[This post continues in a series of interviews with various leaders that are passionate about middle school ministry]
This past fall I had the chance to meet Marko at the Middle School Ministry Campference. In addition to working as the President of Youth Specialties and starting the Youth Cartel, Mark Oestreicher has spent a significant amount of time pursuing his calling to youth ministry by working with junior high students. This has included working specifically as a junior high pastor, volunteering with middle schoolers, and writing some of the best middle school books around. Since he has spent a lot of time thinking and writing about middle school ministry and of course is a veteran working with middle school students, I thought it'd be incredibly valuable to ask him some questions and share those with everyone.
What made you fall in love with youth ministry, specifically to middle school students?
When I first started volunteering in my church’s youth ministry, I wasn’t old enough to work with the high school group. And in college, my first part-time role was as a Junior High Pastor. When I started in that role, I didn’t have any particular affinity to young teens – it was just where there was need in that church. But I quickly became aware of the underdog nature of middle school ministry. I think this is still true, but less so; in the mid-80s, the local youth pastors network was all people who were passionate about high schoolers, and I was a bit of a lone voice. And, to be honest, I think the others patronized me a bit, seeing my ministry to young teens as the junior varsity, and assuming I would someday step up to the big leagues. That assumption rubbed me the wrong way, so I started becoming a student of young teens. I learned about early adolescent development. I was getting my grad degree at the time, and had the opportunity to focus on curriculum development with the weekly real-world lab of my ministry context. That combination of theory and reality birthed in me a deep love for young teens and young teen ministry, and I quickly became convinced of the critical nature and amazing potential of this ministry.
How has middle school ministry changed from when you started as a volunteer to now? I think the primary change is the one we’ve been seeing across all youth ministry: a move away from the notion that great programming produces transformation. But two other shifts are noteworthy:
- While middle school ministry is still, in my youth ministry circles, seen as the stepchild of youth ministry, there’s been an enormous shift in professionalism. More and more middle school youth workers stay in young teen ministry for years, and view it as a specific calling. That’s been a wonderful shift. As I grow older in middle school ministry, I have peers who have been at this for more than 10 years (and someone whose been in middle school ministry for 10 years isn’t very different than someone whose been in it for 30 years, like myself).
- Maybe the biggest shift is in the culture and experience of middle schoolers. With the extension of adolescence, the drop in puberty, and the implications of the Internet, the life issues that used to predominantly be high school issues are often now middle school issues. Churches used to be able to get away with having an anemic middle school ministry if they had a great high school ministry; but that doesn’t work anymore. If Churches aren’t intentional about middle school ministry, they’re probably going to have a lousy, anemic high school ministry.
Tell me a bit about the middle school ministry campference. What do you love most about this conference/camp? Man, that event is a happy place for me. I launched it last year with the hope that we could gather a bunch of people who really understand the unique calling of young teen ministry. And I knew I didn’t just want to do a middle school version of other youth ministry conferences: I wanted it to be a tribal gathering.
And that’s what it felt like, since we combined the stuff you’d hope to experience at a conference with the relational context of a camp. Sure, the speakers had good things to say, and the seminars and guided dialogues were meaty. But the real beauty (and the total uniqueness of this thing) is that it was all a shared experience. We ate together, played together, and worshipped and learned together.
At most youth ministry events (great as they may be), we middle school peeps are understandably nothing more than a topic. But at the MSMC, we’re together on a journey. It had a distinctly different feeling, as I’d dreamed it would. And, I’ve never seen such unanimously positive evaluations from event attendees. Clearly, we struck a chord.
This year, the MSMC is picking the best of what we learned and experienced last year, and adding some new things. But there’s no question (at least for me) that it’s the one place middle school youth workers simply have to be during the year. (For what it’s worth: I didn’t ask RJ to ask me this question; but I’m stoked he did. Please check out www.middleschoolministrycampference.comfor more info, or to register, and join us on October 26 – 28, in Seymour, IN.)
[This interview will be continued with Part 2 tomorrow]