Stretching Junior Highers


Sometimes, I just have to play the risky hunch – but I still worry about it! I recently did two camp seminars for 140 year 8’s. They asked me to do the spiritual part of their theme, New Beginnings. No probs – except I soon felt compelled to do something quite risky: stretch junior high students… risky because they often don’t like to be stretched, and can switch off before the pay-off.

The sessions I chose were entitled, New Powers, New Beginnings. Just as Spiderman got new powers which meant new adventures for him, junior high kids are developing lots of new powers too – including new “stages of faith” development (as James Fowler would say.) So they need to ensure they grow spiritually too, not let that waste away while they grow in every other way. And I outlined the main streams of their emerging powers: mentally, emotionally, relationally, actively, experientially, and so on, and how these could help them grow spiritually.

The trick was this: normally I’d talk about things they have already experienced, then move to the implications. But this time I was talking about things many of them hadn’t yet experienced, but were coming up for them. The risk was that they’d tune out (“this isn’t relevant to me.”) Moreover, while the later parts were more about art, experiences, and stories, the first part was less picturesque to listen to, laying a rational foundation for the later parts. I knew if they could just hold on to the end, they’d find it worth it – but would they?

As expected, you could see the kids struggling with the science. But all I needed was for them to get the impression, “wow, there is a rational base for this – I better keep my eyes open for that in the future.” But then there was a day’s break before the more interesting half, and I spent the day wondering if they were going to give me another hearing. But here’s the uncomfortable thing – I was knowingly allowing myself to look bad, for the bigger purpose of the talk. I was depending on them to stretch.

Thankfully, the second half went really well, and the rational foundation from the previous night gave extra weight to the second night. I spent over half an hour after the session fielding questions from students in their voluntary time, eager to know more about what to expect.

Here’s what I saw. Although I can never take this for granted, junior high youth WANT to know more than we sometimes give them credit for. Even stuff they don’t know about yet. And they are capable of rising to the challenge if they sense someone can help.

But teens are notorious for being adults one day, and 2-year-olds the next. Maybe I just got them on a good day – but when it happens, they’re capable of a lot.

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