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Why I’d rather combine jr. and sr. high at youth group

To combine or divine the youth group?I’m not saying that every youth group should combine jr. high and sr. high ministries, but I do think there are some valid reasons for keeping them together. Most ministries that have the two age groups combined do so only because they don’t feel as if they’re big enough to divide into two groups yet. Although some prominent youth ministers will tell you to divide the group right away regardless of how many students are in the ministry, I’d like to encourage us to think through the other side of the argument before proceeding just because some guru tells us to.

1. High school kids can leave a huge impact on jr. highers.

Seriously, this is HUGE! Think back to when you were in jr. high. If a high school kid actually talked to you and gave you attention, that meant the world! I still remember a Boy Scout trip back in 8th grade. One of the older guys who just got his driver’s license had a conversation with me while we were filling up water bottles — that made my entire weekend! Almost 20 years later I can still tell you what our conversation was about. I felt valued, appreciated, and totally accepted.

Encourage your high school students to reach out to the underclassmen as much as possible. If the guys on the wrestling team I help coach at our public high school can help train, encourage, and teach the upcoming jr. highers how to wrestle every day in practice, we should certainly be able to expect Christian kids to do the same spiritually.

2. It models what the body of Christ is all about

The body of Christ is not about segregating into groups of a similar age range. In fact, that could even have devastating affects on the body of Christ if we’re not careful. Diversity, working together, genuine community in spite of differences, all for the sake of bringing glory to God — this is what the body is all about.

3. It shapes a healthier view of church for their adult years

We must always be careful about how our ministries are unintentionally (even subconsciously) shaping our teenagers’ view of church, especially as they grow into adulthood and retain that perspective. Are they learning that church is a place where you latch on to peers in the same stage of life? Are they growing up with the expectation that they are at church to be served instead of serving others (consumerism)? Are they learning to embrace the diversity in love?

Question:

If you have jr. high and sr. high ministries split, why? If they’re combined, why? I’d love to process this more with you all in the comments below. I’m not convinced that one way is better than the other, but I do think it’s extremely critical that we think through why we divide or combine them.

Oh, and let’s try to get past all the general reasons like, “They’re at difference places in life,” and, “The jr. highers get on the high school kids’ nerves.” I don’t think they’re valid enough reasons to excuse greater benefit of keeping everyone together. They’re easily worked through given a bit of time to help kids and parents shift their perspective of youth group.

Just for the record, my youth ministry is divided into jr. and sr. high and that will not change anytime soon, although I’d love to explore the possibly some day.

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Posted on January 13, 2009

  • Our Sunday mornings are combined right now. It wash east to get there, but I find that it’s not as hard as you might think communicating to that age range all at once. And I agree wholly with the benefits though t this point the high schoolers don’t take much notice of the jr. highers. I expect that it will change with time and vision imparted to them.

  • My youth group has is combined Jr and Sr high and small groups are divided according to the High School a student would attend vs small groups by grade. There are average Sunday attendance of 70 so things are a little tricky at times. The primary reason for doing it this way was to teach about being a church and develop the “house church” idea. The students would interact with each other in small groups and would also interact at their respective schools. The emphasis is on being a community together (as the youth group is called DLT: Do Life Together, http://www.weDLT.com). The challenge is that some small groups are certain grade heavy while others are light (some groups have lots of 10th graders, while some have one or two) and as a result some students feel alone. It’s work in progress, but it is breaking down the grade barriers and becomes a logical transition into adult ministry small groups where there can be a wide range of ages.

  • We don’t have junior or senior systems here in Scotland. There is a divide at about age 11, when children leave primary school and go on to secondary education. For young people aged c.11-18 we have a lot of different things going on, and some of them are for different ages, but some aren’t. I don’t suppose it would be helpful to be dogmatic about it. Being pragmatic enables us to do what works. Besides, when it comes to discipleship, one group may be more developed in their faith than another, and a mix or match of ages may occur naturally.

  • Our junior high and high school is split mostly due to the practical reason that both groups are too large to fit in the same room. (That’s not a “my youth group is bigger than your youth group” statement, it’s just the reality I find myself in). That may not be the most profound reason, but it’s where we’re at. We did recently try an experiment of having a weekend retreat combining the two groups and found much of what you said to be true. Our high school students had a significant positive impact on the junior highers, especially high school students ministering to their junior high siblings. I loved seeing older students praying with and for younger ones! It also did provide a healthier model of the body of Christ, with students learning how to interact with one another regardless of social boundaries.

