By: Scott Dobovsky
This is not a group of middle aged adults!
At Valley Community Presbyterian Church where I am a member, a group called the 45ers meets Wednesdays from 6-7:30 p.m. This is not a group of middle-aged adults, but children in the fourth and fifth grades.
Recently we evaluated our children’s ministries, and questions were raised about how to prepare fourth and fifth graders to enter the youth group. Should we do a separate sixth grade transition program? Is the move from the children’s ministry to youth ministry too big? Can we help bridge the two ministries through Sunday school alone? To help us think about these questions I did research on how other churches ministered to this age group and general observations of children in this stage of development.
Whether you call them tweens or pre-teens, children in third to sixth grades are being ministered to by churches in new ways around the country. In my research, I found some common themes about children ages 9 to 11. The overall sense I gathered is that at this stage in a child’s life there are many competing tensions. They crave more independence as they feel more grown up, but they also desire structure to feel safe. There is a desire to have fun, but also to dig deeper into things they have learned at church or school. Friendships become both more important and more complex. They want to express how they feel, but they are unsure of the best ways to do so. They are much more outspoken and chatty.
With these insights in mind, it became apparent that we could not address all of these needs in Sunday school. Instead we decided to begin a fellowship group for our fourth and fifth graders that would meet on a frequent basis in the evening and include time for fellowship, mission and education. We called them “45er meetings” because while they might have a biblical lesson occasionally, they would be different from Sunday school. For the year, our focus for these gatherings was for the children to get to know each other better, to realize that church is not just sitting in Sunday school and worship, and to discover that as a group they could accomplish many things.
The first year the group met every other Wednesday, except during Lent when they met weekly in conjunction with the weekly Lenten programs of the church. In addition to our twice-monthly meetings, we decided to plan four off-site events. Two events would focus on fellowship, and two on serving others. We baked and delivered cookies to church shut-ins, bowled and snow tubed, and helped lead games for homeless children whose families are guests at our church twice a year. We spent time solving problems in teams as a way of getting to know each other, such as finding the best way to build a bridge between two chairs using only paper and tape and building an “indoor camp site” with whatever we had in the room.
Reflecting on our first year and considering both a large shift in make-up of the incoming group and the additional leaders added, some structural changes were made for year two. It was apparent that effective teamwork is something that this age group could work on for an entire year. With this idea in mind for the year’s theme, we developed monthly sub-themes related to teams and sports. These sub-themes included rules, sportsmanship, practice and traditions. Each week one member of the leadership team developed a night of activities that tied into the monthly theme. We were also able to offer a meal each week with the creation of a new church-wide Wednesday night program.
In this second year of the ministry, some unexpected lessons have been learned. The group is largely fourth graders, compared to the mostly fifth grade group last year. This age shift along with more children going to the same school and knowing each other well has brought an increased energy level that requires new strategies. One of the first things we looked for was constructive ways to use their high amount of energy. They surprised us by embracing MeMoves (http://thinkingmoves.com), a method of hand and arm motions that has a calming effect. We use it as an age appropriate form of meditation.
Some positive feedback that seems to indicate the success of this ministry include: one 45er stating that she loves coming to 45ers and hanging out with her new friends, and the church’s youth director reporting the difference she noticed during sixth grade orientation week. This ministry will continue to evolve as the group makeup and leadership changes, but the value of this new ministry is clear.
Scott Dobovsky is a life-long Presbyterian who feels called to pre-teen and teen ministry. He is a volunteer leader at Valley Community Presbyterian Church in Golden Valley, MN.