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Understanding Middle School pt. 6 – Spiritual Change

“‘Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house’…and He increased in… favor with God.” – Luke 2:49, 52

Everything about the life of a middle schooler is changing, inside and out. Their bodies are morphing in odd ways, their emotions are going crazy, their perceptions of the world are expanding, and their quality of friendships is deepening. Amidst all this lies their heart and soul, that part of them God created for relationship with Him, the part He created and desires to live forever with Him.

We believe that God created us for His glory, redeemed us through His one and only Son Jesus Christ through His substitutionary death and resurrection, that all who call on Him can be saved and justified, then to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit for the process of sanctification and intimacy with God through life and then eternity with God in heaven. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to Father but by Him (John 14:6). If you believe that is true, then the attention and intention we must give to the spiritual changes of our middle schoolers cannot be underestimated, farmed-out, or saved for later. We must see catch the vision and train our minds for the spiritual lives of young teenagers.

The four other major changes – physical, emotional, mental, and social – all play into the spiritual change in middle schoolers, both hindering and helping at times. The have direct effects on a student’s understanding of God and his or her connection to Him. However, those four major changes can also be powerfully influenced the spiritual ones, creating space for incredible spiritual growth and maturing during middle school and into high school.

For the sake of clarity, when we use the term “spiritual change” we are not specifically referring to conversion or even spiritual growth. Rather we are thinking of it as the good and important process middle schoolers go through in their understanding of spiritual concepts and their own faith and beliefs; simply viewing it as a reality of middle school. As we see in Luke 2 above, adolescent Jesus changed in his spiritual understanding. This is a great mystery, but we see him here identifying with God as Father, discussing things with teachers, and “increasing in wisdom” and “increasing with favor with God,” all of which imply these are happening in his life to a greater degree than they were before. This event of him being in the temple was a new occurrence; otherwise his parents would have known to look their first. This lets us know that spiritual change is normal and good!

Middle schoolers’ understanding of spiritual things can deepen or grow shallow. They can embrace any version of any religion that helps explain the realities they are experiencing but cannot understand. Spiritual change happens in young adolescents no matter what religion, faith system, or lack thereof a student may possess. They will all search for and arrive at one conclusion or another about the truth of their own inner depths and the transcendent aspects of the universe. Some will continue in the path their parents raised them in while others embrace a new direction. A Muslim or Christian may become a deeper Muslim or Christian. A Christian may become an atheist and vice versa. A Catholic may become a Buddhist. We must recognize that every middle schooler is on a spiritual journey and will end up somewhere or we’ll miss the significant, life-long impact of this time. We must also realize that they will follow the spiritual path that they choose and we must be willing to let this be the case, for they will never own their faith if they do not. That does not mean, however, that we cannot pray, lead, advise, and guide them along their spiritual exploration, all the while trusting the Spirit of God to speak to them and capture their hearts. The point of the explanations and suggestions below is to help you approach the reality of spiritual change and guide middle schoolers to be spiritually grounded (Ephesians 6) and spiritually growing (Philippians 2:12-13, Romans 8:29). Below, we’ll take the four major changes one at a time, first describing how they affect spiritual change, and second demonstrating how God’s Word provides promises and principles that, when applied to the four major changes, can result in spiritual growth.

Physical Change

Effects on the spiritual change
This one may seem to be the most disconnected to affecting spiritual change, but let us not forget that God created our bodies and throughout Scripture gives clear and specific commands about how to treat our body, how to use it, and how incredible it is.

When we delved into physical change before, a major aspect we saw was the different rate at which middle schoolers change. Some grow taller or more mature looking quicker than others, resulting in a vast array of feelings about their self-image. The tall, athletic, socially attractive kids, while not devoid of insecurities, can grow prideful, arrogant, and superior. They view their attractive outer appearance as something that makes them more loved by and usable for God. On the flip side, when kids who develop slower or who have major insecurity about their height, complexion, specific body parts (big nose, clunky feet, small breasts), hear that God created them, they can begin to think that God does not love them as much or at all, that He has not made them attractive, athletic, or appealing in a physical way, therefore they have no value to God or others. To secure, adult believers this seems so silly and shallow, but to a middle schooler this can be a very real, constant, painful struggle.

The other big area physical changes connect to spiritual change is sexuality. Their bodies are beginning develop sexually as are the bodies of all their peers. So, naturally, they begin to have sexual urges and feeling in their bodies (about which most middle schoolers don’t really know what to think) and boys and girls start to notice each other for their bodies (not necessarily in a lustful way, just in simple ways like “He’s cute” or “She’s pretty.”) So, all this is beginning to happen, much of it still at a confusing, natural, and somewhat innocent level, but they don’t know how to think about or respond to it. Because it is new and awkward, they may not seek you out for answers, but rely on culture and friends to fill in the blanks – a culture that is more than able and willing to educate them. We MUST get to them first.

Be careful to have loving discussions about what is normal and what is sinful. Sexual drive, finding the opposite sex attractive, and the natural functions of our body are not evil or sinful, but young teenagers can often feel guilty about them. The new temptations these bring to our hearts can also make them feel guilty, even if they haven’t given into them. They need to know what’s normal and the difference between temptation to sin and actually sinning. What are sinful are the thoughts we indulge, the actions we take, the images we pursue and linger on. You can help them navigate the confusion and alleviate unnecessary guilt, as well as properly fight temptation and respond to failure.

