Building Relationships with Middle School Students

About a year ago I visited a middle school student who was admitted to a mental health facility after trying to commit suicide. This student, who was in 7th grade, has already determined the value of his life. How could he, at such a young age, have already determined that his life was not worth living anymore? Who were the voices that were speaking so negatively into his life?  Where were the positive and life-giving voices? Though I do not know the answer to all these questions, I do know this, he is not alone in his struggles.

According to a recent Time Magazine article, anxiety and depression are affecting larger amounts of students than ever before. This article, published November of 2016, reveals that in the US about three million students age 12-17 suffer from depression and 6.3 students are dealing with an anxiety disorder (To read the full article click here).

The reality is that if you have spent any time around middle school students you are aware of these growing trends.  Students seem more fearful and stressed than ever before. 

As pastors and leaders of this age group, it is our responsibility to partner with students and their parents as they live in places of fear, confusion, and loneliness.

But where do we begin? This seems like such an overwhelming obstacle better suited for a licensed counselor rather than a volunteer youth worker. Right? It’s important that we know when to recommend that a student seeks professional help.  However, there are ways that we, as leaders and pastors, can begin to participate in the solution.

I remember an interaction that I had with a middle school girl one Wednesday night. As I was walking towards the stage to preach to the whole youth group (who were all waiting for me), this girl pulled me aside, tears in her eyes, and asked if I could pray for her sick cat. Yes, I said sick CAT. Not only am I not a cat person, but also I knew that all the other students were waiting for me to go on stage. I begrudgingly said a quick prayer for the girl’s cat and then continued with the Wednesday night service.

To me, this was such an insignificant exchange. It was a minor event in relation to the whole evening. However, to this middle school girl, in this moment the sick cat was her entire world. 

I am convinced that if handled well, insignificant interactions like this are the relational currency by which we as leaders gain the reputation of being places of safety. 

Often, churches and leaders can be places that further the cycle of anxiety and depression by being yet another performance-based community. Our language can easily come across as another set of standards that students strive to achieve in order to belong. It must be our purpose as leaders to make sure that belonging comes before believing. We must also be committed to making sure that the community that students belong to is a place of inclusion, healing, safety, and transformation (with the guidance and help of the Holy Spirit).

We witness this through the relational example of Jesus. Whether at a well in Samaria, the healing pool of Siloam, or the table of a tax collector, Jesus intersects with people in the midst of their living.

For a middle school student today, a simple conversation about a cat, the latest Netflix show, or Clash Royale can become a relational move to where a student is living. As we prove that we don’t just say we care, but we actually do care, then students begin to trust us with the more important and fragile areas of their lives. It is in this relational space that the Christian life no longer seems like a set of stipulations, but a call to freedom found by “offering their bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God” and where they can “be transformed by the renewing of their minds” (Romans 12:1-2). 

God truly does use relationships and communities to transform student’s lives. I know this because I have experienced it myself and I get to participate in this transformation in the lives of my students. As I write this blog, I am anticipating this coming Sunday where I get to stand up in front of the church and baptize that middle school boy visited in the mental health facility a year ago.

What I am suggesting is nothing novel or complicated.  I want to encourage leaders by saying that if you don’t know where to start or are overwhelmed with the serious issues that plague our students you aren’t alone.  Ask a lot of questions, listen well, and initiate those simple and seemingly meaningless conversations, all the while trusting and praying that God will use them to open doors and transform lives.

David Bond
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