Monday Morning Quarterback

Monday Morning Quarterback, Junior High Edition

When youth groups end on Sunday night my brain is buzzing with critique of what we did and, sometimes, awe at things that happened. It often takes me a few hours to go to bed. So this Sunday night, I’m composing my first “Monday Morning Quarterback” to share with y’all my sense of what went down with our Sunday youth groups and to hear some of your thoughts about it.

For our second week of youth group, there were five 7th or 8th grade students present. That’s five out of nine junior high students on the whole church roster. Three of these students are 7th graders, meaning they’re new to our youth programs. I’m pleased those students have decided the youth programs are worth a shot, but I’m more interested in making it an experience they wish to repeat over the course of the year.

One thing that may help in that pursuit is the Indonesian church that has been meeting in our building on Sunday afternoons since we started youth group. That church is enjoying its fellowship time right next to the youth room at precisely the same time that our students are arriving, and those folks have showered our students with hospitality by urging them to share in the food that has been prepared for their fellowship. So the new church meeting in our building is sharing table fellowship with our students who have grown up in these rooms and corridors; it seems to be a very cool Kingdom of God type thing that is happening.

As for the rest of the time, I continue to structure youth gatherings (and most everything else I have responsibility for) around Moving Beyond Icebreakers: a name exercise, a warmup question, a springboard activity, the work, and a summation. For youth groups, the springboard activity is typically a game, and tonight I caved to the popular demand for Grog (see No. 4 on this list). After the extended meal, the game took us almost to the end of our youth group time, so the work (a quick study of Jesus’ saying about taking up one’s cross) got badly truncated.

Two things I noticed. The warmup question was simply a high point/low point review of the previous week, and the things that count as high points are vastly different for different students. Two boys talked about things they accomplished in the previous week, while another talked about a gift he received, another about a sleepover with a friend, and the fifth about a Friday afternoon spend wrapped in a Snuggie atop a body pillow playing video games.

Also, phrases  like “take up your cross” and “deny yourself” have no meaning to a junior high student, and it’s very, very difficult to explain them. Students thought “deny yourself” meant to do things you know you shouldn’t do. This seems to me to be a demonstration of formal operational thinking struggling to emerge.

Part of the difficulty is my own desire to protect students from a normative description of Christian faith as suffering, so expositions of “take up your cross” like the video below don’t fit the bill. Also, that’s not the norm set by the congregation they live in; the saints of our church are not martyrs. We may need a nudge in that direction, but the point is that our students don’t experience a community of Christians who equate a phrase like “take up your cross” with burden-bearing.


In the end, I suggested that “deny yourself” means going without something so that someone else could benefit. I’m only now realizing the missed opportunity to point to the Indonesian church’s treatment of us as a concrete example of, among other things, self-denial.

Kids started leaving, so I said we’d get into this further next week.

Any suggestions as to how to do that?


10 thoughts on “Monday Morning Quarterback, Junior High Edition

  1. landon whitsitt says:

    I’m interested why suffering cannot (or should not be) a normative description. It seems that the narrative of the Cross event was one of willing self-sacrifice, and I’m not sure how we get around that. It seems to me that what the world needs is more willing self-sacrifice for the sake of others.

  2. @landon, I’m so glad you brought that up. Even as I’m processing my discomfort I feel like I’m betraying some core theological conviction. There’s no way to get around it, you’re right. There’s a difference, though, between reflecting as adults on the normative character of suffering in Christian discipleship and teaching 11 year-olds that suffering is Godly. I want to get around to affirming to all of our youth the promise of the gospel, which is that God is present to those who suffer, but I don’t want to encourage an orientation toward God where God requires suffering as a criteria of faithfulness.

    I guess the impulse I’m feeling is to protect young adolescents from an equation of suffering with virtue. I’m afraid that concrete operational thinking simply processes that as, for example, I’m being bullied, but God wants me to suffer so I can’t stand up for myself.

    • landon whitsitt says:

      “…and being found in human likeness was obedient unto death – even death on a cross.”

      It seems that the wisdom of our tradition suggests that suffering IS a part of Christian faithfulness. The difference is “what kind of suffering?” Christians have historically celebrated willing self-sacrifice (which inherently includes a measure of suffering) and the redemption of unjustified suffering.

      Frankly, life is pretty shitty, and I want my kids to learn that from the get go. I want my kids to know that to suffering is part of the deal of being human, but that is is possible to orient one’s life in a way that the events which produce suffering have no hold on us.

      But I think I’m veering off track now.

      • No, you’re on track. I just want to make sure students hear reality from me–life sucks sometimes–and not a projection of God wanting their life to suck in order to be considered good.

  3. mkk says:

    I definitely agree that it’s a core theological conviction, but one like, Rocky said can get terribly misconstrued by teenagers who, especially at that age, still have trouble thinking analogically.

    I personally would make it surface-y first…to scratch the surface with something simple – like giving up TV or your cell phone, and then go the next step – like giving up food or water, and then a next step – ???

    I wonder if there are tangible activities that would help them experience a taste of it…

    But, even as I write this I’m uncertain. Is this something that is relevant to middle schoolers? Don’t they suffer enough??? 🙂 Seriously, all the hormonal insanity and confusion, they seem to have the physical experience of “suffering” down, but just lacking the theological language and connection to it. I almost think that Serene Jones’ understanding of justification might be a better starting point.

    Crap – have to pick up babies. More later…

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