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The search for appropriate age divisions in youth ministry

Separate jr high sr high youth group“My 6th grader is hangin’ out with a 12th grader!”

“Sorry, we don’t have enough leaders to divide into smaller groups.”

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at a small-town Christian event in Ohio. I ate lunch with a group of youth workers from the area before the event, enjoying the occasion to hear a little about their ministry. During the introductions, a youth pastor introduced a couple who ran their 5th through 7th grade ministry.

I was caught off-guard. I clarified. “Did you say 5th through 7th?”

“Yes,” he replied. “5th through 7th. Then we have 8th through 12th.”

Over the years I’ve seen all kinds of different divisions. The most common is just “jr high” and “high school.” But in the last two decades two shifts have occurred:

  1. The rise of the “middle school” (6th-8th grade)
  2. The rise in the amount of media saturation in young people today (students are getting exposed to more adult content earlier)

In the West Coast, middle schools were simply a budget decision. Schools have less money and somehow sending the 6th graders off to jr. high a year early was supposed to help elementary schools function with less faculty. (After all, you can increase class size in middle school, right? I won’t pretend to have a solution to this problem.) Regardless, many churches started including 6th graders in their junior high ministry. After all, these students went to school together.

Some churches faced a dilemma. “We used to have a 5th and 6th grade ministry called “CLUB 56″ but now what do we do?” (Perhaps make it “CLUB 45?” Or is that too close to “COLT 45?”)

So some churches have “CLUB 45,” Middle School (6th-8th), then High School (9th-12th).

What is the best way to divide it?

Natural age divisions… or are they?

Years ago a 20-year youth ministry veteran told me that he wished he could divide it simply by “pre-drivers license” and “post-drivers license.” His logic was that once kids got their drivers license they often disappeared from youth group, something I’ve definitely observed. He recognized a need to provide a completely new focus of relevance and fellowship for the post-drivers license crowd.

My Catholic brothers and sisters constantly tell me that the age division for their young people seems to be “pre-confirmation” and “post-confirmation.” At many of the parishes I’ve trained at, Catholic youth workers shared that many parents don’t require their kids to go to church any more after confirmation. So this puts a demand for relevance for Catholic youth workers. They have to address the question that young people across the world are asking: “Why do I even need to go to church?” The church better provide an answer.

I mentioned earlier that media has made the situation a little more difficult. Kids are being exposed to porn earlier, the majority of young people have cell phones by junior high, not to mention the hours upon hours of TV, music and internet that they are exposed to daily. Students are facing temptations younger, they’re becoming sexually literate earlier, so youth ministries have to be ready to speak to today’s 5th graders like they would have yesterdays 8th graders.

So is it bad to have a 5th grader in the room with an 8th grader? What about a 7th grader with a 12th grader?

Most of the youth workers who use the free resources and training we provide at TheSource4YM.com are volunteers in small churches. Many of these volunteers are overwhelmed and have one youth group for all young people ages 12-18.

I’m a big proponent of dividing youth ministries at least into two groups: jr. high and high school. The most common response I hear is, “We just can’t. We are already understaffed.”

My response is always, “I hear your pain. I know. I’ve been there. But it’s just hard to have a discussion about temptation with a 6th grader sitting next to a pregnant 12th grader.” Yes, the use of small-groups can help — you can divide by age. There are many fixes. But the biggest fix is recruiting more help. That’s why I usually send these youth workers to our free Training Tools page where they can read several different articles about recruiting and keeping volunteers.

What do you think?

  • What age divisions to you use? What age divisions would you choose if you had enough leaders to do it?
  • What difficulties have certain age-divisions created? What benefits have you experienced?

Let us know in the comments below!

The other perspective

Tim’s shared a little from the other perspective of why he prefers to keep junior and senior high combined at youth group. Check it out here, if you’re interested:


Posted on July 13, 2011

  • CoffeeWithChris

    I've said for the last few years that once I develop the staff to do it I'm making the switch and moving 4th & 5th grade out of children's ministry and having three groups in the youth ministry. 4,5,6 graders, 7,8,9 graders, & 10,11,12 graders.

    • http://www.studentministry.org Tim Schmoyer

      Is that mostly to facilitate better discussions or what?

