Welcome to the Orange Kids Podcast, where we talk about the big ideas of kids’ ministry and discuss practical solutions to our weekly challenges. This week, Dan Scott, Curriculum Director for 252 Kids and Preteen at Orange, joins hosts Mike, Gina, and Kellen to discuss the why and the how of launching a preteen ministry.
Dan Scott is the Curriculum Director for 252 Kids and Preteen at Orange. He spends most of his time leading a creative team of talented writers that innovate our large group environments. Prior to coming on board at Orange, Dan served as the Elementary Children’s Director at Ada Bible Church. He enjoys traveling around the world coaching children’s ministry leaders and speaking to kids and students. He blogs about life and ministry at danscottblog.com and all over social media @danscott77. Dan and his wife Jenna live in Cumming, Ga. and have four amazing kids: Liam, Ellison, Addison, and Taye.
Here on the OKP, we’re ready to go. We look good. We sound good. We are good! (You gotta take that first one on faith.)
Part of the reason we’re so good is that Dan Scott is hanging out with us today to talk preteen ministry!
1. Why are preteens checking out at an alarming rate?
Dan: There are two things we need to keep in mind. Developmentally, it’s where they are. Their minds are changing. They’re seeing the world in a new way. Also, consider the environment. If you’re shooting for K-5, you can’t hit a kindergartener and a 5th grader at the same time.
They’re thinking a little more abstractly about life. They can see nothing has changed in the environment for the past six years, so it must be for little kids. It’s the longest phase of our ministries where they’re keenly aware they’re in it.
Preschool: you’re there for five years, but you don’t realize it. Student ministry we break up into phases.
In children’s ministry, we typically have not broken it up.
Part of the time, preteens are thinking like children and part of the time like teenagers.
We haven’t looked strategically at our ministries and said, “how can we keep engaging this child?” knowing how their brain is changing.
Gina: As a ministry leader, I’m pulling off a dynamic ministry experience each week to capture their attention. A small group leader is connecting with those kids. I’m hoping that’s what draws them in and that this relationship will be the glue through this season.
Dan: It’s a law of diminishing returns. Their brain will check off the bells and whistles at some point. The relationship is hard; their small group leader has to understand the changes happening in that child, even if they have a fantastic relationship. If the leader isn’t changing the relationship, then the child won’t attach. It’s easier for girls than boys. Boys don’t want to talk about their feelings. Relationships may not grab them.
What will keep them laughing? Humor is a great currency with a preteen boy.
Mike: The missing piece for kid min leaders is understanding what these kids are going through. In kid min, we don’t have a lot of time to pull off and talk about child development.
2. What are the main things changing in the life of a preteen?
Dan: Get the book! Caught in Between
They are way more aware of culture – music, media, movies. They are developing their own tastes, not just their parents’.
No one is watching the Disney Channel in 5th grade. They’re watching Disney Plus – The Mandalorian.
Mike: AS THEY SHOULD BE.
Dan: They see through what the storyteller is doing and trying to connect with. You have to do your homework. Spend time on YouTube. This is the magic of the So & So show. We’ve tried to tap into the cultural consciousness of a preteen.
Education and extracurriculars are changing. They’re becoming more intense, more stressful.
We can’t expect them to do homework through the week. Teachers and coaches are already pressuring them to do higher level thinking that they’re not good at yet.
We need to create Sabbath environments for our preteens: places to laugh and enjoy and have fun and be real. No expectations.
We feel like we need to go deeper since they are more capable of it now. Deep is really just helping them see how what Scripture says translates to their everyday world.
Developmentally, preteens are losing their minds.
Gina: There’s a scramble taking place.
Dan: They’re getting rid of what they don’t need to make room for what they do need for adulthood. Cognitive pruning.
Puberty is happening. Hormones.
You’ll have great days and assume the next week will be like that – but it’s not. Give them grace.
3. What’s the best possible environment to provide for a preteen?
Dan: Ideally, they would have their own environment, decorated and taught differently. Small group leaders are given a little more responsibility in how they care for the kids. They start connecting with kids outside the church building.
People ask, what grades should be included in preteen ministry? That’s up to the church and area of country. Don’t feel like you have to do what your school district is doing. They are making decisions based on space and budgets. What they are doing is not necessarily cognitively correct.
If you want to put fifth and sixth grade together, don’t be afraid to do that. Sixth graders are going to school at the bottom of pole. Give them leadership in the fourth- to sixth-grade or fifth- to sixth- grade environment at church. Now you’re giving them ownership of their faith. We’re giving them keys to the kingdom.
Gina: In their own environment, preteens get to have a different type of conversation.
Dan: This goes for your communicator onstage, too. Across the board, the more narrow your audience, the more specific your message.
When you have a kindergartener and a fifth grader in the same room, you have to defer to the older kids. But then you lose K-3 getting to apply in their context.
Gina: Reggie says, “if you can’t own your doubts, you can’t own your faith.” This is where preteens start to ask harder questions.
Dan: They see nuances. They realize there are a million floating dead bodies in the Noah’s ark story. Wait a sec! It’s not just about cute animals.
