This is the first post in a series on Middle School Small Groups.

Our intent, for both the middle school and high school youth arenas, was to deepen disciples of Jesus.

Pastor Loretta Sunderland and I, at the end of one school/ministry year, were less than enthusiastic about youth group on Wednesday nights. We were thrilled to be able to offer spiritual teaching, instruction, fun things, etc at Youth Group, but felt like we weren’t seeing students deepen their walk and understanding of the Lord. We had lots of students. We had lots of fun. There were lots of activity. But the fruit of the Gospel was not being realized in the lives of the various groups of students coming out of Youth Group.

Hence the idea of a CORE group of selected students who seemed to be hungry for something deeper… for an intentional environment or meeting time where we could dive deeply into the hard work of discipleship.

The first year of CORE group was great. Lori Bubb (a student’s Mom) and myself led it together. We connected regularly to see where the group needed to be led next. The students were very consistent and enthusiastic. We had a lot of fun. Parents cooked meals for us each week. It was great. We could (and should) have done more “outside the program” type activities, but it was still a great year of connection.

Looking back on that first year of CORE group I think one of the things that held it together for that year was something simple that I had not yet realized: sixth grade. The large population of the group was incoming sixth grade students. There were a handful of 7th grade and 8th grade students, but the majority was 6th graders. In our community, 6th grade doesn’t come along with a bunch of organized, after school type programs. Beyond this grade, sports teams and extra-curricular activities meet right after school or meet and go late. Sixth grade is largely insulated from this soon-to-be-pulled-in-many-directions decisions that have to be made.

How do I know this? Well, because the second year was not as great as the first.

Granted, CORE group year 2 was still a lot of fun. Lori Bubb had to step out for some health related challenges, so we needed more leaders. We had a thought to grab some young leaders to connect with the students; sort of CORE small groups within the larger group. Ashley Yoder, Dawn Moenkedick, Amber Albrecht, Shane Thiry, Todd Vinopal, and Pete Wisdom all jumped in and we did a large group teaching time, then broke out into small groups.

The concept was great, however the execution broke down on my end. I didn’t always communicate well with the leaders as far as what was going on and I always felt behind in the lessons and large group content creation. If you will remember, the previous year, Lori and I did this together, but she wasn’t around this time, and I had not adjusted. And then the inconsistency began. The year started well, but then as the sports season launched we began to lose students for weeks at a time. Then they would show up randomly because they were in between seasons. Then when spring came around we lost a ton of students to middle school track. It was like trying to keep a boat afloat that is leaking in many different places. It really dwindled when the baseball season started in May.

The other disappointing piece to this endeavor was the unintentional creation of a two separate youth groups: one for outreach and one for in-reach. And there wasn’t much cross pollination between the two. Students in CORE group seemed to have felt that they ha gotten their fill of community and teaching, so why stay for the “outreach” time? Valid question. It was hard to argue with such logic. It was really a bummer that what began as a way to disciple students because the regular Youth Group time wasn’t doing it became a separate group to go to in order to avoid the “outreach” to their friends. In essence, CORE group, unintentionally, removed the “Christian” students from Youth Group. Not what we had in mind at all.

I’d like to say it was kind of funny, but it wasn’t. God’s message to the Israelites in the Minor Prophets (Hosea thru Malachi) was that they were so focused on themselves as God’s special people and protecting themselves from the “pagan” outsiders, that they missed the very vocation God had created his special people to do: “To show the world what He is like.” God’s harshest words were to wake up his special people from self-congratulations and self-worship, to looking outward.

As a studier of Jewish history, I really didn’t want to continue to foster an environment where we as a youth ministry was focused on ourselves to the detriment of the lost world around us that God has called us as his special people to be a “witness” to.

So I shut down CORE group the following year. We discontinued it. We needed a clean break. Students still asked for it, but we said we weren’t doing it.

It happened about that time, before the school year started, that Josh and Jessica Heyworth felt led to start a Middle School Sunday morning class. As a way to both transition and to create, we called the Sunday morning class: CORE group on Sunday morning. In hind sight, we probably shouldn’t have done that because with the name came certain connotations and expectations. The Heyworth’s class, although filled with great conduct and executed with consistency and community, did not look like what CORE group had been, and many, for lots of different reasons attended at first, then quit. The class ended up being more of a small group of students who wanted to connect with Josh and Jessica each week, which was a great thing in spite of everything else.

This leads us up to where we are now.