Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Middle School Ministry and the Knuckle Ball: Reentering the World of 6-8 Grade

The 2012 Major League Baseball season witnessed something unprecedented in it's history. The CY Young Award, i.e. best pitcher in their respected league, was given to Met's pitcher, R.A. Dickey.

What made this unprecedented?

Why is this marked as historic?

R.A. Dickey was the first predominantly knuckle-ball hurler to win the coveted award.

After years of conventional pitches, minimal success, and an eventual demotion to the minor leagues, Dickey changed his entire approach on the mound with the hopes of rebirthing his professional career. Instead of fastball, slider, curveball, change-up, fork-ball, etc., he perfected the wobbler, which ranges from a mere 53mph to high 70mph. Every now and then Dickey mixes in a change-up or fastball, but nothing ever blows a hitter away. They are simply fooled. R.A. Dickey looks brilliant.

The knuckler baffles hitters, slows swings down, and forces the elite to completely change their approach. Hitters talk of the knuckle ball as a pitch that will quickly humble even the most impressive and accomplished player. Most hate it, but a selected few love it. They find it to be a fresh challenge within their beloved sport and profession. And every now and then they get a sweet pitch they can sit back on and launch into the seats.

But most find it to be a challenge.

The other day a parent walked into my office and asked me about how I felt about middle school ministry. Aware of my love for theology and my passion for teaching, she assumed that I was "beyond" sixth through eighth graders. I quickly retorted, with a brand new analogy I pulled out of God knows where, "I love middle school ministry. I find it to be comparable to an accomplished hitter facing the perplexity of the knuckle ball." She asked for some clarification, apparently unaware of R.A. Dickey, so I responded with something like this:

We Have to Slow Our Swing Down

The temptation most youth pastors face, especially those who have been theologically trained in the academy, is to speak over and above the heads of youth. We neglect the reality that our journey of faith and understanding of related language has more years behind it than those of adolescents. While high school students may be able to hang in there with our discourse, and even provoke us to fresh insight, middle school ministry forces us to slow down our approach, be patient in our rhetoric, and wait for and invite the questions of young people to wobble toward us. We cannot swing the same way we do when in conversation with a 17 year-old. We need to adjust.

Endure the Knuckler...Look for the Heater

The best approach to the knuckle ball is to be ready for the fastball. The knuckle ball is really designed to distract and throw off hitters' timing so that when the fastball comes they are unprepared and whiff at the 80mph cheese. Yet, when a hitter is patient, prepared, and has their weight back, there is no telling where that fastball can land beyond the outfield wall. The game can change in an instant.

The same is true with middle school ministry. We can easily become distracted by the absurdity of middle school rhetoric and inability to hold a thought for much longer than five minutes (on a good day). But when they ask that one question or deliver an observation that is indeed related to the lesson, sermon, Bible passage, or theological truth- be ready. In fact, if you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, if you are patient and sit back, these moments can forever alter a young persons perspective on faith, God, and life lived within Christian community. These sacred moments can be real game changers they remember for a lifetime. You will, too.

Can Frustrate and Ruin a Hitter

There are many hitters who take the day off from knuckle ball pitchers. They fear it will ruin their swing.

"Perfect love drives out all fear" (1 John 4:18).

While we certainly may want to be intentional about how much we combine middle school and high school events and programs, as they require unique approaches and preparation, we cannot neglect one for the sake of another. We must be engaged with both in order for youth ministry to be effective, sustainable, holistic, and faithful. We cannot allow frustration with the rawest form of adolescent behavior to overshadow the beauty and unapologetic childlike behavior that can really teach us a lot about what it means to be fully human and alive. In fact, youth pastors who do not pay careful attention to middle school youth will not only ruin their programs and "careers," but also can ruin the image a young person has of the church.

Silly Pitch Is Fun to Watch

I loved watching Tim Wakefield and I love watching R.A. Dickey (athough, I am not exactly thrilled he is now in the AL East and will challenge my beloved Orioles). It's a fun change of pace to witness these pitchers get a ball to dance it's way to the plate. The knuckler floats towards the dish and defies all physics. Some even deem pitchers like Dickey to be artists and magicians. This particular pitch is so entertaining and baffling that, every time two people have a catch in their back yard, someone is bound to break the rhythm and make their shameless attempt at the ole wobbler.

The same holds true in youth ministry. There is something about middle school youth that is inviting and contagious. Yes, their germs, but also their zeal for life. They defy logic and challenge our obsessions with certainty and order. They know how to laugh and they know how to create. They find joy in the simplest of things.

So while I often approach middle school ministry with a bit of anxiety, I welcome it as a fresh challenge.

Sure, many youth directors and volunteers may balk at the opportunity to engage 12-14 year-olds, but I see them full of possibility to reflect the kingdom of God and the imago Dei.

Actually, I look forward to middle school ministry. Middle school ministry keeps me humble and teaches me so much about life, love, and what it means to follow Jesus with a raw and child-like faith.

So, I say, bring it on! Middle school ministry is a fresh challenge that may even rebirth my love for my particular expression of Christian vocation.

But pray for me still...