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Ministering to Preteens: The Preteen Zone

Christine Yount Jones

Cue the eerie music...

"It's the middle ground between light and shadow...between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge...Enter, if you will, The Preteen Zone."

Okay, stop the music!

While it may not make you as squeamish as the old TV show The Twilight Zone, The Preteen Zone can be as daunting, as perplexing, and as alien to many of us in children's ministry today. That's what we've been hearing consistently as we've dug deeper into the preteen ministry challenge.

We've discovered that The Preteen Zone can leave children's ministers quaking in their boots and hunting for that special portal that'll answer their primal cry for help. We've also discovered, though, that preteen ministry is an emerging trend in children's ministry with some churches even hiring a ministry leader dedicated to preteens only. Welcome to the next ministry frontier!

We hosted a Preteen Think Tank with six top-notch preteen ministers from around the country. As we discussed the challenges and joys of ministering to preteens, we had eye-opening discussions about who these kids are -- and the best ways to reach them. Afterward, we wrote the three books that are in the new Preteen Launchables kit: Understanding Preteens, Preteen Ministry Blueprint, and Ideas That Work.

Let's dive into this challenging ministry area and see if we can solve today's mystery of reaching upper-elementary kids -- with the help of three of our Preteen Think Tank experts.

The Way Things Are

It's almost cliché to talk about how times have changed. Perhaps, though, with no age group other than preteens have things changed so drastically. Kids are hitting puberty earlier -- sometimes as young as 8 -- so raging hormones are a reality that up until recently were felt primarily in junior high ministry.

And preteens are exposed to more mature issues earlier. Ty Bryant, pastor to fourth- through sixth-graders at Perimeter Church in Atlanta, Georgia, lamented at our Preteen Think Tank that schools in his area have had to confront the issue of oral sex with sixth-graders. With sixth-graders!

Yep, times have changed. Preteens are exposed to far more than we were at their age -- no matter what age you are!

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"When I was 10 years old, my parents got a divorce. I was pretty much kept out of the loop and struggled with issues that dealt with trivial stuff about my parents' divorce," says Joe Puentes, minister to preteens at Christ Church of Oronogo in Oronogo, Missouri. "Preteens now are confronted with the raw issues of their parents' divorce. They're in the heat of custody battles and are asked about who they want to live with. They know if their parent was having an affair, and they even know what that means. The bottom line is that preteens are pushed by society, their families, their schools, and their churches to rapidly grow up."

It's not just family issues that have changed with preteens. Our consumer culture also presses in on kids to age them faster. Marketers use "age compression" to market to kids so they can capture a share of the $1.7 billion kids ages 8 to 14 are spending. Marketers compress the ages by intentionally pushing adult and teen qualities in products so kids find them more appealing for purchase. Thus, they promote kids "aging up."

Add to this the psychodynamic of aspiration, and we have a group of kids that isn't sure where it fits. Aspiration is the term used to describe kids aspiring to be older. So kids dress, talk, and play older. And with kids aspiring to be older, they're easily pulled out of childhood to move more quickly into adolescence. Emotionally and mentally, though, they're not ready. They're stuck between the two worlds they no longer feel completely comfortable in.

"In the 10 years I've been in youth ministry and children's ministry, I've noticed that the problems and issues that faced junior high kids are now placed on preteens," says Puentes. "The preteens I minister to are dealing with social issues that junior high and some senior high youth dealt with 10 years ago. They're struggling with issues like drugs and alcohol, sex, more mature boyfriend/girlfriend issues, unhealthy friendships that deeply affect them, and materialism."

A Place Just for Me

Preteens just don't fit -- in ministries not made for them. Christ in Youth's SuperStart preteen event director Patrick Snow says the reason preteens need their own place is crystal clear to "anybody who's tried to place a preteen into children's or youth ministries. Plain and simple, they're an age all their own. They think differently, act differently, relate differently, and learn differently. Spiritually they're ready for something deeper than children's ministry but aren't quite ready to be exposed to some of the tough truths of youth ministry."