  • We do not have the numbers to support middle school & high school on different nights. All 3 of our programs are combined. Wednesday is our Mid-week ConneXtions (outreach/entry level) and Sunday morning is our Sunday School and Sunday eve is our Bible Study. We also have a Club56 (5th & 6th grades) it is a good transition from Kid’s Club to Student Ministry. Too old for Kid’s club and not ready for Student Ministry. We often do activities to include them.

    I would like to utilize small groups, but Sunday morning does not allow enough time, and Sunday eve Bible study is small already.

    Some of our Club56 parents do not like the groups together as they are not ready for their 5th or 6th grader hanging out with a high school student.

    We are starting a new ministry that will happen once a month on Sunday evening. ELEVATE, is a worship experience that will combine 5th grade – 12 grade. We worship together and prayer together. We know that some pretty incredible things can happen when we worship and pray together.

    We are not sure of the support we will have, but we will see after Sunday.

    Being together forces my high school students to step it up a notch or two and be GODLY examples to our middle school and Club56

  • Dave

    My thought is that there is a time for everything…a time to come together and a time to spend apart. Large group activity is just as important as small group (and even samller group) activity. Yes, Sr Highers can have a big impact, but the impact can just as easily be big positive or big negative! Much depends on the maturity levels of the individuals. I think its critical to meet separately with the mature, godly, committed kids, regardless of their ages; mentoring them, teaching them to be “big positive” leaders. I think this is a Christ-like model: Jesus certainly “divided” His disciples at certain points and for certain reasons.

    Point #3 is a struggle for me right now. Our youth group is at the point where it is essentailly a “church within a church” – set apart from others ministries. Not going to air the dirty details about how we got to this point – just saying it is so…and a lot is lost because of it.

  • We are a combined ministry. It’s been that way since we began about 11 years ago. The reasons that we went in this direction and have continued to stick with it are similar to what you explained above. We have found the intergenerational ministry that takes place is phenomenal. Each age group, rather than feeling separate, is connected in relationship with others. In using this approach we have seen more of a big brother and big sister deal take place. The older ages are naturally taking a younger student under their wing and making them comfortable. We have plenty of numbers where we could separate the groups but we have chosen to use our sanctuary space each week and keep them all together. It just became a non-negotiable for me in the early years and has been very beneficial to our area.

    We do split into grades and gender for our small groups though. We do this intentionally because as they listen to the message in the large group they then need to dissect the application of the message and we have found that different ages have different application.

  • We have our middle school and high school separated because we see such disparity in their life situations and in how they learn and relate to one another. A game that may be hilarious and effective for middle schoolers has the potential to be completely lame for a senior in high school. We feel they learn differently, their maturity levels cause there to be a gap in their learning as well. This is not to say that combining them couldn’t work.

    We also feel that separating them gives the middle schoolers a chance to “own” their own night and service. They plan, run and execute a lot of their service Wed. nights…where as most of the high schoolers plan, run and execute their service on Fri nights.

    I do agree that middle schoolers can learn a lot from the high schoolers which is why I have a good group of high school student who serve with the middle school students. They are there as an example and to be leaders.

    For us it has worked out better to separate the groups and allow them to grow on their own.

  • Interesting topic here Timmy! Now the way I’ve had the opportunity to take advantage of both worlds is that I have Jr High First then Senior High (I guess “separated”) but there is about a half hour in between where I have them combined for worship and a hang out time so they get to spend time together, I also have Sr High leaders who help out with the Jr High so they also get to share together. I used to have parents who would not allow their Jr Highers to come out to youth group because Sr. Highers were there (when it used to be combined.) We also do have better conversations more appropriate to their group on the smaller class setting.

  • Tim — I would agree and disagree with you at the same time. I agree that combining and keeping jr. high and high school combined isn’t a problem. That’s the way we structure our mid-week services — jr. high and high school are together in one room. And I like this, just as you seem to.

    But on the level of small group and discussion groups, I do think it’s necessary to divide not only gender, but ages as well (jr. high boys, jr. high girls, high school boys, high school girls). Of course, this works for us and may not work for everyone, but I do think that in a small group setting students of similar ages and grade feel more comfortable talking and share their life to someone who may only be a year younger or a year older, and not 3-4 years younger or 3-4 years older. In that regards, students ARE at different places in life and there are differences that while in a big group setting like during the message may not matter, in the small group setting when students are opening up and talking, I believe matters and should be broken down into jr. high and high school.

