin figuring out what gifts and talents and interests they have in common with other people.
Another challenge in Katie’s ministry is social media. Her preteens are beginning to text and figure out the ramifications of their immediate response to someone which often results in bullying, hurt feelings, and issues with parents. She just had a conversation with a preteen mom who had a sleepover and there was some preteen girl drama. After the sleepover, the mom made a comment to her daughter that maybe next time there should be only a couple of girls instead of a bunch. The daughter texted her friend saying, “My mom said that so-and-so can’t come over anymore.” That, of course, came back to the parent and now there are hurt feelings between parents and friends.
Sean Sweet, a preteen pastor in northern California, believes the biggest preteen challenges include those that confront their sense of competency. This can be anything from overbearing leadership to the fear of failure to bullies to threats in the world news. There are so many things that can inhibit their feeling of being able to accomplish their goals, the goals set for them by their parents, and the expectations at school and in sports. The media idolizes those with perfect bodies, voices, athletic ability, and courage. Preteens are self-aware enough to know that they fall short in every category.
Steven Dodrill, a preteen pastor in Colorado, echoed many of the same challenges. He added the pressure and anxiety from high standards at school (homework, grades, extra-curricular) and the mandated testing, of which there is a lot. Preteens are aware of family issues that are shared more freely these days (separation, divorce, family dysfunction, even sickness and death of relatives). They are overstimulated and over informed. Many parents outsource the parenting of their students to athletic coaches, teachers, and the church while they work multiple jobs and pursue careers. Preteens are getting older younger, so they’re struggling with acceptance and identity. And, they wrestle with their salvation, wondering if they’ve done enough (our performance-based culture) or prayed the right prayer or said the right words that will allow them to keep a gift that seems too good to be true. Most of these things result in fear, something most of us are familiar with if we’re honest.
We have an enormous ministry to students at a critical juncture in their lives. How can we possibly help our preteens address so many challenges? The answer is the same one our students learned in elementary Sunday school: Jesus. Only, we have to help them build on what they’ve learned. We need to help them get personal with Jesus, just like they’re learning to get personal with their friends. We need to help them think about and wrestle with their faith as their brains are beginning to think more abstractly. We need to challenge them to flex their faith muscles so they experience God at work in their lives. We need to challenge parents to walk with their preteens through these experiences and include Jesus in their lives at home. We have a perfect window of opportunity to lay a foundation of trust and faith in God that will stick with our students as they enter middle school, high school, and beyond. We can’t predict the challenges our students will face, but we can predict with confidence that God will go with them and help them encounter each one.