A Small Group Strategy For Middle School Ministry

Youth Specialties
January 4th, 2016

I love middle school students. I just do. They’re some of my favorite people on the planet. I love their raw honesty. I love their here-and-now approach to life. I love them . . . and they drive me nuts!

I want to lead them well, but they have an amazing way of exposing my weakness as a leader. It’s frustrating, as I desperately want to help them to connect with Christ and Scripture. I can assure you that they have taught me more about leading groups than I ever learned in college or seminary.

I’m not a social scientist, but I am observant. I have discovered a “flow” of sorts to an hour-long encounter with middle school students, whether it’s through Sunday school, Bible study, or what one would consider a discipleship group. This flow has been helpful to me in terms of being patient as these young people are drawn into connection with Scripture.

The Bad News: “40 Minutes of Hell”

Each small group encounter with middle school kids involves what I call “40 minutes of hell.” This is a term I stole that was used by the Arkansas basketball program in the 90s when Nolan Richardson was their coach. Richardson committed to having his players in top physical condition in order to apply the maximum amount of defensive pressure during a game. He would spend the first 40 minutes of practice making his players avoid the basketball and focus on conditioning.

In a similar way, I have discovered that things go best for me as a leader when I allow the students to avoid content for a while and instead focus on “conditioning” or emotionally checking in with the group.

It’s difficult for me as a leader. I want to quickly move to content. I am ready. For me, this is 40 minutes of hell. For the students it’s fun!

The First 20 Minutes: Testing the Water

Give the first 20 minutes away. Let them chat—they’re going to anyway. They’re reconnecting with one another and warming up socially. Years ago I heard someone say—and I believe it to my core, because I have seen it time after time—“A student is not theologically aware until they are emotionally safe.” Much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we cannot avoid the early stages of group “conditioning” and expect something significant to happen later.

While they’re chatting, take the time to listen. Listen to the content of their conversations and their jokes, and also read body language. You can learn a lot during this early time if you allow them the space and time to check in. Because you know the content of the Bible study portion, look for connections to the content that you can refer to later. 

The Second 20 Minutes: Wading In

Begin a “soft” launch of your content. Say something like, “During the conversation earlier, I heard_________. It’s interesting that was mentioned, because our Bible study mentions that today.” Focus the group attention on small bites of Scripture or a Bible story. Instead of having everyone read a Scripture and letting the group comment on it, I prefer for everyone to turn to (or pull up on their phones) the same Scripture. Camp there for a while. Embrace the chaos of giggling and shifting. Be patient. Avoid lecture. Ask a lot of questions related to your topic. Give scenarios regarding how to apply the teaching of the Scripture to their lives. Let the discussion flow, and be patient. Did I mention, be patient!?

10 Minutes: Diving Deep

Without exception, when you wade through the first difficult 40 minutes, the group will be rewarded. A magic moment will come as spirit touches spirit, and in will flow a fresh insight or application point that can only come from the mouth of a middle school student. I have had numerous volunteers witness this happening and say, “Wow that went much deeper than I thought it would!” The moment will happen when we allow it to form. If we try to force this moment, we will likely be rewarded with “parroted” answers as student try to give us what they believe we want to hear. Your patience and lack of anxiety about “getting to the point” will invite real thoughtfulness and discernment among the group.

The Last 10 Minutes: Resurfacing

Enjoy the moment, for they will surface soon! Use your last 10 minutes to help the group tie what they learned to a present circumstance, personal change, or a spiritual discipline. Then close in prayer.


In short, good middle school ministry is about understanding and honoring what the students need above what we want. Our 40 minutes of hell is their invitation to connect with Christ in a way that is most helpful to them. Embrace the chaos!

ysblog spacer

Tony AkersTONY AKERS has been in ministry to youth and families in large and small churches for 25 years. He is a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary and just entered his 12th year serving as the Minister to Youth and Families at Trinity United Methodist Church in Huntsville, Alabama. Tony also serves as a youth ministry coach and writes fairly frequently at WWW.STUDENTMINISTRYSOLUTIONS.COM

Youth Specialties

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.