    Great topic to talk about! :)

  • Jake

    The problem I am seeing with this situation in my youth group (12-18) is that when relationships begin to develop between the older (17-18) and the younger (12-16), you have parents whe object. We have a 19 year old dating at 16 year old by the consent of the parents, but it is causing havoc among the other teen mothers and fathers wonderng “is everybody dating everybody over there”, because naturally, parents have a problem with that. I dont find it difficult at all teaching all age groups, most yonger ones listen intentley because they are so new and open to change, and most older ones have already experienced much of what I am talking about..however, i like the fact that older teens can reach out to younger ones to teach and to guide..but it can be dangerous if not closely monitored, and honsetly it can be devastating.

  • I agree with his assessment. I grew up in a ministry that had a combined big group mid week and then more age specific sunday school. The big gathering on wednesday nights were some of my favorite times as a Jr. Higher because I saw people older than me actively engaging their faith, and maybe our group was unique (i hope not) but I always felt that the older kids were very inclusive with the younger ones.

  • Gary Wooten

    With our student ministry we do it both ways. We split about twice a month in our midweek youth service.(Depending on the teaching series we are on at the time). We always do praise and worship together. I agree that Sr high students can have an impact on the Jr high students, good and bad.
    We sometime have a Sr high student come in to speak to the Jr higher or to help with a class. Of course we always pick a Sr high who shows spiritual maturity.

    I have worked with youth for many years and I have seen some different need in the age groups. Here are a few areas we look to minister to Jr highs as a separate group

    – Jr high students are in the peak of an identity crisis. They are not settled as much on who they are.

    – Leadership can be initiated and developed, at time, better among peers. (Jr. Highers may be reluctant to step out in a combined setting.)

    -Jr High student still have a little children’s church in them. They like and relate to thing that may be little less mature than a Sr high group would. (Although they will deny it.)

  • This year, we decided to kind of combine groups. We’re big enough to do two separate groups, and have for the past 6 years. This year we changed it up somewhat. The groups are separated for most of the night until the last 30-45 minutes where everyone either plays dodgeball or rock band or whatever. Then everyone is together. I speak for both groups, but while I’m at one, leaders are running crowdbreakers or small groups for the other. So, we have a separate/combined group.

    -Leaders then need to do more within the ministry rather than the default of me doing everything…involvement becomes imperative (if they stand around, things don’t happen rather than us YP’s filling in the gaps, which often happens)

    -Junior Highers get a chance to be encouraged/mentored/etc. by high school.

    -Larger group (we’re about 25/25, 50 all together) lets us do different things sometimes)

    -Only one night out for me (which allows for other things during the week)

    -Separation allows for age-specific teaching

    -One trip out for parents with kids in both groups (parents like that!)

    This has gone really well for us so far, though it may not be for everyone.

  • Couple of things:

    For the past few years, we’ve combined the groups for all of our weekly activities (Sunday School, Sunday night d-group, Wednesday night youth group. Beginning a few weeks ago, we split ms/hs for Sunday school, and ma/hs and even gender for Wednesday nights. In a few weeks, we’ll be talking about human sexuality using Interlinc’s stuff, so we thought it best that they be divided. We are, however, putting 8th graders in with HS for Wednesday nights.

  • I’d say that our youth ministry is a hybrid.

    Small Groups:
    These we do on the same one night of the week, in our building. The time is built around some hanging out time of sr. high & jr high together and then we go to small groups according to age and gender so that the leaders are able to invest in the kids and get involved with what they are into at that specific time in their lives.

    Trips/Retreats:
    We do one retreat each fall that is age based, jr. high (6-8) & sr. high (9-12.) Then in late winter we do one trip that is sex based so all the girls will be going to the Revolve Tour and all the guys will be doing our own made up weekend event. In the spring we do everyone together for 30 Hour Famine.

    Missions:
    When it comes to local missions we do everything together. When it come to trips, we don’t do them. SHOCKER! Actually our students are involved with lots of mission trips, they are just not youth mission trips, all of our church mission trips are for teens and older.

