I have to admit, I have never seen the show “Malcom in the Middle.” If you are like me and haven’t seen a single episode of the wildly popular (in the 2000s) show, here’s a brief synopsis:
Malcom is a middle child who has a insanely high IQ and wrestles for the entirety of the show’s 151 episodes with being “in the middle.” He’s not the baby so he doesn’t get the attention of being needy, but he’s also not the oldest so no one is praising him for his “bright future” and impending adulthood. From what I gather, it seems that he spends most of his childhood feeling invisible or lost “in the middle.”
How does this show relate to you and me? Well, I think the concept of the show is something that can be a pretty significant faux pas for any of us who work with young people or who may be parents. I’m writing this post coming specifically from the background of student ministry (grades 6-12) in a local church context, however I think you will find it applicable if you have young people in your life in any capacity.
So…now to the point. One of the biggest mistakes I have seen student pastors make (and have made myself) over the years is to forget the kids “in the middle.” Here’s how this happens. Some youth leaders spend a significant chunk of their time, creativity, programming energy and leadership to help kids who are “on the fringe.” “On the fringe” meaning, the kids who have one foot in and one foot out. The kids who can’t seem to stay out of trouble. The kids who are constantly asking for the attention, affection and time of you and your staff.
Let’s say you have a youth ministry of 50 kids…it can be VERY easy, in this mindset, to allow 4-5 students to monopolize the lion’s share of your time and your leaders time. Without even realizing it, you can also find yourself spending a large amount of time in your communication and sermons specifically targeting this group. To be honest, it can become second nature. Largely because every book you read and every conference you attend screams at you about the vast amount of students who are lost, hurting and broken. While I don’t disagree with these statements as they pertain to this generation, I feel like it can be so easy to swing the pendulum so far to this side to where you’ll do anything you can do just “get them in the door.”Instead of building a ministry to build students, you end up building a ministry to build a ministry. Its easy to do because kids who have “problems” NEED YOU. And we LIKE to be needed. We like to be the hero. We can even feel like they can’t make it without us.
Sometimes this is true, so I’m not saying completely abandon every kid in your life who fits this description. I AM, however, saying that sometimes “helping can be hurting.”
Here’s the next step in “marginalizing the middle.” If it’s true that the “hurting, broken and fringe” kids NEED YOU; then it’s equally true that when there are solid, gifted, talented leadership-driven kids you often NEED THEM. The kid who can play the guitar well, who leads the FCA at her school or who is the “star athlete” often tend to monopolize the time, attention, praise and affection of leaders. When I started in student ministry I was told, “Spend all of your time ‘chasing the eagles’ in your group and they will make sure everyone else gets there.” To be honest I fell for it, and have seen dozens of youth leaders, teachers and parents do the same over the years.
Here’s what happens, you spend all your time with the “broken ones” because they NEED YOU…you place all your leadership trust and opportunity in the “eagles” because YOU NEED THEM…however, this leaves the kids in the middle feeling like you FORGOT THEM. What about the kids who on one hand, don’t have a ton of baggage and aren’t making terrible choices…but on the other hand, they aren’t necessarily the next John Maxwell either, they can’t sing on the worship team and the only thing they “lead” is their dog when they take him out on a walk after school. As leaders, we often make the mistake to simply forget about the Malcoms in our world; or we spend so much time caring for those on the fringe and codling those on the “mountaintop” that we neglect those who are in the middle.
While I’m not saying I have the management of this tension figured out, I am saying that I have recently become more and more aware of the dangers of forgetting those “in the middle.” (From a pure “growth” standpoint I have learned that the kids in the middle often end up not only being the ones who invite the most visitors, but also tend to do a better job at actually following up with their friends and walking with them through the process)
Here are a few things, as leaders that I would suggest to help you in this area:
- Don’t just teach to build the youth group, teach to build the kid.
- Make sure you aren’t just celebrating those “made for TV testimonies” and “made for Hollywood” stars in your youth ministry. Celebrate the seeming “small” wins as well.
- Make sure your calendar is balanced with those who NEED YOU, those whom YOU NEED and those who are “in the middle.”
- In your programming and communication to students, make sure you aren’t falling into the temptation of constantly appealing to the emotional, broken side of the teenage years. Teach them the entirety of Scripture, not just the part that makes for a “good emotional altar call.”