In Jeremiah 18, God reminds Jeremiah that we are clay in His hands. We’re being formed daily by God’s hand. So are our preteens. God created each of them from a unique blend of clay, with natural colors and textures. They’re not yet fully formed and they definitely haven’t been fired (though some of them have experienced the heat of disappointment and failed family relationships), and they haven’t been through the drying on a shelf (at least not the deserts that many of us adults have experienced). They’re made of good clay.
Though God is the ultimate shaper of every preteen’s soul, He has also given us responsibility by virtue of our calling. Parents have even more responsibility, but many have little clue about what that should look like because they never saw it modeled. Spiritual formation is an important matter. Here are some concepts as you think through how God wants you to build into the spiritual formation of your preteens.
Preteens are in the middle of the spiritual formation growing up scale in children’s/student ministry. Preschool and elementary years lay the groundwork: learning important Bible stories, memorizing popular Scriptures, learning songs about Jesus, and learning that God loves them and cares for them. Some kids will come knowing much more and some much less. Student ministry leaders hope that children’s ministry leaders send them students who are rock solid in their faith, sing Christian songs robustly, have the Bible memorized, routinely bring their friends to Christ and to church, and who willingly serve in their church and community.
If you’ve met with the leaders of both children’s and student ministry and have worked through a spiritual growth plan for all of the kids at your church, give yourself a pat on the back and treat yourself to your favorite coffee. If you haven’t, think about making this a goal in the next 12 months. With a team, answer questions like these for each age:
- What things should kids know about God?
- What should they know about the Bible?
- What should they understand about who they are and why they’re here?
- What should their relationships with God and others look like?
- What do they believe?
- How do they serve?
- What spiritual disciplines are most important and how do we model them?
- How will all of this be integrated into our ministry?
- How will parents be included?
- How will the rest of the church be included?
- How will we measure growth?
A preteen’s brain is rapidly developing but begins at different times and happens at different rates. Factors such as nutrition, what’s happening at home, how they’re being schooled, and even their birth order all affect when this happens and how quickly. What’s going on in those brains? Mostly, they’re maturing from concrete to abstract thinking. This greatly affects their spiritual formation. They’re starting to think of the how’s and why’s of Jesus’ life. They like thinking very big and very small. We need to capitalize on their new thinking to draw them into a closer relationship with Jesus. And, speaking of relationships, those become more important to preteens as their brains develop. We can help them form relationships with God, their family, and their peers.
We’re all familiar with the hierarchy of learning which moves from concrete to abstract thinking. We all try to help our students think more abstractly by asking good thinking questions like: How does this apply in your life? Why do you think Jesus talked about this? How effective would this be at your school today? What would this parable look/sound like today? Asking these kinds of questions help students weigh and apply their faith.
And we all want our preteens to own their faith, don’t we? That’s the main point of spiritual formation. Have you heard of Krathwohl’s affective hierarchy? He states that we begin caring about something when we just pay attention (willing to listen). We move from there to responding (singing praise songs at church, asking/answering questions), then valuing (making a commitment to follow Jesus, bringing friends to church, voluntarily setting aside time for personal prayer/Bible study), then organization (starting a small group at school or home, independently planning for personal faith growth, volunteering to serve), and finally being characterized by something (integrating faith into all areas of life, wrestling with what he/she believes, owning a ministry initiative).
How do we move our students from merely attending our ministry because their parents make them to being characterized by their love for God? Krathwohl’s lens is just one lens. You might look at the opportunities you have for preteens to come to church for the first time with some level of comfort. Once they’ve come, what is your plan to move them to the next level? What does this level look like? Is it just coming back on Sunday? Then what do you want them to do next? And next? In any case, be sure you have the end goal in mind. What matters most?
Then, there are spiritual disciplines. You can go online and find all kinds of lists. Are you going to choose just a couple of disciplines, helping your students make those a true discipline/habit? Or are you going to introduce them to many of them so they can choose which ones will work best in their lives? There are ones that focus inward like prayer, meditation, and Bible study. There are ones that usually require group participation like confession, worship, and fellowship. There are other disciplines that focus on others like service, submission, and sacrifice. Do you want to expose students to one or more in each of these areas or are there ones that resonate most with your ministry focus? Discipline is often a word we avoid because it seems so difficult and negative. But spiritual disciplines are really life-giving and rewarding. Your preteens will need help getting started though. How will you model them? How will you bring them to life and demonstrate their positive side? How will you celebrate them?
Many churches celebrate spiritual growth milestones. Some have one every year or two. Others have only a couple between infancy and high school. Do you celebrate baptism? First Communion? Accepting Christ? Receiving a Bible from the church? Joining the church? Coming of age? Graduating from high school? These sorts of celebrations point to key times in spiritual growth. They’re great opportunities to include parents and help them understand how to build into their student’s life.
Understanding the preteen and how they are developing offers us clues as to how we can contribute to the shaping of their souls. It’s a unique time in life when things are rapidly changing and life-directing decisions are being made.