  • Joe Insell

    Very good discussion. We have our Jr. high and high school combined. I’ve heard all my ym career that you HAVE to separate the two, but I haven’t found that to be true at all. We actually have an interesting set up. We do all our YM stuff on Wed nights. We have a 5th-6th grade service then immediately following that we have our youth service. The 5-6th graders stay in for our P&W then leave as we do our lesson part. We do have a game room area that we hang out in before and after service and that’s the only time the 2 groups actually interact with each other (the 5-6th graders do get on the older ones nerves a bit but those just show up a bit later). We don’t have a lot of mentoring by the older crowd but I think it’s still a good mix. I do my best to reach all ages with the lesson. In all honesty, I think the presence of the 5-6th graders make the Jr high-ers more tolerable to the high school-ers. It’s all about perspective!

  • Jeremy

    Hey Tim, my group is currently running about 20-30 youth on an average night from grades 6-12. Most are in the grades 7,9,10, or 12, but we’ve got a smattering of other grades as well. This past fall some of the jr. high boys taunted the “wrong” sr. high boy and were beat up pretty good prompting a huge debate about dividing up the group. I used the line “maybe when we get bigger,” but I don’t really like it. I realize that there are times you have to divide for logistical reasons such as you can’t all fit in one vehicle or you can’t all have community in the same small group, etc., but for our big friday events which are all about building community and relationships (Positive peer pressure) with each other, dividing ourselves has the effect of shooting ourselves in the foot. Instead, I’ve decided to go in the opposite direction. Since the greatest need in a youth’s life, other than a vibrant, personal relationship with God, is vibrant, personal relationships with adults who care about them, I’ve been seeking to add events where more adults from the church family can get involved in youth nights, such as a progressive supper spread throughout the church or using the adults to hide for the mall hunt, or joining with the young adults group for paintball and ski trips.
    On the practical side, I agree with Adam that it lets me and my leaders keep an extra night with my family at home as well. I like the ability to teach certain topics in small groups, but I also like the ability to teach about life together in large groups, too.

  • I’m a huge believer in the combined jr. high and high school program, especially for mid-week. It does give the older students those leadership opportunities. But there is also a synergy that is created when there are a lot of kids. In a group of about 20 kids like we have many of whose parents are not active in our church or any other church attendance for them can be hit or miss. To have everyone together makes our little youth building feel like a hoppin’ place. Since so many of our students come on their own, our Sunday School crowd is a lot smaller than our Wednesday night crowd. I wish I could age grade Sunday school, but it’s just not a realistic possibility until we get more than ten kids coming. Sunday nights is fun. We do small groups where we split up into girls and guys groups. Eventually we’ll have 4 groups–JH boys, JH girls, HS boys, HS girls. Right now, though a lot of our high schoolers are either really young or really young in their faith so they connect well with the lessons that are geared toward younger kids. That’s what we do and it seems to be working!

  • I’m a big fan of the “both/and” Strategy. We have midweek student experience for middle school and high school combined and Sunday morning we are split into smaller age divided groups. I also like to intentionally use high school students to teach or lead middle school stuff (just like I use college students with high school).

  • Ricky

    Initially we started w/ a midweek program (5 months ago) with a combined group of middle and high schoolers because “we don’t have enough kids to split the group”. In the 5 months we’ve seen tremendous growth numerically, but we’ve also seen tremendous growth spiritually particularly in our middle school. I believe a lot of that has to do with the fact that they are around a group of high schoolers who take “church” seriously. They want to be like the high schoolers who model their relationship w/ Christ.

    At first the high school students had a little bit of a problem w/ being surrounded by middle school kids, especially when they were outnumbered 2:1. That has motivated the high schoolers to bring more of their friends b/c they didn’t want to be outnumbered which is a win for us! We also have provided a small group time during the night where all the students are broken up by grades (6th&7th, 8th&9th, and 10th-12th). This gives them time to be away from “little kids” and have their own discussion time.

    It has been highly effective for our ministry and I’m glad we’ve done it this way.

  • Seth

    Interesting discussion. When I started at this church we were combined due to small numbers. We split halfway through last school year (because at that point it seemed a no-brainer to me) but had barely any middle schoolers which meant they had barely any fun. We combined at the beginning of this school year and I have heard complaints from the high schoolers. I think I always just assumed if you could manage to split the groups, it makes sense to do that. Thanks for everyone’s thoughts, it’s very good to know it’s not a no-brainer. This has made me think about if I will eventually split them up again.

