In student ministry, one of the most important filters that everything can be run through is, “What is most helpful for the faith development of the students I’m working with?” Think about it. Everything from strategy, teaching, programming structure, or small group questions can be filtered by this question.
Essentially, if we want our students to develop a resilient faith of their own, what do we need to do? Here’s the challenge. That answer can be very different depending on their phase. So, when we have multiple phases in the room, what should we do?
Middle and High School Phases are Different
If you’ve been around the Orange world as long as me, you’ll remember that there used to only be one XP3 youth ministry curriculum: XP3. Whether your ministry was 6-12 grade, only middle school or only high school . . . XP3 was the only option for you.
But when we started the Phase Project years ago, something became glaringly clear.. It’s really challenging to talk about life and faith to an 11-year-old and an 18-year-old. Not only are they in such different stages of life academically, socially, and maturity-wise, but there is much difference in the development of their brains.
The way we normally put it is like this.
Middle school students think like engineers. They learn best when they personalize an idea by connecting pieces of information. Also, they personalize abstract concepts by connecting ideas.
High school students think like philosophers. They learn best through open debate, multiple perspectives, and applied reasoning. These students want to discover meaning, understand how it applies to their current situation, and process out loud.
It was clear that when you put a sixth grader and a twelfth grader next to each other, there were some big differences. They’re asking different questions. Their brains are processing information differently. If you want a deeper dive into the differences between middle and high school students, check out Just a Phase (a must-read in my mind) and take a listen to this episode of the Rethinking Youth Ministry Podcast.
What we learned through the Phase Project gave us more clarity on exactly HOW MUCH was different other than physical and emotional maturity. That’s why XP3 Middle School and XP3 High School were born. Though not always, it’s why we often encourage churches to have separate middle and high school environments. Here’s another episode of the Rethinking Youth Ministry Podcast where we talk a little more about that.
What to Ask Yourself When Planning for Middle and High School
With that being said, there’s a reality of student ministry that combined middle school and high school environments exist.
Sometimes it’s a strategic choice of wanting high school students to have an impact in the lives of middle school students.
Other times it’s about numbers and not feeling like there is enough critical mass to warrant middle and high school-specific environments.
It could be a space issue and you don’t have two unique spaces to send your middle and high school students.
Or it might be a staffing issue and creating two separate environments just isn’t feasible.
Whatever the reasoning, the reality is that many student ministries choose to do their programming with middle school and high school together, or simply have to. No matter the reason or structure of your ministry, we think maybe the most important question we need to be asking ourselves is . . .
What is most helpful for the faith development of the students I’m working with?
When we’re deciding what our environments and programs look like: What is most helpful for the faith development of the students who will be attending?
In finalizing small group questions: What is the most helpful for the faith development of the students who will be talking through them?
When we’re deciding what and how we will be teaching: What is most helpful for the faith development of the students who will be listening?
Hear me out. Obviously, “Is this true?” is a very important filter when it comes to teaching, too. But it shouldn’t be your final filter. As we can all imagine, there are some key truths about life and faith that just aren’t relevant to the life of a seventh grader.
“Okay, Brett. We get it. But my group is combined and I’m just trying to figure out what to do.”
Message received. Let’s get practical.
What to Do When Middle and High School Ministries are Combined
If I’m honest, I’ve always had a bend more toward high school ministry. Most of us have a natural inclination toward either middle school or high school ministry, I’m guessing. So, I tended to teach more toward the high school students. Here are a few of my reasons why:
- I’d rather challenge my middle school students with something ‘deeper’ than vice versa.
- If I don’t connect with my high school students, there’s a chance they don’t just tune me out, but stop coming at all.
- Honestly . . . it was just easier to teach toward high school students. I didn’t have to be as concise.
For a lot of those reasons, when people would ask us if they should use XP3 High School or XP3 Middle School for their combined environment, we’d suggest using XP3 HS. And sometimes, that might be the right choice, but that answer was incomplete.
When we use the high school content for our middle school students — “Brett…can you please get to the point?”
Sorry, I’m a pastor at heart (and a pastor’s kid to boot), so I can get a little wordy. Here’s my ultimate suggestion when it comes to XP3 MS & HS with a combined environment…
Frankenstein the XP3 Curriculum
What do I mean by Frankensteining the curriculum? By that, I mean you buy both XP3 MS and HS and cut them together to get the best of both worlds for your students.
With a partial Frankenstein, you take a look at the middle school and the high school version of each series while you’re planning out your calendar. Look through the graphics for each. Check out the bottom lines for each week of teaching. Which series do you think would land best with your combined group? Sometimes, it might be a middle school series. Other times, it might be a high school series. Move forward with the series that feels best for your students.
With a full Frankenstein, it takes a little more time to contextualize. However, you’ll end up choosing a high school or middle school series graphics package and title. Each and every week, you’ll take pieces of the middle and high school teaching content and contextualize the most helpful version of the teaching time possible.
I’ll admit, the guy who works for Orange telling you to buy both sounds like a pretty overt sales pitch. I promise that’s not what this is. To start, when you buy the second XP3 license, it’s 70% off. If you think Frankensteining it is the right solution for you but don’t have the budget (trust me, I get it), just let us know. We’ll figure it out. My friend Jamal will even walk through that process with you.
So, that’s it. That’s the official answer. If you have a combined MS/HS environment and cannot or do not want to adjust… Frankenstein it. Don’t feel like you’ve got to figure this out on your own though! If you haven’t purchased yet and are trying to figure this out, reach out to Jamal to process. If you’ve already purchased, you have an Orange Specialist who has (or who has tried) to reach out to you. Connect with them to process moving forward or potentially adding MS or HS to your current license.
Other Tips for Ministering to Combined Middle and High School
Pssst. You know how Marvel movies have the bonus scenes after the credits? That’s what this next part is. The blog is over, you can go on about your day. But here are some additional thoughts to consider:
Are you middle school or high school heavy?
Are you mostly middle school with very few high schoolers? Or are you high school heavy? The demographics of your students should play a role in what this looks like for you.
Don’t hesitate to address different phases during teaching.
There are times that the best thing to do is acknowledge the different phases in the room. “Hey MS students, let me get your attention real quick. For you all, this means _______.” Or maybe, “Hey upperclassmen, this might be a bit different for you. It could be more like _______.” Your MS and HS students are processing what you say differently, so don’t be afraid to say it in different ways to speak into where they are developmentally.
Contextualize the Small Group Questions and give your small group leaders the final say on small group questions.
Whichever curriculum or series you’re using, those small group questions were designed specifically for that phase. So, the small group questions from XP3 HS will often not land well for your MS students, and vice versa. Do your best to create a middle school and a high school small group leader guide, but also encourage your leaders to have the guides in front of them with a pen during the teaching time so that they can be editing the questions and adding new questions as they see fit.
PRO TIP: The thing about this section in each Small Group Leader guide is often phase-specific info that you may need to edit if being used with another phase. In other words, if you are using a Small Group Leader guide from XP3 HS for MS students, the thing about this section just may not be true about them. You may want to edit that for your MS leaders.
Find a middle school and high school champion.
As you take content from XP3 and make it your own, have someone read it strictly through the lens of a high schooler or middle schooler. Maybe it’s one of your SG leaders. Perhaps it’s a high school and middle school teaching friend you have. But having a champion for each phase will help you catch, tweak, and adjust things to make sure you’re not leaving a phase out.
If you want to dive deeper into the idea of phase-specific middle and high school environments, you should download our Split Kit and give it a read. Whether you’re thinking about separating your middle school and high school student programs, or just getting more phase-specific in your combined programming, it will give you some great ideas.