Wednesday, June 02, 2010

    Youth Ministry Question of the Day: Mixed-Age Groups?

    I was recently asked what I think about mixing middle school and high school youth together for youth ministry activities.  What are the pros and cons of mixed-age groups? 

    I've served in ministries that tossed all youth together into one happy fellowship and others that kept them separate as much as possible.  Sometimes, particularly with small ministries, keeping all the youth together ensures a critical mass.  In larger ministries, splitting the groups helps to maintain a sense of intimacy and may keep the more reticent or introverted youth from feeling swallowed up by the crowd. 

    What about programmatic reasons for separating youth by age? There may be times when the subject matter you are discussing is too mature for younger youth. Relatedly, you may want to approach a Bible study at more depth with older teens while keeping it a little more active for younger teens. Teaching in age segregated groups can make it easier to address the particular learning needs of your youth.

    But one final thought:  If we make it a regular practice of simply using age as the way in which we group our youth, are we perhaps encouraging the same attitudes in the Church that often results in the segregation of teens and adults -- a practice that insulates and isolates youth from seeing the reality of the whole Church?  I wonder that the best of approach is not to have any hard-and-fast rule in this area -- separate youth by age when it seems appropriate, but also find many opportunities to bring them together, to let older youth mentor the younger teens, and to let the younger teens inspire the older youth with their enthusiasm. 

    But what do I know?  What have been your experiences with mixed-age groups?  What advice would you offer to your fellow youth workers? 



    Samuel Sutter said...

    Mixed ages is an issue that does not go away. I spend an hour this week during worship team practice talking with parents of teenagers - they were upset about the "old people" and how they loved traditional music and they wanted young cool music and felt like the old people were in conflict with them. - I'd rather teach kids about community early rather than deal with it later.

    Brian said...

    Samuel, thanks for your response. You are so right that this isn't even a Teen vs. adult issue as the Church even plays into the segregation between generations of adults in congregations. Any suggestions on how we "teach kids about community early"? How do we get the generations to mix?

    Christy said...

    Our youth group is mixed junior high and high school students (6th-12th grades). We start off together for games and worship and then split off into high school and junior high Bible study groups. Then at the end of a large group Bible study, we break off into smaller age and gender-specific groups (jr. high girls, high school girls, jr. high guys, high school guys) to talk more in-depth about application and any other issues that may be more gender and age-specific. It seems to work well, and we've been studying Ephesians this past semester, focusing on the unity within the body of Christ as we've seen the unity of God in the Trinity (we went through the doctrine of the Trinity in the fall). After our youth conference in April, we've definitely seen how the older and younger students are starting to develop closer friendships and bonds, though there are still those age gaps, which is also natural.

    Every once in a while, we also have separate events for guys and girls, but combining the junior high and high school. This has been a good way for the younger girls, for instance, to interact and learn from the older girls.

    amber said...

    the youth ministry i work in has them together and apart. on sundays we have them separated and our focus is on small groups. on wednesdays they all are together. i think it works well. there's such an age difference between new 7th graders and seniors who've just graduated. by splitting them up once a week, they're able to interact with each other but we also have the services on sundays geared to each group :-)

    Ryan said...

    So I've interned/volunteered in both types.

    In the mixed youth group there is always an intimacy issues as well as the "annoyed high schooler" but there is a general togetherness that is gained by this. As kids grow they start to mentor the younger kids like they were mentored when they were young.

    In the split youth group it is easier to be intimate and also talk to kids at different levels. I find that when middle schoolers move up it is almost as if they are joining a WHOLE new youth group. And when you do combined stuff they tend to avoid each other like the plague.

    The best thing to do is keep small groups split and maybe even some events. But have them together doing things at least once a week.

    This is just my observations/opinion!

    Brian said...

    Christy, it sounds like you have found a good balance for your group. (You also raise the interesting issue of when it's good to separate by gender.) I've found that though there are a few older youth who resent having the younger ones around, most enjoy being in the big brother/big sister role.

    Amber, I appreciate your mentioning the large age difference between a 7th grader and a 12th grader (and some churches include 6th graders in the mix!). I'm not convinced that it always works to have them thrown in together. The question is how we discern the times to mix and the times to keep them separate I guess.

    Ryan, I can really relate to the things you are saying about dynamics in a group between older and younger youth. This whole issue may come down to context -- you have to know your own group and what will work best.

    Adam said...

    This is something I'm really struggling with right now. We don't have a lot of kids coming to our youth group right now (4-6 middle school, 4-6 high school) and I don't really feel like we have a critical mass for stuff we want to do.

    So the question for me now - looking to the fall - is whether or not to bring them back together (7-12 graders; we are finally moving our 6th graders out of youth ministry and starting up a Club 56 program this fall as well). My primary fear is that I'm going to lose high schoolers.

    They are always like "Ugh - we have to hang with the middle schoolers.....???!!"

    But I don't think our numbers are working well separate. But I really don't know what to do.

    Brian said...

    Hi Adam, you raise many important concerns. My initial reaction, if I was in your position, would be to keep them all together just so you can have a critical mass, or perhaps using the approach several have mentioned here of varying their time together and their time apart. I'm wondering if there is a way to invite the older youth to be intentional mentors of the the younger ones, or to invite the older youth to help lead programs so that they see themselves in a leadership position, providing guidance for the younger youth. I've had some success with this approach in the past, but it doesn't always work. It depends a lot on the youth you serve. Hopefully some other folks can share their thoughts on this.

    rholloway said...