  • Wes

    I inherited a youth group that had both senior high and junior high together, but was very small, like 8 youth. In about 6 months, we have 30 youth (20 jr high and 10 senior high). I have been thinking about splitting them into separate youth groups, but reading this has given me something else to think about. My senior high students do think of the junior high a bit more kid like, and so seem to tolerate them. This is mostly true with my older senior high youth and with the guys. The unique situation that I am in is that I am the Bible teacher at the school that is associated with the church, so most of the youth are my students as well and most are junior high. We just started a high school this year, with 9th grade and those high school youth seem to be more tolerant of the junior high. I guess, after thinking this through a bit, it would seem wise to wait and see what happens, and maybe more encouraging to the senior high youth to see themselves as mentors. Back to the prayer board!

  • three words: the sex lesson

    having to teach to the lowest common denominator is the problem…..that being said we are combined for now, looking for ways to split….just don’t have the space right now

  • Dan

    Hi Tim.

    This is an interesting issue, as we’ve just done it at my youth group. We found that as it was, it simply wasn’t working well. The younger teenagers tended to be rowdy and often didn’t pay much attention to anything that they felt wasn’t engaging at their level, meaning that things tended to get dumbed down and then the older teens (like me) weren’t getting much out of activities.

    Our solution has been to “dovetail” the times – the younger ones start at 5pm and they have their own session till 6.15. At 6.15, older teens turn up and we have a meal together. Then at 6.45, the younger ones leave and the older ones stay on till 8pm. We are a small youth group (they are only 10 of us combined) but I feel this does work a little better than previously. Furthermore, some of the older ones come at the beginning and stay for the whole time – due to time restrictions, I can’t do that.

    It’s a novel solution, but we just need more growth, especially in the older group before it’ll really succeed.

    Dan

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  • Chad Shiffer

    It may work for your group (or some groups), but it sure hasn’t at my last two churches. In both instances, both groups FLOURISHED after I split them into MS/HS. I was loosing kids each week – the rowdiness of the younger kids, plus the fact many of them were non-church kids, turned away the older and more mature high schoolers, a couple who were strong Christians. That was also a part-time position for me and the group was small – around 10 or so. I fought splitting because of low numbers and time issues, but in the end it worked out great to split – I just had the groups back-to-back on Sunday nights.

    The same thing has happened where I’m at now and because I’m full-time I can devote more time and do separate nights. Of course we do events and conferences together, but for teaching and personal interaction, having both groups together would be disasterous. Having a big “hoppin” group is not my concern – ministering to students where they’re at, with what they’re going through, showing them God and His love for them, that’s what I’m concerned about. At this point, that means keeping them in separate groups and allowing them to have an identity there.

  • Joe

    This is a tough issue. We have done it both ways. If you have a dynamic leadership oriented senior high group that wants to mentor younger teens then its great. In my group I inherited a group of awesome middle schoolers in 7th-9th grade and then the senior high pastor left and I was told to combine the groups. The senior high group was basically not serving the Lord and a very bad example to younger ones. One by one, the younger ones started following the lead of the senior high group. It was devasting. We had 40 kids separately. After a year of combining we were down to 25 and 3 junior high girls pregnant by senior high boys. We are now 5 years passed that stage and with much work and prayer our group is again moving ahead with 70 strong vibrant youth. Our success is based upon the one on one mentoring by solid adults, doing gender specific classes to build self confidence and how to relate to the opposite sex, training in leadership, giving opportunity for those ready to go deeper in the Lord. We have very small Sunday School classes (1-3 students), gender specific and personal mentoring times. We have leadership and training retreats quarterly for those wanting to go deeper. They are trained at those times to be leaders when they go back into the regular youth group. On Wednesday night we gather together for a time of worship with all youth from 3rd grade to college age and end the evening with club games divided into three groups. 3rd-6th grade, 7th-10th grade, 11th-College age. In between the worship and game time, we have a “Lesson” time divided as, College age, 11th-12th grade, 9th-10th grade, 7th-8th grade, 5th-6th grade, 3rd-4th grade or individual grades if numbers show a need. It is working because of the heavy emphasis on solid mentoring and training.

  • I’m considering splitting my youth into jr. / sr. high groups because if I had a jr. high school child in the youth group, I wouldn’t want my child to be around most of the senior high youth.

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