Opportunity for spiritual growth
Right before middle schoolers hit puberty is the best time to begin the conversation with them about what to expect in the coming years. Keep revisiting it on occasion. This is a great time to remind them of verses about:
-Body Image
o Psalm 139:13-18 – God’s perfect design
o Genesis 1:26-27 – God’s intentional creation
o Hebrews 4:15 – Jesus has been through it
o I Samuel 16:7 – God looks at the heart
o Luke 16:15 – Jesus values what’s in the heart
o I Peter 3:3-4 – inward growth beats outward adornment
-Sexual Morality
o I Corinthians 6:15-20 – Your body is God’s
o Galatians 5:19 – sexual immorality is work of flesh
o Colossians 3:5 – deal with lust
o I Thessalonians 4:3 – God’s will is sexual purity
-For forgiveness in failure
o Psalm 32 – The peace of confession and forgiveness
o I John 1:9 – God’s cleanses and forgives us

Emotional Change

Effects on the spiritual change
Emotions are one of the trickiest things for all of us when it comes to our faith. Students’ new and strange emotions can start to mess with belief and certainty about God. If they don’t “feel” something, they can begin to doubt its reality. They don’t feel saved, like God is with them always, like God loves them, etc. Personal or world tragedy in their lives or the lives of others can cause extreme emotions that lead to doubts about God’s power, promises, or existence. If not continually directed back to God’s Word, kids will begin to trust their wavering, fallen, unreliable emotions as guide for what’s true.

Opportunity for spiritual growth
We can point middle schoolers to verses and chapters that demonstrate people’s struggle with emotions and remind us God’s promises and character do not change, no matter how we feel.
-Biblical emotions
o John 11:32 – Jesus wept – sadness is ok
o Psalm 73 – Feeling like serving God isn’t worth it
o Psalm 22 – Feeling like God isn’t there
-God’s Promises
o II Corinthians 1:20-22 – God’s promises are sure in Jesus
o Psalm 18 – The Lord is a rock
o Psalm 27 – The Lord is a shield
o Psalm 63 – The Lord is rock and salvation

Mental Change

Effects on spiritual change
Because middle schoolers gain the ability to think abstractly, they will begin to question, explore, and grasp deeper concepts about God, the Bible, Jesus, and life in general. Death and what happens after will weigh heavier. Despair in the world will bring doubts. Their minds are literally, biologically being shaped to form the convictions they will largely carry the rest of their lives. How they choose to think about God will be solidified during the middle school and into the high school years.

Opportunity for spiritual growth
Our minds are powerful gifts from God. They made Jesus’ list of aspects of our being with which we are to love God completely (Matthew 22:37). Throughout the Bible, but especially places like Joshua 1, Psalms, Proverbs, John 14-15, and Romans 12:1-2, we are challenged to fill our minds with truth. To think. To study. To meditate. To have wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. The Bible continually points to our thinking (Romans 1:21) as that which shapes our behavior. We need to train and challenge kids’ to think right and utilize tools and knowledge we have regarding learning styles, classes like logic, or problem solving skills to help exercise their brains, as well as the continual investment of biblical wisdom and counsel to train them to think like Jesus.

Social Change

Effects on spiritual change
Middle schoolers are hit with new and evolving relationships on every side, as well as through social media. There are two major ways this impacts their spiritual growth. One – they are bombarded by the spiritual beliefs, opinions, and ideas of others, which mean they may be tempted to change or to waver in their convictions to please others for the sake of social acceptance. Two – kids will shape a framework for what is acceptable in relationships with others: how they handle gossip, betrayal, love, conflict, acceptance, sex, and more. Will they do this biblically or not?

Opportunity for spiritual growth
Social change is essentially growth and expansion of the nature of relationships, and the Bible has countless things to say about relationships. You can point middle schoolers over and over to God’s Word for wisdom on navigating and developing thriving relationships with others, which is God’s great design for us.
-Friendships
o Proverbs 16:28 – gossip, trust
o Proverbs 17:9 – forgiveness of friends
o Proverbs 17:17 – Faithfulness to friends
o Proverbs 27:9 – Words of a friend
o Proverbs in general has numerous things to say about our words, conflict, etc.
o Ephesians 4-5, Romans 12, Colossians 3 – Relationships within the church (love, encouragement, forgiveness, honesty, discipleship, prayer, etc.)
-Family
o Exodus 20:12 – Honoring parents
o Colossians 3:20 – Obedience
o Ephesians 5:22-6:1 – Marriage, parents, children
-More than Friends
o Proverbs 2:16-19, 5, 7 – Sexual purity, wisdom in choosing those we “date”
o I Corinthians 6:12-20, II Corinthians 6:14-18 – Sexual immorality, equally yoked
o Jeremiah 29:11 – Trusting God’s plan for their life and his plans their opposite sex relationships

Conclusion
So, yes, the middle school years are filled with multiple changes – crazy, frustrating, major changes – but every single one of them is an opportunity to direct middle schoolers to the gospel. Every moment of growth and shift is a chance to point kids to Jesus – his wisdom, his love, his truth, his counsel, his knowledge. Their physical change can open the door to realizing the value God places on their body. Mental change can deepen their understanding of God. Emotional change can teach them to run to Jesus for firm ground. Social change creates countless chances to learn how to relate Biblically to others. If we are careful, consistent, and intentional, the teachable moments that present themselves in middle schoolers can lead to deep, wide, spiritually-grounded young adults.

-Chris

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