Mike: That’s one of the fearful things in ministry. I’m going to tell you, “God loves you.” In preteen, hands goes up to ask, “what about….?”
Dan: When you get preteens in a specific environment, it can be the safest place to ask a hard question about faith. It can be messy.
We all want to forget our preteen years. They are living them.
4. The ideal is a separate space. What if we are not operating in the ideal space?
Gina: What if I’m opening a portable campus? I have no budget or space. How do I create something special for preteens?
Dan: If you have a giant room, you can work wonders with pipe and drape and Ikea furniture. Maybe everyone is together for large group, but give them their own space for small group. Put up the red line, and the third graders can’t go in there. Give them something to look forward to at every stage. You’re trying to bridge gaps. That can help keep them engaged.
In a portable church, we did wonders with a hallway. Work with your fire codes. Use pipe and drape in a hallway is not a bad idea. Flat panels are less expensive. Air drop things to apple TVs and make it work. Decorate with technology. It just needs to be comfortable, different, theirs. Give them ownership.
If a separate environment is not option, give your preteens an experience that is their own. They get a party or a day retreat. Something they are looking forward to, just for them. A unique experience that says to them you do understand where they are at.
Kellen: We do K-3 and 4-6 due to space. Sometimes a leader doesn’t show up.
Shocking! We have all lost so much respect for Kellen!
Occasionally we have to put classrooms together because we don’t have a preteen leader. I will hear – “Oh, man! We’re stuck in that room?!”
It’s a huge red flag – I really need to make sure we structure the system so they get this environment of their own.
Dan: At school, teachers are giving preteens responsibility to lead learning groups for 6-8 kids. (Small groups!) They’re in charge. The teacher gives a message from the front, then has those leaders take over. They’re not being micromanaged. You can give preteens responsibility. We don’t have to micromanage them at church.
Structure small group so that when we don’t have ideal number of kids, one leader can have two groups and go between. Put a kid in charge of each group.
Gina: Wonder, Discovery and Passion. Three dials. Passion is starting to dial up. Tap into that Passion dial by empowering them.
Dan: You might see a preteen who would make a great Preschool small group. Tap them on the shoulder.
Gina: So I’ve heard – provide exclusive areas if you can. Also provide exclusive experiences. We used to do Nerf wars for 4-5. For the boys, that was glue.
5. What are other factors that would make a 5th grade boy want to stick around?
Dan: We hear a lot of questions about worship. Singing. If you have the right large group communicator or video, you can win that part of it. Worship – just because they aren’t singing or dancing doesn’t mean they don’t like it. They’re just in such a vulnerable phase of their life, where they are so hyper aware of themselves and what people think of them. Don’t shame them. Don’t call them out. Just keep doing it.
Have cool guys on stage. Lead them that way.
As a children’s pastor, make sure you are talking with your student pastor. Make sure you have a really good relationship with them, because both of you have something at stake in this conversation.
If preteens, drop out of your environment, don’t assume they will automatically start attending your student environment.
Have your youth pastor be one of your communicators in large group.
Start introducing some of the middle school ministry music.
Have the Student team own the transition process so preteens feel welcomed into the new ministry instead of kicked out of the old ministry. You always want the kid to feel wanted and liked, because that’s what they’re questioning most.
Mike: It’s always an awkward dance between kid min and student ministry. Have a lunch with the student pastor. “We’re losing our preteens. Help me understand the culture.”
Dan: If you are keeping attendance data, you can be honest. If it’s happening in February or March, you’ve lost half. Say, “We have a situation. I’m losing these kids. They may be coming to church with parents, but I don’t know that. You will get fewer and fewer of them.”
Adjust your environment so that you get preteens wanting to come and inviting friends
Gina: This is one of the mistakes I’ve made. We’ve done this step with student ministry, but our game plan starts in spring. If I’ve lost them by the holidays, we’re starting at 50% in January. It may be too late.
We do a Heroes and Oreos Sunday. None of the 5th grade boys are coming dressed as a super hero. We’re solidifying “this is not your place.”
Dan: It depends on the fifth-grade boy. Some are still into Legos and super heroes. What works in one community doesn’t necessarily in another. You just have to try something. Let them see you’re trying.
Lego does this so well. We need to ask our kids. Let them be the focus group. That will give us a starting point and a game plan. “You don’t like super heroes; what would your thing be?” Survey your kids.
And when all else fails, pick up your copy of Dan’s book—
Or just come to Kellen’s house: He has three copies.
Your preteens are changing—
- Take the time to understand what’s happening in their minds and bodies.
- Start a conversation with your youth pastor
- Do what you can to give them their own space or at least their own events. If they see that, they may give you some grace.
- Caught in Between: Engage Your Preteens Before They Check Out – Dan Scott
- Orange Kids Podcast 008 – How to Manage Transitions (featuring Dan Scott)
- Orange Leaders Podcast 052 – What’s New with Today’s Preteens (featuring Dan Scott)
- Rethinking Youth Ministry 045 – Why Every Youth Leader Should Care About Preteen Ministry (featuring Dan Scott)