Some of my greatest successes in ministry are direct results of my greatest failures.
Years ago, my leadership team and I were dreaming up ways to kick off the fall season of our preteen youth group. We wanted to give kids an experience that we could point back to all year. It was going to be great!
What better way to kick off this new season of midweek goodness than a good ol’ fashioned trust fall?
We left our planning session with visions of eager preteens lining up to take their turns. One by one, they would climb a tall step stool, tie on a blindfold, and then, on the count of three, boldly fall backward into the safety of our leaders’ linked arms.
We imagined the triumphant smiles on each of our preteens faces as they conquered their fears to the emphatic cheers of their peers. It was going to be an empowering experience they wouldn’t soon forget…We were partially right.
An Example of What Not to Do
The night came. We had thought it through. Step ladder? Check. Enough leaders on hand to safely catch each preteen and keep things moving? Check. Mattress on the ground for extra safety? Check. Snacks? Duh! Trust fall or bust mentality? Check.
As kids began to arrive, we welcomed them with a nametag and a smile and after about 15 minutes of hang time, we gathered our preteens and brought them over to the trust fall area. We explained what a trust fall was and declared that everyone was going to participate.
As kids lined up, we noticed some of their faces weren’t quite as eager as we had expected. We ramped up our encouragement with phrases like, “You can do this!” and, “We believe in you!” and, “Look, everyone else is doing it, you can too!” (Did we seriously just tell a preteen “everyone is doing it”?!?).
I will always remember Joe. Joe was in 4th grade and brand new to our program. I remember seeing him in line looking very nervous. He clearly did not want to do this activity.
When it was his turn to climb the step stool, he did so with great hesitation. As he stood at the top, all eyes were on him. He wanted to climb back down.
With the best of intentions, we said, “No turning back now! You’ve got this!” With tears falling down his cheeks, Joe did the trust fall. It was his first night with us…and his last. We never saw Joe again.
What We Learned
Fast forward ten years. Once again, my—now quite seasoned—leaders were planning for the fall season. Someone mentioned doing a trust fall, and that idea was immediately met with groans. “No way. Don’t you remember what happened last time?”
However, as we continued talking, we began to explore ways we could approach a trust fall from a different angle. We realized that a trust fall could work. It could even be great as long as we kept in touch with who these preteens are and where they are developmentally.
We couldn’t just focus on physical safety—we needed to consider emotional, social, and spiritual safety as well.
Why are the tween years a unique window of opportunity?
Their Bodies Are Changing
So, who are these preteens? One of the key words marking the preteen years is change. Their physical bodies are quickly changing—sometimes to the extent that they’re waking up in bodies that feel significantly different from when they went to bed the night before.
In fact, sometimes their bodies change so fast that their brains actually don’t have time to adjust. This affects their coordination and equilibrium. Awkward!
Their Brains Are Changing
And speaking of brains, the preteen brain is in a state of rewiring.
At one moment, the mention of the word “cat” would simply draw up the image of a specific cat that they know, i.e. Grandma’s orange cat named Fluffy. At another moment, the mention of “cat” would remind them of Fluffy, plus the variety of feline animals they saw last time they visited the zoo and perhaps a book they just read on the topic. They may have even formed a personal opinion about which cat they think would be the fastest or jump the highest.
They’re Figuring Themselves Out
The preteen years are all about beginning steps toward owning their thoughts and opinions. In other words, preteens are beginning to figure out WHO they are becoming and WHAT they believe about themselves and the world around them.
And while tweens are beginning to think like adults, they lack the experience of an adult, which can lead to some pretty “memorable” moments. Did somebody mention awkward?
Preteens are constantly gathering information from their environments. Since their peers are becoming more and more of a primary source of information, experiences amongst their peers can be formative. For better or worse.
Preteens need safe spaces where they can explore, make choices, take risks, make mistakes, be challenged, and be championed.
How do you cultivate a church culture where tweens want to belong?
So how do we create spaces that feel emotionally and socially safe to a preteen?
Let’s go back to our trust fall. This time—after we had learned from the first trust fall catastrophe—we decided to offer preteens a challenge, give them a choice, and cheer them on either way.
Instead of saying, “We are all doing this, but you can opt-out if you want,” we said, “Here’s an opportunity to try something. If you would like to opt-in, come line up.”
Not everyone stood up and got in line—and that was 100% okay. In fact, we strategically placed a handful of leaders in the crowd to simply sit and cheer with those who opted to participate by observing.
Lily, a fifth-grade girl who was not new but rather shy, hesitated for quite some time. As she saw others be brave, she decided she wanted to give it a try.
She was one of the last ones to line up and was visibly nervous. By the time she got to the step stool, her lip was quivering.
Lily’s friends, who were among the first to get in line, were sitting with the rest of the group watching her. One shouted, “You can do it, Lily!”
I reminded Lily that it was okay if she wanted to wait and try it another time. But Lily was determined to face her fears. “I want to do it,” she said, “I am just super nervous.”
When the crowd caught on, they began cheering emphatically. Lily lingered at the top of the step stool as she pushed through tears to muster up every bit of courage she could.
And then a great look of resolve came over her face. She donned her blindfold, got into position, and loudly exclaimed, “Okay. I’ve got this. Ready? Three…two…” And on the count of one, she boldly completed the task at hand.
The kids went nuts with excitement for Lily! They went out of their way to congratulate her and tell her how proud they were of her. It was a moment I will not soon forget. My guess is that Lily won’t either.
What practical steps can you take toward a preteen-friendly culture?
Empower preteens to make their own choices. This is a BIG step toward faith ownership.
Preteens thrive when they are given safe spaces and allowed to voice their own opinions and make their own decisions about how they want to proceed.
The more opportunities they have to do this, the more comfortable they will become with owning using their voices and owning their choices.
As leaders, we need to continually ask ourselves: Where are the opportunities for preteens to make choices within our ministry? Are there ways to create even more opportunities?
Create opportunities for preteens to experience new things, take risks, and even make mistakes. But make sure to do so with great compassion and understanding for who they are and where they are developmentally.
As leaders, we must frequently ask ourselves: How often do we invite preteens to explore new things? What are we doing to normalize these experiences and help tweens grow from their mistakes?
Preteens need encouragement. Constantly. They need to know that they are seen, heard, and valued—collectively AND individually. SO much of their identity is being formed in real time.
When a preteen understands they are truly seen, heard, and loved by the church, it reinforces the fact that Jesus sees them, hears them, and loves them.
As leaders, we must regularly ask ourselves: Where do we have people strategically placed to cheer on our preteens no matter what? How are we training our leaders to understand our preteens and help them feel seen, known, and loved?
My guess is that you’re reading this because you’re looking for ways to better engage preteens. Be encouraged! Your heart is already there.
Ministry to preteens is chalk full of opportunity for loving people like you to come alongside them and help them discover what God has uniquely created them to be and do.
The preteen years are a highly formative window, and we don’t want to miss it.
If you create a safe space that shouts “YOU BELONG HERE” and cover it in prayer, compassion, and intentionality, the preteens in your church will connect with God and others in deep and meaningful ways that impact them for a lifetime.