Recently, I was a substitute small group leader.
Now, here’s the thing you need to know about being a substitute small group leader: when you sit down for the first time with a bunch of middle schoolers you barely know, you’re not going to have a very spiritual conversation.
If you’ve ever met a middle schooler (or another human, for that matter), this probably isn’t news to you. Most of us aren’t exactly in the habit of pouring out our hearts to complete strangers.
So if you ever find yourself striking up a conversation with kids who don’t really know you, maybe don’t expect to guide them through a major spiritual breakthrough. Try to establish a few more reasonable goals instead. Like…
- Remember their names.
- Laugh with them.
- Learn about their world.
Here’s what I learned about the world of a few seventh grade girls.
1. I’M NOT WATCHING THE RIGHT TV SHOWS.
According to my new seventh grade friends, I gave up too quickly because, after six seasons, Pretty Little Liars finally gave us some answers! (Doubt it.)
2. PANTSING IS FUNNY.
I guess I forgot about this phenomenon in adulthood. From what I can tell, pantsing is funny to middle schoolers everywhere — past, present, and future. If you have data to support or contradict this observation, please let me know.
3. COFFEE IS WORTH SCREAMING ABOUT.
Yes, there was actual screaming. If you want to win the heart of a seventh grader, start with a caffeinated beverage.
4. YOUTUBE IS THE SECRET TO STAYING COOL.
I asked a seventh grader the key to staying cool when you’re old like me. Apparently, watching a lot of YouTube is the answer. So if you ever feel out of the loop on middle school culture, a few hours watching vloggers should straighten you out, I guess?
5. PRAYING OUT LOUD IS SCARY.
But holding hands makes it better. So does praying as a group–especially when you each only have to contribute one word at a time. But in terms of quality, don’t get your hopes up. We closed with this: “Dear . . . God . . . thanks . . . for . . . this . . . room.”
(On that note, I also learned that, when looking for things to pray for, seventh graders still open their eyes and pray for the first thing they see.)
6. BEING IN SEVENTH GRADE IS SCARY, TOO.
That’s an exact quote. Being a seventh grader is “scary.” But can you blame them?
Think about how dramatically their lives, their relationships, their brains, and their bodies are changing during the seventh grade phase. It’s a chaotic time. Nothing is stable. Their whole world is turning upside down. Last year (likely their first year in middle school) was scary, too — but this year, the stakes are higher. They’re not the little kids on campus anymore. They’re growing up. In sixth grade, it was still okay to sometimes play with dolls and LEGOs, and hang out with your mom, and not wear deodorant because you could (usually) still get away with it. But in seventh grade, middle school is in full swing. And that’s pretty scary.
7. THEY REALLY LIKE TO BE LIKED.
One of the things I love most about middle schoolers — something I’m reminded of every time I hang out with them — is that it doesn’t take much to win their hearts. You don’t need to be super cool, or know the correct usage of “bet,” or have a big Instagram following. Really, you just need to like them. Which makes sense, doesn’t it?
During this phase, a middle schooler’s primary motivation is to be accepted. To find their people. To know they belong somewhere. So it makes sense that, when a middle schooler knows they’re liked by you, they’ll be eager to like you back. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes convincing them that you like them is hard work. But the point is, if you want to have influence with a middle schooler, you don’t have to complete a long list of mandatory prerequisites. You just have to like them. (I think Rita Pierson would agree.)