Ever since my congregation stopped kidnapping people, we've had to find new, better ways to transition our kids from one ministry to the next.
One of the best things we've done is institute an 8th grade orientation. Truthfully, we borrowed this idea from our local high schools, all of which have an 8th grade orientation night the spring before students start their freshmen year.
In the same way, when students are still in 8th grade, our high school ministry hosts an orientation during the 8th graders regular meeting time. Our goal during this event is to introduce our 8th graders to our high school ministry.
Unlike the ill-advised kidnapping, 8th grade orientation is entirely about making the 8th graders feel welcome. During the night we do a series of activities designed to give 8th graders a taste of what lies ahead and in the process, generate excitement for their future involvement in the high school ministry.
The night begins with a series of games, chosen and led by student leaders. They're goofy and strange youth ministry classics designed not to haze students, but rather to create shared memories, get people laughing, and fuel relationships.
After that, we take the 8th graders to our youth space. Now, this might not seem like a big deal until you realize that our youth space is located upstairs, in a very obscure location within our building. Not only have most of our 8th graders never been in it, but most don't even know the space exists. By taking students to that space, we communicate to them that it's theirs and they're welcome in it.
Once in the youth room, we have a short discussion. Interestingly, prior to last year, our 8th grade orientation included only games. Then one of my wise student leaders commented, “Since discussions are so much a part of who we are, I don't get why we only play games during 8th grade orientation.” So we changed the night to more accurately reflect what our high school ministry is actually like.
My student leaders choose the discussion topic, which I usually write based on a video clip. This year, we used a short clip from Monsters University to wrestle with identity. Adult leaders facilitate the discussion in groups that intentionally include both 8th graders and high school students. Once again, this allows students to get to know one another.
After that, I interview a panel of teens (who are in different grades & schools) about our high school youth ministry using the following questions:
- Tell us your name, grade, and school.
- When & why did you first start coming to our high school youth ministry?
- Why have you kept coming back to our high school youth ministry?
- Outside of our high school youth ministry, what extracurriculars are you involved in? In the midst of all you're involved in, how and why do you make time for our high school youth ministry?
- How has our high school youth ministry helped you develop deep relationships with other people – even those who don't go to your school? Why are these relationships important to you? How have these relationships helped you deal with the tough stuff in your life?
- Why is your faith important to you? How has your faith grown as a result of our high school youth ministry?
Through this panel, our incoming freshmen learn about the ministry from those most impacted by it.
Next, we collect information. In exchange for giving us their information, we give 8th graders a free t-shirt. Rather than design shirts specifically for this event, we use leftover t-shirts from our events held throughout the year. In this way, we hand our incoming freshmen their “uniform”, a piece of clothing that once again, communicates identity and belonging to this group we want desperately for them to be part of.
Finally, we divide students into pairs – a high school student with an 8th grader - and close in a time of prayer. During this time, we ask students to share one thing they're excited about and one thing they're stressed out about and then pray, by name, for one another.
After holding an 8th grade orientation for the past several years, I've learned there's a reason high schools hold these events for their incoming students four months before school begins. It generates both excitement and a sense of belonging.
If high schools – the place where teens are required to spend most of their time – have realized the importance of this, how much more important is it for churches to do the same?
After all, teens aren't required to attend our activities.
What we've discovered, however, is that by generating excitement and a sense of belonging early, it doesn't matter that teens aren't required to attend our activities.
After this event, they want to.