So many churches, though, make the mistake of shoving preteens into a junior high ministry where the topics are over their heads and the junior highers are too sophisticated for preteens. Preteens are lost. Or, conversely, churches leave preteens in children's ministry where these upper-elementary kids yawn from boredom and simply endure activities and music that feel too young for them. Both strategies are ineffective.

"Preteens are physically, intellectually, and emotionally different than lower-elementary kids and junior high kids," says Puentes. "What's more is that preteens seem to be in a more unique spiritual situation than the other age groups. Preteens are in transition spiritually. As a whole, they're no longer satisfied with the basics of the Christian faith."

Preteens are between childhood and adolescence (but don't call them tweens or tweeners -- they detest those terms). Preteens need something constant they can hold on to while the rest of the world changes all around them.

"Preteens are in such a transition of life automatically. It's a very stressful and scary time for them," says Katie Gerber, preteen ministry associate at East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.

And it's not an equitable stage for the transitions kids are going through. "Some preteens are very mature and look as if they should be in junior high or even the lower levels of senior high, but sitting next to them are kids who look like they should be in third grade," observes Puentes.

Preteens need a place where people understand their unique needs and cater ministry to their abilities. They need ministry that helps them transition from children's ministry to junior high ministry -- not in a one-time event, but in a two-year transitional period. They need leaders who structure ministry that builds a bridge to the next step of their lives and faith journeys.

"Creating a special ministry just for preteens will help ease them out of elementary and into junior high at a comfortable pace," says Gerber. "They're very excited about leaving children's ministry, yet they aren't ready to go into a room full of seventh- and eighth-graders. A preteen ministry can be a very powerful place for upper-elementary kids to grow in their faith and be stretched a little more than they ever have before."

Preteen Ministry Ingredients

So what should a preteen ministry look like? It should have each of these preteen-specific components to maximize kids' spiritual development.

  • Bible Teaching -- "Teaching a preteen should always be energetic and interactive," says Snow. "They're small bundles of energy ready to explode -- and they will if they have to sit too long. Include them in the teaching process."

Since preteens learn at a different level from younger kids and teen­agers, they need teaching geared to them. Intellectually, preteens can grasp some of the more abstract concepts, but they still need the teaching to be in practical terms they can understand.

"They know and understand the story of Moses, the deliverance of the Hebrews out of Egypt, and the Passover," says Puentes. "They understand that this was a necessary part of the biblical story and they can even see how it fits into God's bigger plan in the Bible. What they might struggle with is how this concrete, but also abstract, concept, fits into daily life as they learn to follow God."

Preteens need teachers who'll help them connect the truths of the Bible to their lives. Preteens want to know "Why should this matter to me?"

  • Unique Environment -- "Preteens are just beginning to grasp the concept of their identity and they like it! It's important to them to have things that tell them who they are," advises Snow. "Creating a unique environment that screams PRETEEN is important because it allows them to worship and learn about God in a place that's their own."

What screams "preteen"? Bright colors, playfulness, edgy images, skateboards, loud music, cool lighting, unexpected decorations such as garage-sale retro lamps or posters. If you're not sure what screams "preteen," ask. Your preteens will definitely have opinions.

  • Fun Times -- Here's the good news: Ministry to preteens is fun. Kids this age are into things that almost all adults can enjoy -- bowling, laser tag, putt-putt, go-carts, scavenger hunts, arcades. Dive in with preteens and have a blast.
  • Small Groups -- Ministry to preteens must be highly relational -- there's no shortcut to effective preteen ministry. Prepare to staff your ministry with one leader per five preteens. It's the only way to impact this age group.

Preteens need a consistent, safe, intimate, and focused environment. Having the same small group leader for preteens every week is the only way to provide consistency. Small group relationships allow for preteens to be heard and valued. When small group leaders serve as facilitators rather than resident experts, powerful spiritual growth is possible.

"Our small group leaders seek to create an atmosphere where preteens feel it's safe to be real and honest," says Puentes. "We encourage our small group leaders to invest in the lives of the preteens they minister to. Preteens aren't criticized or ridiculed by adults or their peers. Instead, they're encouraged and challenged to be all that God created them to be."

