This is in response to the people who, when I tell them I love working with junior high students, say something along the lines of these following phrases:
“What?!? You’re crazy! Middle schoolers are the worst!”
“Well, I guess someone has to.”
“God bless you.”
And, my personal favorite…
Granted, I’ve come to expect these responses and they usually make me laugh. I like having a unique heart for a group of people that few others have the tolerance for. I enjoy the look of shock and awe on my friends’ faces when I tell them how I spent the majority of my past two summers hanging out and attempting to have heart-to-hearts with hormonal preteens whose attention span is less than that of a newborn goldfish.
But deep down, these responses actually kind of bother me.
Probably it’s because I was one of those hormonal preteens whose attention span was less than that of a newborn goldfish. I was your typical overly hyper, fashionably challenged, grewupinthechurch girl with a strong sense of self-righteousness and a weak sense of humor. I, like all thirteen-year-olds, needed a little extra patience from my peers.
And thank God I got it, although (most of) it wasn’t from my peers.
My youth leaders have, hands down, been some of the most influential people in my life. They loved me through my prolonged awkward stages, when I couldn’t carry a conversation to save my life and I called my parents to ask permission to watch PG movies. They gently spoke truth into the lies I believed about myself, Jesus, and other people. They helped me understand that God’s love is not something we earn by being the only one in our friend group who doesn’t swear or listen to music with the word “sex” in it – it is a gift, pure and simple: unconditional, wrapped in grace, no returns. They took me out for milkshakes, laughed hard at my jokes that probably weren’t that funny, brushed out the half-dreadlocks that formed in my greasy summer hair during Bible study sleepovers, listened to my angsty adolescent woes and responded with their wise and emotionally rational input, and – in one case – called me during a hair appointment the morning of their wedding to wish me a happy birthday (looking at you, Diana. ♥) I don’t even like to imagine who I would be today if it wasn’t for the individuals who invested so much of their precious time and energy into loving my hardtolove junior high self.
On that note, I’m well aware that we all have different strengths and talents and we’re all gifted in different areas of ministry. Not all of us are called to be youth leaders, and I get that. (On that note, I have so much respect for those of you who work with children/infants on a daily basis. I can’t spend more than two hours with humans I can’t hold a coherent conversation with.) And yes, middle schoolers are infamous for being petty, dramatic, immature, selfish, awkward, attention-loving, etc. But honestly, I would dare to say our adult selves possess most of those same qualities… we’ve just gotten a little better at hiding them.
Here’s the thing: the middle school students I’ve worked with over the past four years are kind, compassionate, hilarious, thoughtful, sensitive, intelligent, and loving. They are in the midst of figuring out who they are and who they want to be. They carry deep hurts and hidden scars. They need someone to look past their pimples and braces and remind them of their beauty and worth. They need someone to validate their tears when the guy they were mentally planning their wedding with starts dating their best friend, to hug them when the other girls take a group picture without them and post it on Instagram, to hold their hand and sit quietly beside them when they open up about things they have never shared with a single soul.
They need someone to see that their awkward caterpillar self has the potential to grow wings and cheer them on from inside the cocoon, cramped and uncomfortable as that may be. They need someone who will look them in the eyes and love them exactly as they are. They need someone to believe they can do big things now, not in four years when they’ve made it past puberty with more confidence and a better concept of personal hygiene.
Because, as a 21-year-old who received more than enough support and encouragement from my youth leaders during the turbulent time of my life that was middle school, I still need someone to look me in the eyes and remind me that there was nothing wrong with 13-year-old me. That the pain I experienced during that time, the hurt I clung to long after those years passed, had nothing to do with who I was. That I was just as worthy of love then as I am now.
Because if no one is willing to walk beside them through the messiness of adolescence, they’ll come out of it believing that no one is willing to walk with them through messiness, period. And that is one of the most damaging things we can teach them.
1 John 4:11-12 // “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us.”
In this verse, God does not tell us to love only those to which our love comes easy. He does not tell us to love those who share our interests or maturity levels. He tells us to love the people who steal our phones to take hundreds of selfies and cry to us about having their heart broken every other week and say hurtful things to hide their own bruises.
He tells us to love one another because He loved us first. Period.
So friends, in response to your wide eyes and gaping jaws when I gush about my love for middle school students, here is what I have to say: once upon a time, I was a middle school student who desperately needed love.
And thankfully, Someone gave it to me.