I get to spend a lot of time with middle schoolers. While each of them is as unique as the day is long, there is one consistently true thing about them: when they realize they have something to offer their community, they thrive. Unfortunately, as a culture, we’re pretty bad at helping these kids realize that they are assets and not liabilities. The top Googled question with the keywords “middle schooler” is “Are middle schoolers getting dumber?” and if your parents’ generation had had Google, we can safely assume they would have been asking the same question. Preteens are eternally stained as people too old to be cute little kids, yet too young to be taken seriously by adults. Too small to help, too big to not be in the way. In a lot of ways, preteens, particularly stereotypical hyperactive preteen boys, are one of the least desirable groups of people in our culture. I’ve had this idea validated by the responses I get from people when I tell them that I work with 5th through 8th graders:

“I could never”

“And you choose to do that?”

“Hope you’ve got a good therapist”

“I bet you have lots of horror stories”

“You must have the patience of Mother Teresa”

Jennifer Wallace recently introduced me to the concept of “mattering” through her book, Never Enough. “Mattering” is an aptly named concept in positive psychology that is the study of what makes us feel like we matter. It turns out, that whether or not someone feels like they matter can be predicted by how they answer these questions: 

  1. Does a person’s community routinely acknowledge them? 
  2. Do they see their community as an asset to themself?
  3. Does a person see themselves as an asset to their community?

In my experience, preteens seeing themselves as assets is the hardest bridge here to gap. That shouldn’t be the case though, should it? We are the Body of Christ. We have a whole passage of scripture about how each of us, uniquely made by God in his image, is a body part deeply knitted into the whole. We believe we are inextricably linked to one another, relying on each other and being relied upon by one another. When God inspired Paul to write “But in fact, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” to the Corinthians two thousand years ago, he was fully aware of the fact that someday, we would be Googling “are middle schoolers getting dumber” and he, in his perfect wisdom, did not make the scripture to go on to say: 

“The parts of the body that haven’t learned how important deodorant is and that cannot figure out how to stand quietly for more than five seconds will grow up someday and then become parts of the body that matter” 

But instead, God made the scripture to go on to say:

“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”

One great thing about this truth is that when preteens start to realize that they do add value, that they are people who have abilities and proclivities that are unique to them and that make us better because they are a part of us, those students glow and they grow. It doesn’t matter how well taken care of or well-liked someone is; if they see themselves as a liability and not an asset, they won’t see why they matter and we can’t expect anyone to grow in God if they don’t think they matter to God’s people. But when people start to see themselves as an asset to the Body of Christ, not just as passive attendants at church, they start to come alive. 

We have students read scripture, sing, run lights, pray, and host during our gatherings not because we can’t find any adults who are more talented, well-spoken, and charismatic or who are easier to work with. We put students in those positions because God has given them the desire and ability to do those things and because in doing them, they are assets to the Church. In other words, God made them to be eyes for his body, so we let them see for us, even if the vision is still a little blurry. And like repotting an old, rootbound houseplant, when you get someone where they belong, you give them a chance to grow in a way they never otherwise could have. 

To end this semester in the 5th-8th grade building, we are having students plan each Wednesday night. One night, everything from what gets preached to the songs we sing to the games we play will be planned entirely by fifth graders, the next sixth graders, then seventh, then eighth. Not because that’s easier for all the adults involved, it’s probably going to take a lot more work on our part, but because preteens are a part of the Body of Christ, and we want them all to know that here, they matter.

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