Getting Phase-Specific in a Combined Middle & High School Environment

Want your combined youth ministry to thrive? Let's get phase-specific! Here are some tips to make your ministry effective for both MS and HS students.
Phase-Specific in Combined Youth Ministry

If you lead a ministry with a combined Middle School & High School gathering, you don’t need us to tell you about the challenges you face. 


At Orange, we champion your ability to get as phase-specific as possible with your programs. You can learn more about why that’s the case here. We even created a resource called The Split Kit to help guide you through the process of creating phase-specific programs for your MS & HS students. You can REALLY deep dive into the phase stuff here if you’re unfamiliar.  


BUT . . . whether it’s strategy, staffing, space, or schedule, we all get the reality that some groups have programming with both MS & HS students together. So, this blog is NOT about separating HS & MS programming. Rather, our focus here is to help think through some ways to get phase-specific within your combined environment so that you can be the most effective.


ADDITIONAL RESOURCE: Rethinking Youth Ministry Episode 78: Can MS & HS Students Thrive in a Combined Environment?  


Use Outside Events to Get Phase-Specific


If your weekly program is MS & HS combined, look for ways for your events to get phase specific. The downside is that this could mean twice the work, but you could even lean into your small group leaders to help lead these gatherings if necessary. Creating events that are phase-specific allows you to choose events that specifically resonate with each phase. You might get a lot of interest from your MS students for laser tag, but maybe not as much from your HS students. A house party & bonfire with very little structure is likely an attractive option for your HS students, but is likely a recipe for disaster with MS students.  


These phase-specific events also increase the likelihood that students will show up and bring their friends. It’s no surprise to learn that a Senior might not be as interested in hanging out somewhere there are a bunch of MS students running around, let alone invite their other Senior friends. 


Finally, this allows you to get your students more involved in the planning of events to be sure you’re choosing something that is actually interesting to all students. Bring some of them into the conversation. Ask some of your MS students, “If we had an event for just MS students, what would be fun to do?” You’ll likely get some great ideas along with added ownership for those students. 


Use Technology to Get Phase-Specific


Even in a combined MS & HS environment, most groups still have small groups where they get as phase-specific as possible. Don’t be afraid to use technology to get phase-specific in the teaching time, too! If you have the space, do your all-group time together (games, maybe some worship). But then send your middle or high school students somewhere else, not just for small group time, but for the teaching time too. 


This is where using technology can be great if you don’t have other live communicator options. Of course, if you’re using XP3, we have MS & HS teaching videos for each week. Even if you’re not using XP3, recording a teaching video on your phone and editing it is easier than ever. Sure, your first few videos might not be amazing, but they’ll only get better and better. 


If you’re the only live communicator, you can flip flop between teaching live and using a teaching video between MS & HS so they’re each getting a bit of both. 


Get Granular When You’re Teaching


One of the biggest challenges when teaching MS & HS students at the same time is the ability for them to understand abstract concepts or metaphors. Your HS students are more apt to understand and benefit from talking about faith through abstract concepts, but your MS students haven’t developed that part of their brain yet. So, if you stay there and only there, you’ll lose them.


Your MS students need simple and clear instructions. It’s not that you have do dumb it down. But you’ll need to break down spiritual concepts in a way where it helps them connect the dots to their life. Check out the book Communicating to Middle Schoolers for more on this! 


Your HS students are seeking to understand what is unseen and what cannot be measured. They want to discover meaning in new ways.


So, during your teaching, don’t shy away from taking a moment to talk directly to your MS or HS students when it comes to certain examples. Take a minute to say, “High Schoolers, lean in with me for a minute; what I need you to hear is….For you this might look like…”


Then, do the same for your MS students. “Middle Schoolers, now it’s your turn…for you…”   


Develop Different Small Group Leader Guides


The same is true for your small group questions. Because of the difference in their development, the kinds of questions that engage your HS students will often not be effective for your MS students. That means you’ll often want to build out a small group leader guide for your HS leaders and a different one for your MS leaders.


Here are some examples. 

MS question: What’s one time you’ve seen Christians not working together?


HS question: Why do you think it can be difficult to be around people who are different from you?


MS question: How do you view God?


HS question: Do you think your view of God impacts your relationship with God? If so, how?


Be sure MS & HS Can Relate/Understand Each Segment


Outside of your teaching and small group time, be sure that everything else you have planned is landing well with each phase. For instance, there are probably some games that engage your MS students but have your HS students rolling their eyes. In those situations, what would it look like to find a game everyone would want to play? Or separate just for the game? Maybe you could get some high school leaders to lead that game in an effort to get them more involved?


For worship, be careful about choosing songs that can be understood by both MS & HS students. Remember when we talked about how MS students don’t quite compute metaphorical thoughts as well as HS students?


Well, if we sing about God’s love being like a tidal wave or how we’re washed in the blood of Jesus, they’re likely to be a little confused if we don’t take the time to break it down to help them understand the language. 


I’d also encourage you to spend some time processing the following questions. Your answers will likely help you discover some unique ways to ensure that your MS & HS students thrive in your combined programming structure. 


  • Who is my MS Champion? The person who will always help me look through everything with an MS lens?
  • Who is my HS Champion? The person who will always help me look through everything with an HS lens?
  • How many MS/HS students do I have attending on a weekly basis?
  • What are your natural bents & biases? 
  • What are your hopes for your middle or high school students? Which are parallel & which are phase specific?
  • What are the barriers that currently exist for fulfilling those hopes?


Engaging Parents at Different Phases


Finally, the way we engage parents at different phases matters also. This could be as simple as acknowledging parents that we see the phase their child is in and we have resources and support for that. Some younger MS parents don’t feel comfortable with their children going to a combined youth ministry because of the older high schoolers present. Other parents are aware of the differences and how they vary developmentally.  If we don’t acknowledge different phases to parents, they will not have full confidence that their child won’t be exposed to something prematurely.  So the more you can engage parents here, the more likely parents will include middle schoolers in the youth ministry or encourage their high schoolers to attend.


As always, if you are an XP3 curriculum subscriber, please reach out to your Orange Specialist to process the best ways to connect with your MS & HS students in your combined environment. If you’re not sure who your OS is, head here!

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