When I first started working with middle schoolers, other youth ministers were quick to give me praise. “Oh, you work with middle school? God bless you!” “It takes such a special person to work with that age!” “I could never do that. You must be some kind of saint!”
No, I am not a saint. Yet. Maybe someday when the good Lord has factored in my many years of servitude, I mean service, with middle schoolers, and given me time off in Purgatory. Truthfully, I love working with middle school. They are such an incredibly fun age to plan activities for because they are generally not “too cool for school” yet and they still like to have fun without worrying too much about peer perception. They also continue to surprise me with the depth of their faith.
Recently I added our parish’s elementary youth ministry to my plate. I’m not sure what I was thinking. Perhaps I have a brain tumor. Pray for me. Here are some valuable lessons I have learned in my three short months in this new role:
- You cannot simply use games that satisfy middle schoolers and hope to get the same results from your elementary students.
- If you leave bean bags anywhere in the vicinity, elementary kids will find them and throw them. At anything.
- Things that should use up 15 minutes of your scheduled programming will now only be reliable for 5-6 minutes tops.
- Elementary age are the SLOWEST eaters in the world (except maybe toddlers) which is great because see #3.
Ultimately and unsurprisingly, our faith is not one size fits all. We have two thousand years of Church history and the Bible alone lays out the rich complexities of what it means to follow Christ. I can only hope to pass on one message of His – you are worthy and you are loved.
If there is just one most important message I would share with every 1st-8th grader who passes through my program it would be the message of our Father’s love for them. Young or old, every person needs to hear that they are loved by God. This message will never grow tired no matter how many times we say it. The proof lies in our brokenness. We are broken because we have never truly believed in the Father’s love. We have not discovered how to internalize such a profound truth in our hearts. Even my head is unable to wrap around this incredible idea that God loves me deeply and intimately, so how can my heart possibly get there?
Now I cannot simply host an event and repeat, “Hey, God loves you” over and over for an hour and a half every month and hope that the message will sink in. What’s a youth minister to do? Whatever you have planned, ask yourself what lies at the root? Is it love? Is it mercy?
It is important to demonstrate the Father’s love in every minute of every activity of every gathering. Even if the 5th grade boys have snatched up all the bean bags and are pelting the 3rd grade girls with them. Even if that moody middle schooler essentially growls at you every time you greet him. Even when the 8th grade girls are gossiping and throwing shade at the teachers at their school. Allow God’s love to overflow from your cup and permeate your youth.
No matter what phase of life those you minister to are in, it is essential that we come to know and share in God’s infinite love for us as His individual beloved sons and daughters. Only then can we make disciples who will go forth and multiply this message of love in our broken world.