"Small groups are a must for preteen ministry!" says Snow. "Preteens are at a point in their lives where everything about them is transforming. Not only are preteens changing, but they're each changing at different rates. The only true way to guide them spiritually is to help them each where they are individually. Small groups are critical because they provide the opportunity to do just that."

Preteens can become overwhelmed if every aspect of the ministry is done in a large group setting. They need time to collect themselves and focus on what's being taught.

Puentes' preteen ministry uses small groups. "Small groups are the biggest cog in our ministry to preteens. It's where it all happens," says Puentes. "This is the 'meat' of what we desire to accomplish. Preteens meet in small groups divided by grade and gender to discuss the teaching point and learn how it applies to their world. They build community with each other by discussing issues they're dealing with. Large group time is the setup for small group time, not the other way around."

  • Worship -- "In a preteen ministry, you have a very unique opportunity to teach your fifth- and sixth-graders what true worship is," says Gerber. "True worship is all about God -- not us. Preteens can begin to handle deeper concepts and start developing a deeper understanding of who God is."

Musical worship with preteens can look like a lot of things -- including worship with a live band, an acoustic guitar, or CDs. Be creative in leading preteens in worship with ideas such as these from Katie Gerber:

  • ABC Worship -- Go through the alphabet saying a different praise attribute for God: Almighty; Beautiful; Cornerstone; Delightful; Everlasting...
  • Artsy Worship -- Have preteens listen to a praise song and draw a picture for God about what they hear.
  • Worship Sculpting -- Give kids sculpting material (foil, clay, pipe cleaners) and have them create something they think is cool about God.
  • Connecting With Parents -- Not only are preteens in transition and experiencing abrupt changes, their parents are, too. And parents need support, encouragement, and resources -- from you. Watch out, though. While preteens' parents want to know what's going on in your ministry, they don't necessarily want to be involved. And if they do want to get involved, steer them away from their preteen's small group. Preteens need other "voices" in their lives at this key developmental stage.
  • Service -- "Preteens are very inwardly focused, yet most are willing and want to help others," says Gerber. "They want to be like Jesus and they want to help others. If you provide them ways to serve God, he'll do amazing things through them."
  • Events -- "Events are a powerful tool to form relationships with your preteens," says Gerber. "They want to know that you care about them; what better way to show them than by spending time with them?"

Events take preteens out of a normal teaching environment and open them to learning and growing in fresh and creative ways.

"A preteen is more likely to remember a biblical truth when it's taught in a way other than what preteens are used to," says Snow.

Preteens are at an age where it's easier to get them out of the church building and into "real world" settings. And studies show that one powerful way to impact teenagers' spiritual growth is through events -- mission trips, camps, and retreats. Use this power to impact your preteens.

Transition and Anticipation

More than any two words in the English language, these two words define preteen ministry succinctly: transition and anticipation.

"Preteens are in one of the key transition points in a person's life (college age is the other)," says Puentes. "Preteens are leaving kiddy world and entering the world of teenagers. All that they knew is about to be wiped away and replaced. Preteen ministry is the area of preparation for that transition."

Understand that as kids leave childhood, they're nervous and fearful of what lies ahead. "They either drop away from that transition or they struggle and barely exist in the next world," says Puentes.

That's where the second word comes in: anticipation. Preteen ministers are poised at the precipice of what's next for kids. You have the tremendous opportunity to lead kids in anticipation of the wonderful things God has in store for them. Give them a vision of how God can use them. Entice them with the excitement of how amazing youth group will be. Paint the picture of hope and fulfillment that only God can provide.

A very practical way to do that, according to Puentes, is to "introduce them and give them a taste of what lies ahead -- build that anticipation so they're excited and looking forward to the time when they can experience and contribute to that future world of student ministry."

And if you don't, your preteens may drop out for good. Take the challenge -- enter The Preteen Zone!


Christine Yount Jones is executive editor for Children's Ministry Magazine. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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