How to Teach Junior Highers Without Losing Your Mind by Kurt Johnston
Junior highers are my people.
For most of ministry career I’ve had the privilege (did I really just say junior high ministry is a PRIVILEGE?) of focusing exclusively on this age group, and even as my role has changed this wonderful little tribe has remained the closest to my heart!
So you’d think that after 26 years of teaching junior highers in virtually every setting imaginable I’d be an expert; that I’d be the Peyton Manning of teaching young teens. Hardly. But I have learned a few things over the years, and this month I’m going to share some of what I’ve discovered. I don’t have a formula…just a boat load of tips, tricks and tidbits that you may find helpful in your efforts to teach junior highers without losing your mind, or your salvation, in the process. Each week I’ll share three somewhat related thoughts.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE.
One of the most important things any communicator can do is have a thorough understanding of his/her audience, and never is that principle more important than when preparing to teach a group of junior highers. You need to know the stuff that is true for EVERY junior high audience such as having a good understanding of adolescent development and the universal junior high journey as well as a good understanding of YOUR junior high audience because it is unique and your students are different than mine. Remember, junior highers are twelve to fourteen years old, and as such have completely different needs in a teaching setting than a room full of thirty year olds.
Practical Tip: Knowing your audience starts with approaching your lesson prep with “what they want to hear”, not “what you want to say”.
KNOW YOUR POINT.
What do you want your audience to walk away with? You don’t need a 5-point sermon. You don’t need creative nuance and elaborate illustrations. What you do need is a point! The best junior high lessons are those with a clearly articulate point or “goal” of the lesson; a “takeaway” that every student in the circle will understand. Don’t be so creative that you are no longer clear. Don’t worry about being impressive, concentrate on lessons that make an impression! Keep It Simple, Stupid. Tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them…and then tell them what you just told them!
Practical Tip: Start with the end in mind, then build every piece of your learning experience in a way that points toward that ending.
KNOW YOUR CHURCH.
How well do you know your church’s theology? Do you have a firm grasp on your Senior Pastor’s take on various subjects, social issues etc.? What subjects would be considered taboo or inappropriate for church? What type of jokes and language is “off limits” in your setting? A little understanding of your context will help prevent big headaches.
Practical Tip: Better safe than sorry. If you don’t know…ask!
Last week I had the joy to “preach” in our church’s weekly staff meeting. Somebody teaches every week; I hadn’t in a very long time. Afterwards, no fewer than a dozen people pulled me aside to share how much they appreciated what I had to say. But the truth is they didn’t really appreciate what I had to say as much as how I said it. My “delivery” helped make a message full of mediocre content memorable. All I did was utilize two of my favorite junior high teaching tips. You won’t think this stuff is profound until you make it part of your teaching routine.
KEEP IT SHORT
I have an old saying when it comes to teaching: “It doesn’t have to be long to be good, but if it’s going to be long it has to be good!” My staff meeting sermon was thirteen minutes long, and you’d be shocked at what I crammed into those thirteen minutes. Here are a few benefits of a short lesson:
- Less opportunity for the audience to lose focus.
- Forces me to cut out unnecessary content, stories, etc. I only include what’s most impactful.
- Leaves the audience wanting more!
I’ve never heard anybody complain about a short sermon. Never. Anybody. Yet far too many youth workers (and junior high youth workers are no different) write lessons that are far too long for their young audiences.
Practical Tip: Put a time limit on your lessons (our limit is 20-minutes) and aim to always be 2-3 minutes short of that limit.
KEEP IT ACTIVE
As part of my relationship with Group Publishing/Simply Youth Ministry I have attended many of their workshops and training events over the years. Something that they are famous for is an insistence on active learning. An insistence that used to bug the heck out of me has now become routine almost every time I teach. In my staff meeting sermon I spent about three of the thirteen minutes working the crowd through a very simple activity; so simple, in fact, that I almost scratched it beforehand. I’m glad I didn’t. People loved it and mentioned it over and over again. Here are a few benefits of including some sort of active learning in your lessons:
- Keeps the audience engaged.
- Makes the lesson tactile and memorable.
- Provides an opportunity for movement.
Like I said earlier, there’s nothing profound here. The idea of keeping things short and active when teaching a room full of young teens is as old as the hills. Yet most junior high youth workers break the very same rules they say are so important! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lamented at the end of a weekend over the fact that my lesson seemed “too long and boring”. Because it was both!
But I’ve never regretted providing a short and active lesson….and neither will you. More importantly: Neither will they!
Teaching junior highers; I’m not sure a higher calling exists! Churches often make the mistake of seeing junior high ministry as a place for young, or spiritually immature, leaders to cut their teeth and learn the ropes of ministry. This is a massive mistake, largely due to the fact that young teens are in an enormous season of developmental change and it takes a mature leader to help junior highers navigate these changes well.
And one place immature leaders routinely mess up is in the teaching context. While there’s no way to ensure a perfect lesson, I’ve developed a habit over the years that has helped me, and it may help you, too, whether you are a rookie or a seasoned pro.
When I’m done preparing a lesson, I like to run it through the following filter and make any adjustments necessary. I like to ask myself, “Does this lesson T.E.A.C.H.?”
IS IT TRUE?
Have I used scripture in context?
Have I considered the “whole of scripture”?|
Is God’s truth speaking more loudly than my opinions?
IS IT ENCOURAGING?
Does it motivate the audience toward some sort of action?
Does it do so in an encouraging manner?
Does it rely on the Holy Spirit to convict, not my delivery?
IS IT ACTIVE?
Does it involve some aspect of active learning?
Does it allow movement?
IS IT CLEAR?
Does it make a clear, understandable, point?
Will my audience remember it tomorrow?
Could a junior higher recount some of it to mom and dad in car ride home?
Will they know what the heck I was talking about?
IS IT HUMOROUS?
Is there an element of fun in the lesson?
Laughter helps the medicine go down; do I provide that opportunity?
Is the humor edifying and age-appropriate?
I’m not a comedian, but don’t take myself too seriously!