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeffadye Jeff Dye

    I do agree that having 6th – 12th grade all together is very difficult. It's not impossible, but it is much harder. Currently our ministry (about 125 avg weekly attendance) does have all students together. However, one of the greatest things we did this past school year was we created a special 6th grade ministry. The 6th graders would be with the large group during worship but then would break away for a bible study created for 6th graders only. This transition year for them has done wonders for keeping them connected and for preparing them for life in student ministry.

    If I were to have a full staff and another minister I would quickly move to breaking down into a middle school and high school ministry. To me an ideal ministry would be to keep 6th graders in children's ministry and then have a 7th -8th grade ministry as well as a high school ministry.

    • http://www.studentministry.org Tim Schmoyer

      What's are the difficult parts about keeping them together for you guys?

  • Michelle

    We combine grades 6-12, not because of a lack of staff, but a lack of students! We are a very small rural church. If I separated the groups, I would have 2-4 jr. high students and 2-4 high school students. Keeping the groups together makes for better "large group" stuff, and I can still divide by age for small group discussions.

    In a perfect world, I would have 5th-7th, 8th-10th, 11th-college. I currently have a couple of college students who join us for our Sr. High ONLY events, but not enough college-age students to create their own group. (BTW, we have Jr. High ONLY events as well.)

    • CoffeeWithChris

      I wonder if the events might be better split. Maybe the high school students would be more willing to invite their friends knowing that they won't be hanging out with 6th & 7th graders.

      • http://www.studentministry.org Tim Schmoyer

        Sometimes — I think it depends on the maturity of the high school kids, but either way, do we want to communicate to teens that, "You don't have to hang out with people you don't want to be with at church?"

  • http://natejones.me Nate Jones

    In our student ministry we divide students into 3 larger ministry groups.
    * 5th Grade – theVerge
    * 6th-8th Grade – dv8
    * 9th-12th Grade – Wired
    Then the plan is that we would have gender and grade specific small groups in each ministry. Of course as anyone who has ever worked in youth ministry knows, plans don't always work out the way we would like. We have had to combine several small groups because of lack of adult leaders. But I'm hopeful to be able to separate out a few more small groups in the coming year.

  • http://www.studentministry.org Tim Schmoyer

    Oh cool, so you guys have a good balance of both. I like that.

    • CoffeeWithChris

      Well we like to think that we do :)

      • pjski

        I also agree that there need to be events catered to age specific groups at times. I have actually done outreach events that have both Jr high and Sr high in the same building, but at different parts of the building to offset the age differences. Then at the end of the night we bring them all together for prize giveaways and to tell them about who we are and what we do the other nights when we have youth group.

        It actually works really well if it is coordinated well and your adult leaders are prepared for what to do when. This also is my best night to get fringe volunteers involved. The ones that do not want to be a regular leader, but help out at just the events. They are not afraid of a big task to help out with if it is only 3 or 4 times a year.

  • pjski

    Over the years we have done many things in an effort to separate out the ages.

    The one I like best and has worked best is 6th grade only for Sunday mornings, 7th-12th for large group hangout Sunday nights then break into 7th-8th and 9th-12th games for teaching. Then 7th-8th grade groups that are gender specific and grade specific. And for 9th-12th it is 9th and 10th grades gender specific groups and 11th-12th grades gender specific groups.

    I like Chris's idea of a 4th 5th and 6th grade group, but I think for us it would be better for just 5th and 6th, no 4th. This 5th and 6th grade would meet on Sunday mornings, but not come to our large group on Sunday nights until 7th. Right now we have our 6th grades coming Sunday mornings and also Sunday nights. It gives them the ability to know that if they do not want to come Sunday nights, there is still a place specific for them until they feel ok being with the older crowd, which usually happens by 7th grade. But we are now also seeing a disconnect in maturity from 7th to 8th grades.

    I am thinking the "Drivers vs. non-drivers" way to go is also a good one.

    We currently have enough leaders to separate the groups effectively, and I also think we have the ability to teach to the ages effectively. I think the large group hang out time is ok to have all of the ages since it adds for size, (We average 55 teens on Sunday nights)and also lets the younger teens see the older teens in action while not forcing them to hang out with them. I have a few older teens that i constantly remind to "minister" to the younger ones by at least saying hi to them and help them feel comfortable so they see the coolness of growing up in youth group.

    So I feel it is a good thing to separate for talks and group times. This way you can be specific in any teaching to the age you are speaking to. But I still feel there needs to be instances where the younger group sees what it is like to be older, even if the older teens can be immature at times.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dave.e.bondeson Dave Bondeson

    The developmental differences between a 6th grader and an 8th grader are pretty extreme, but I prefer the community building element of keeping students together who might bump into each other in the halls at school.

