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 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

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