    Growing, I was part of a large church and large youth group. We never had exposure to middle school, adults (big church) or those who were there thirty years ago when the church started. Now that I'm in ministry in a small church (where there is still a lot of separation), it seems a tremendous shame that the high school students have no contact with anyone else. I'm going to try to push for a mentoring program between the senior members of the church and high school students to get each demographic to step outside of itself and find value in re-investing themselves in the church... At least thats the idea behind it!

    Chris said...

    Traditionally we've split into 11-14s and 14-18s as many churches in the UK do, this year we re-combined the groups. We did it for two reasons:
    1. We'd been short on adult leaders so it stopped us feeling like we were always stretched.
    2. It's encouraged some of the younger ones to be more mature, and to look up to the older ones, who otherwise they wouldn't see.

    We're now hitting an issue as we're getting too many young people for the room we can meet in. Rather than split it on age, we're wondering about trying to give two options to all our 11-18s - an active stream and a thinking stream - something that allows them to say where their faith is at, and how they best learn, rather than us putting them in a box.

    kyle said...

    I'm going to write a book called "Simple Youth". Coming soon to a Christian bookstore near you. That's an oxymoron, simple youth. We are adding 5th grade to our middle school. So now it will be 5th-8th. I teach 8th grade boys. I have an incoming 5th grader in my house and can't imagine him sitting in a circle with with 5 or 6 other 5th graders and the topic being about abortion or war. Which is what we recently did in middle school ministry. Most of my 8th graders didn't even know we were at war. Not sure all the exact reasons behind the change but God is good all the time.

    Cara said...

    This is a huge issue in our small town church right now! We have a kids club, which if anyone can imagine has 4 yr olds to 5th graders. Junior youth, 6-8th grade; and senior youth, 9-12th grade. We are losing kids in grades 4&5 because they don't want to be mixed in with 4 yr. olds. We have about 3 regularly attending Jr. youth and 3 regularly attending Sr. youth. The idea has been kicked around to have Kids club be 4 yr olds to 3rd grade, middler 4-6th grade, and youth 7-12th grade. This is not being well received by parents. Does it seem to work out well for small youth groups to have 7-12 grader involved together on a regular basis? What are the best age divisions?

    Cara said...

    Our small church currently has all of our young people split up into 3 groups. Kids club 4 yr old - 5th grade, junior youth 6-8th grade, and senior youth 9-12th grade. We lose kids in fourth and fifth grade because they don't want to be grouped with the little kids. Our youth groups have about 3 regularly attending kids in each group. We have been kicking around many ideas, but nothing seems to please all involved. We have been talking about making kids club 4 yr old - 3rd grade. Middler 4-6th grade, and youth 7-12th grade. A lot of parents and teens do not find this arrangement acceptable. We don't have very many volunteers to help, so three groups is our max. Any suggesions?

    Brian Kirk said...

    I've led many youth groups that combined 7-12 graders and it can work well, particularly if the older youth understand that they are being asked to mentor and welcome the younger youth. Not sure about mixing preschoolers and kids up to third grade. That is a pretty wide age range and developmentally they aren't anywhere close to each other. Any chance of joining forces with another local church and doing childrens ministry together?

    Brian Coey said...

    Our Youth Group is not very large! At the most we will have 14 kids. But we combine 6th through 12th grade and have not had any issues. We actually have done 3 mission trips with this age range and it works out perfectly because the older kids get an opportunity to become role models or mentors. As far as being able to talk to the older kids about certain topics this has not been an issue either, the younger kids are going to hear eventually anyways so we include them as well.

    Pearl Watson said...

    My church recently decided without meeting with any of the teachers that it would now combine ages 6-12 together. I have repeatedly told them them that new readers (1st graders) with 5th & 6th graders is not a good idea. There were separate goals/benchmarks before, so what are the goals now? It's like Little House on the Praire. That's why members avoid this ministry. Those who help, after much begging, plan to leave as soon as possible. Ironically, it's the children of leaders who misbehave the most. Feedback?

    Joel Settecase said...

    Good point, relating it to the larger church as a whole. Thanks. This was helpful.

    Amy said...

    I am currently working with a smaller youth group (15-20 students from 7th-12). Most of them are very "unchurched" and its awesome to be in a situation where we get to help build a foundation for them.

    We have let Jr. High sit in with the High schoolers but as we have been growing, the high schoolers are irritated with the behavior of Jr. High and the Jr. Highers get bored as we get into deeper topics. Not only so but we have had physical confrontation between a high schooler and jr. higher.

    We are planning on doing split nights once a month for the these two groups in hopes that once Jr high gets a taste of their own group and style (because ministering to a jr higher can be different to a high schooler) we hope it becomes something they want more of and eventually split them regularly BUT with the occasional night where everyone is together. Hopefully each group feels like its their own and feel more comfortable inviting friends (it has been expressed to me from a High Schooler that they don't want to invite friends because the jr highers are annoying and cant take things seriously). I love the idea of the older kids mentoring and setting an example but i dont think they are in the place to do that just yet.. when they are... maybe i can rethink it.

    A lot of people say you should get to "X" amount of students before splitting but i find that if we dont do something now, im risking older students not wanting to come any more and/or participate.