    While I have plenty of 8th grade students I feel could benefit from the teaching in my senior high group, I know the 6th grade students benefit from those 8th graders. It's a fair amount to place on the shoulders of my older middle-schoolers, but they've generally responded incredibly well!

  • http://twitter.com/mselliott98 @mselliott98

    Wow this is a subject that seems to be everywhere. We had this debate in our church several times. Our youth group was getting to big for the “youth room” so we were going to split them up. Of course the first suggestion was High School and Middle school split. It did not really work out as we planned. The thought was that they were together at school so why not at church. The problems we ran into was the 8th grades were a lot more “mature” emotionally, and even physically. They wanted to go out and most of the 6th and 7th graders were still in the IDK stage of the opposite sex. We have dress standards at our church, and there were some issues there. ____After rethinking and re-planning we made “preteen” type class with 6th and 7th graders and then we had the 8th -12th graders in our main classes and had small groups per grade. __It really seems to me to have worked out great. The teacher enjoyed it more ____Our biggest question was not really where should we put the 6th graders but we had a hard time finding the right place for the 8th graders.

  • http://twitter.com/mselliott98 @mselliott98

    ____I have heard the argument that we should separate them according to how the school system does it. In my personal opinion, I do not think that should even be an issue. The school system by far should not be a role to the church. They teach evolution and are generally more prone to be “anti God” and their value system has corrupted our teens for many years. We should have a higher standard of living and worship. Our system should not be anything like theirs… but that’s only my opinion lol. ____Every church is different. Try your idea and if it does not work find out why and change it. One day every teenager will stand before God and He will not ask what class they were in. What matters most is that they know Jesus as their personal Savior. __

  • http://ypinabby.blogspot.com Andrew Haak

    We keep our youth group age divisions pretty simple:
    * Jr Youth = grades 7-9
    * Sr Youth = grades 10-12

    This fall we’re going to try grade-based small groups (before they were a blend of all 3 grades).

    Overall, this model works – the parents have bought into it – and we often joined the two groups for large events.

    This age-division causes a little friction because we don’t line up exactly with the Jr High (grades 6-8) but the local elementary school is unique in that it has classes up to grade 7.

    We find that we will often ‘lose’ grade 9′s girls who re-connect the following year, and grade 12′s (again, mostly girls) often because of the difference in maturity.

  • http://www.wonderfullyawkward.com Jeremy Lee

    We are launching 5/6 and 7/8 that are separate but together. We are very excited. http://www.facebook.com/newvisionstudents

  • http://www.facebook.com/emmajanecrowther Emma Crowther

    I'm in Australia and we have High School from grades 7 to 12. We stop our Youth Group at year 10 and start our young adults group at year 11 so that they have already made the transition from youth to young adults before they make the huge move from high school school to tertiary study. It means we don't lose them at the end of high school like we did previously. Oh, and the year 11 and 12 kids have the option to be a "young apprentice" at the youth group to ease the transition and build leadership skills, clause is that they have to be regular attendees of the young adults group though!

    • http://www.studentministry.org Tim Schmoyer

      I like that! I hadn't heard of someone ending "youth group" early in order to help the other ones transition into other ministry in the church. Glad it's working out for you guys!

    • pjski

      That is a great idea Emma. not sure about 11th grade yet, but definitely doing it for 12th graders would help their transition. I might look into getting something like that going into this year. Our number of 12th graders is low anyways so it would not make a huge impact on the large number.

  • http://blog.thesource4ym.com/ Jonathan McKee

    I've been on a family vacation and just popped on this site to finally check in and see the discussion. Good stuff! Thanks all for chiming in. It's great to hear so many good ideas.

  • Jon forrest

    Jon McKee is my favorite "source" for youth ministry stuff and he's great as always but I'm watching Divided the movie at dividedthemovie.com and my brain is about to explode. I think it's a little overboard but wow. It says that separating our kids from their families is antichristian.

  • concerned parent

    what do you think of the idea of a church combining the high school and college age groups?

    • http://timschmoyer.com/ Tim Schmoyer

      There’s a lot of different ideas floating around surrounding this. Personally, I think it would be fine if the ministry was intentionally oriented around this combination.

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