Mark Oestreicher black & white

The Last Word
Why I Love 11-14s

I think 11–14s are amazing, and are way under-appreciated as an age group. So, without reservation, I give you 12 things I love about working with young teenagers: 

Young teen ministry is about shaping. What an opportunity! Everything I learn about young teens continues to affirm and re-affirm that this is not merely a holding period until the good stuff of older teen work.

11–14s are easy to connect with. Years ago, a youth ministry mentor shared this simple observation: 11–14s, in their decision as to whether they’ll allow you into their lives, are only asking the question: ‘Do you like me?’ Older teens complicate it by adding, ‘Do I like you?’ University students ramp up the complexity by layering on the additional question: ‘Do I like what you stand for?’

They’re willing to try anything. The young teen years (in a post-puberty parallel to the first few years of life) are all about discovery and sampling. Young teens, in the earliest stages of self-conscious identity formation, want to try everything. They don’t start testing conclusions until the middle of their teenage years. This is a wild ride of unpredictability and can feel very scattered and capricious, but there’s willingness, even desire, to try things. This makes young teens prime for creative and participatory youth work.

The wonder of abstract thinking. Eleven to 14 year olds are far from experienced with abstract thought, but the capacity is there (I like to think of it as God’s puberty gift). They’re dipping their toes in the water, checking it out.

The process of doubts and faith development. Tied to the development of abstract thinking, young teens are on the leading edge of stumbling onto doubts about their faith. This is a critical aspect of faith development, and should never be shamed or shut down. Wrestling with complexities is the necessary detour from childlike, inherited faith to a more robust, owned faith.

Young teen ministry is not just a holding place until the ‘real’ work of youth work begins 

They’re unpredictable. Maybe you find this frustrating, but I love it. Young teens regularly and consistently surprise me. They surprise me with their random questions. They surprise me with their hidden talents. They surprise me with their insight. They surprise me with their interpretations which are often different than I expect. The unpredictability of 11–14s keeps young teen ministry fresh and untamed.

Parents are still involved. Sure, there are plenty of older teens with involved parents, but there’s a drop-off in parent involvement throughout the teen years, as many parents retreat out of fear, exasperation, or a misguided understanding of what it means to give their teenagers independence. We know that parents have a significantly larger shaping role in the lives and faith of their teenagers than youth workers do; so this higher level of parent involvement creates an easier path to coming alongside parents and partnering for greater impact.

They have more time than older teenagers. Yes, young teens are busier than ever, but they still have more time and availability than their older peers. Mix this in with their willingness to try anything, and you’ve got a potent pot of ‘let’s do stuff!’

Most are not yet jaded. Fourteen year olds can start to get a little jaded, and older teenagers — holy cow — can wear cynicism and ‘been there, done that’ as comfortably as Lady Gaga wears a meat suit; but most young teens possess wonderfully low levels of cynicism, and a naiveté that looks a lot like hope.

They’re passionate. I love the ‘all-in’ attitude of most 11–14s. It’s not just their willingness to try things; they’re also passionate about the things they try, the opinions they voice and the beliefs they hold. The funny thing is that they’re passionate about things that, often, they won’t be passionate about in two months or two years time.

They’re forgiving. When you mess up, have an off night in your teaching, plan a lame event, or say something dumb, young teens are quick to forgive (particularly if you ask for it). The travel time back to normal (whatever that is!) is extremely short.

They’re fun! Young teens keep me feeling young (not so easy at 50 years old). They’re playful and hilarious, goofy and unselfconscious. Young teens remind me, regularly, of what a joy-filled life should look like. 

MARK OESTREICHER is an American youth ministry author, speaker and coach.

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