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Letter to a Volunteer in Preteen Ministry

To the person interested in helping out in preteen ministry,

Preteen ministry is a blast. And the preteen years have incredible potential for spiritual growth. If you are interested in helping with this age group, then as a preteen minister, I would like to share some of what I’ve learned.

I was talking recently with a friend about my passion for preteen ministry and how much I enjoy working with 4th and 5th grade students. He then asked me,

“What advice would you give someone who used to work with high schoolers but is now coming to help with preteens?”

That got me thinking. I wanted to expound on how preteens are unique in their in-between-ness. How they are wonderfully placed in the more-than-childhood and less-than-adolescence ages and how that season is primed for faith to become owned for the first time. How we’re ministering to upper elementary in tailored ways similar to how churches fairly recently began serving middle school students. I wanted to wave my banner about the potential of preteens, but that didn’t quite answer the question.

But I decided that the best advice I can give is…

Be sensitive.

Be sensitive to their embarrassment. High school students and many middle school students typically have a developed sense of humor and can have fun with silly games or messy antics. Preteens do not want to be embarrassed.

That is why when it comes to preteen ministry, if we have a messy or foolish game planned, our willing adult leaders will gladly take the pie in the face. When we ask for answers to questions, we are careful to be sensitive to all answers and try to call out the good in their thinking even if they’re missing the mark by a little.

Most high school ministry is voluntary, whereas preteen ministry, if it is a part of your children’s ministry, is still compulsory.

Parents are still dropping their kids off for your service. So if you’re working with preteens, you’ll want to enjoy the ease of regular attendees, but be aware that you have kids in your room who may not have wanted to be there.

Your job is to create a space where they move from “have to” to “get to.”

With preteen ministry, if your kids don’t like what you’re doing, they may start to attend adult services with their parents. While that’s great for some kids, that will often lead to a disconnect with their peers, and they may never feel the need to continue into youth ministry as a middle school student.

Moving from being a concrete thinker to an abstract thinker means your preteens will have doubts.

They are questioning everything they’ve been taught about everything, examining each belief and priority, deciding whether this is something they’re going to keep or throw away as they make choices for themselves.

Preteens need a safe place to ask the question, “Do I believe in God?” They need someone who knows their name to tell them that God is strong enough to handle their toughest questions. Be sensitive to their struggle.

Be sensitive to their deep sense of justice.

This is especially true of 4th grade students who are still concrete thinkers. If something is not fair, then they. May. Lose. It. For instance, we just finished a series on “honor” where we had a special VIP section in our room. Grade-based small groups won the privilege of spending large group time in a roped off section with pillows to sit on and juice boxes and a large bag of dum dums.

Two weeks in a row, 5th grade boys won the game and the perks of VIP. That led to some seriously hurt feelings. Unfairness was keenly felt by the less mature in the room. In week 3, two other grades tied for VIP. That should have helped alleviate a lot of the hard feelings. But no. A fight broke out between two VIP boys over pillows. Yep. Tears, accusations, trying to push each other, all the drama.

Should we have avoided this privilege all together because a few people couldn’t handle the nature of special treatment? I was seriously questioning my judgment. After settling down and hearing both parties in the hall during a video teaching, our children’s minister got on stage and reminded the kids that all month we’ve been learning about honor. Yet it wasn’t about our own honor, he explained, but about trying to honor others more than ourselves, and the whole room had failed. He turned the situation into a teachable moment on how any one of them could have given up their VIP status for another but didn’t.

As he talked, I could see some of the concrete breaking in front of my eyes. Winning and losing isn’t everything. How I treat others matters more.

Being sensitive to their sense of fairness, I informed the kids that the one group that hadn’t yet earned VIP status will automatically get it the next week, and the whole room breathed a little easier.

So while I would ask someone used to working with older teens to be sensitive to the unique heart of a preteen, I would also be so glad for that volunteer to call my kids higher. Shake up their thinking and show them there is always another choice.

If you love Jesus, and you can learn some names, and you’re willing to look a fool so upper elementary kids will feel like they belong in your environment, then preteen ministry might be the place for you.

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