Let’s be honest: Preteens are weird. Even the nicknames we have for preteens are weird. Remember when we called them tweens? Can nothing be normal for fifth graders?!
They’re not kids anymore—but they’re not teenagers yet. They still like to play with Legos or American Girl dolls—but they also like fantasy football now, and they’re finally excited to get clothes for Christmas.
Even schools don’t know what to do with preteens. Are they the end of elementary? Are they the beginning of middle school? You’ve likely been part of a similar conversation in your community, whether at school or church. How can we help this group of misunderstood, caught-in-the-middle prepubescents actually find a place to belong?
I’ve spent a great deal of time with preteens over the last fifteen years, affording me the opportunity to come up with a few ideas that might help us. I’ve taken the liberty of breaking this down into four E’s because—well, because I wanted to.
How can we energize preteens to want to keep coming back to our ministry and stay involved? This one is actually really simple: You just have to know them. I mean, really know them. Preteens often get lost in the shuffle of life. We don’t have to care for their every need like we do the littles around us. We also don’t have to watch them like a hawk like we do our teenagers, just waiting for them to text someone after nine p.m. so we can swoop in and take away screen privileges. Our preteens tend to fall in the gap between these two extremes—and sometimes it’s a big gap.
Our preteens need someone who knows their story, not just their name. Know who they are. What’s going on in their world? What’s their home life like? What do they love about school? How do they spend their free time? As a volunteer or pastor who has preteens in your care, take the time to really get to know them. This, as much as anything else, will make them want to keep coming back. They need a place to belong.
Our preteens need someone who knows their story, not just their name.
Additionally, create opportunities for them to know one another. Make sure your preteen ministry isn’t just full of gross contests and loud games. Spend some time in a circle, giving them a chance to hear from one another. Preteens are just beginning to think about life in new and deeper ways. Give them opportunities to process with one another and hear about each other’s struggles. When they feel known by the adults in charge and by their peers, they will feel energized to stay involved!
Preteens need an identity. One of the best ways to really help them engage the preteen ministry at your church is to set them apart—in other words, help them form their own identity within your ministry. Give them a space that’s all their own. Maybe you have lots of extra space and there’s a whole room you could dedicate just to preteens. That would be amazing! Give the room a cool name that fits your ministry theme, or if you’re running low on nifty ideas, let them name the space themselves. (Pro tip: Don’t say nifty.)
If you don’t have an entire room to dedicate, no worries. Even if you only have one room in your whole church for your entire children’s ministry, give preteens their own corner. Decorate the space more maturely, and establish it clearly as theirs. Preteens will enjoy having a space that’s age-appropriate for them, and younger kids will look forward to the day when they get to be a preteen and use the super-cool space.
As you continue to look for ways to help your preteens find identity, set them apart in name. Churches often name their youth ministries and children’s ministries without thinking to name their preteen ministries. If you have the resources, design a logo, put it on a t-shirt or a sticker, or just on some signage around the church. Use the name whether you’re addressing them or making announcements about them.
Many preteens are capable leaders and eager to be employed (and no, I don’t mean at Arby’s). Many preteens who don’t at first appear to fit that statement will surprise you when you set the bar of leadership high and challenge them to reach it. Give your preteens responsibilities. They can be greeters, sound techs, ushers, praise band members, classroom assistants, mentors, and so much more.
Let them know what is expected of them as leaders. Clearly define their leadership roles so they know exactly what they are obligated to do in the area of service to which they are assigned. Not only will they surprise you with their capable leadership, but you’ll also be setting a standard of leadership as they transition toward the youth group. Work with your church’s youth leaders to continue fostering this leadership mindset as kids move up.
We must encourage them to create unity in their ranks as they move toward the youth group. We must help them know each other and find continual opportunities to remind them how much they need each other. The youth group can be a big, scary place. It’s loud, and there are suddenly kids with mustaches in the room. A preteen can get overwhelmed at the idea of moving to this next phase. However, when they can look to the right and the left and see brothers and sisters who are all walking the same path together, suddenly it’s not quite as overwhelming. When they are a unit, when they are a team, then they can feel encouraged and confident as they move forward.
Preteens are weird, but they’re not so scary.
Preteens are weird, but they’re not so scary. Know them. Help them know each other. Challenge them. Set them apart. Build them up as a team. None of this has anything much to do with fancy curriculum or how cool you are, and the financial investments are minimal and flexible to your context. You have the resources in your church right now to employ these four E’s and begin building your preteen program into something spectacular!