Monday, March 17, 2008


*(The names in this post have been changed…because I don’t like their real names.)

Mark’s a kid who beat the odds. His parents don’t attend church. He should have been one of the 90% of non-church kids who leave their faith immediately after high school. Mark’s now 20 and still has a vital, growing faith in Jesus.

Not long ago I asked him point blank: “Mark, you beat the odds. Why are you still following Jesus?”

After 10 seconds of deep thought, staring at the floor with a furrowed brow the answer came: “Jim Barker.”

“Jim Barker? How in the world do you know Jim Barker?”

Jim Barker was a fifty-something man who has attended worship services for 10 years or so. I didn’t really know Jim. He was a likeable man but didn’t seem like the type to pursue a spiritual mentoring relationship with a teen.

The relationship between Mark and Jim started naturally. No mentor programs. No shared “Sunday church jobs.” Mark and Jim happened to be assigned to the same work team in our effort to restore elderly people’s homes in the inner city. Jim simply took Mark under his wing and showed him the “fixin’-an-old-house” ropes. He later asked Mark to breakfast. They began to make it a point to seek each other out on Sundays. Now the relationship has grown to the point to where Mark now attributed his spiritual longevity to Jim.

The first time I told Jim of his spiritual influence on Mark, he was stunned. “I had no idea. I would've guessed you (the youth pastor) were a bigger reason Mark is committed to Jesus. I'm speechless. I just like Mark. He’s a great kid!”

Unfortunately, this kind of relationship is more of the exception than the rule. Rarely do adults (other than youth workers) forge such faith-shaping relationships with teens. We've tried formal mentoring programs, but no programmed relationship has held a candle to relationships like Mark's and Jim's. Theirs formed naturally.

Why are natural intergenerational relationships so rare in our churches?

Are "unnatural" intergenerational relationships worth the effort? In other words, should we try programmed relationships (i.e. mentoring programs) or just be satisfied with the natural ones (like Mark and Jim) that occasionally pop up?

What can we do to facilitate natural connections between generations?


Dj said...

I really don't think there's anything we can do to facilitate it. It's just one of those things that "happens" or as you said "natural". We can do our best to create those types of environments where adults and teens come together such as mission trips, church work days, etc...but until those adults actually make the conscious decision to "be with" a teenager, it's not going to happen.

I can think of several teens in our church that have gone on to college and are still in the faith today. Not because of me, but because of one lady in her 40's who takes the time to just be with these kids. When they are having a bad day and need advice, they don't call me, they call her and I'm perfectly fine with that.

Perhaps it starts with stories such as the one with "Mark" and letting adults know that it really is them that make the difference in the Kingdom with teenagers.

Not more training, but encouraging adults to take the time out for them.

Kevin said...

I guess I am like a Mark in the sense that I should be a statistic. My parents don't go to church. Now, I am a youth pastor. I can think of the men that shaped me and most of them were natural/unnatural. By this I mean that the relationships were forged totally organically, but many of them came in the context of formal situations (small groups etc...).

I think we need to try to create contexts where organic relationships can happen. Not like blind dating, or speed dating, but more like group dating.

Get groups of adults who want to hang with teens. No agenda, just hanging out. Naturally, relationships can form. I think the idea is that we realize that there is NOTHING we can do to create meaningful relationships beyond creating space for it to happen.

A lot of times youth ministry programming does more to exclude adults and therefore reduce the pool of people who would be interested in "being with" a teenager. I don't know how to change that, but I think that is a big factor.

Joel Mayward said...

I wonder if the definition of "discipleship" has to change for many adults. I would say that a Godly adult like Jim Barker spending intentional time with Mark would be discipleship. But many adults I know are intimidate by discipling or mentoring a teen; they feel ill-equipped or like they have nothing to offer. They feel they need a complex agenda or specific Bible-study in order to mentor someone. But the value of mentoring seems to come from consistently being with teens. It's organic, but also intentional.

jeremy zach said...

I think we "talk" and teach to the adults of the church to go after the kids.

I do not think we can "naturally" arrange this type of relationship.

I think we equip our adults and if they want put it into practice then great, if not then that is okay too.

Diana said...

A lot of the relationships I had with older adults in the church were formed on mission trips, or adults who had kids in the youth group and would take us out surfing and things like that.

But I also recently thought of an elderly couple at the church I grew up in (they've since passed away). I began to cry because I just then realized how much they impacted me. They were the greeters and each week they'd hug me and let me know they were happy to see me there. It didn't matter how badly I felt about myself, or how much I felt I didn't fit in there, they made me feel so welcome.

I think a huge part of the connections, is adults simply showing an interest in teens. All too often leaders tend to function as chaperons rather than forming relationships. I also think it's often because they're intimidated. I sometimes feel that way myself, but God reminds me that's my own insecurities.

Ryan Dunn said...

This is a great topic. Kevin brings up a great point about how we often program to the point we exclude adults. I see that happening in my youth ministry.

Part of the trick of bringing adults and students together is finding activities that are mutually interesting. Mark and Jim came together because Jim had permission to teach Mark on his terms. Mission trips are wonderful like that. I think we intentionally program mentoring activities, we don't fully give adults opportunities to express themselves on their terms.

Are there other inter-generational activities that can foster these types of reltionships?

Anonymous said...

Previously, as one of the parents / adult volunteers in a youth program, I formed lots of relationships with the youth. I found that my love of the youth and my interest in forming and maintaining supportive relationships with them completely isolated me from the other parents. The fact that I would voluntarily sit with them at dinner, or would sometimes go to movies with a group or whatever caused them to view me as odd and I was virtually an outcast. The other adults were "chaperones" who "served their time" and distanced themselves from the 'nitty gritty' of the typical drama that exists around groups of teenagers. I found that being aware of the drama, and being present in the aftermath, was a great way to win the trust of the kids. Looking back, it would have helped if more encouragement and support had come from the youth pastor. At times, while doing the lay ministry I felt led to do, I felt totally alone.

Brandon J. Brown said...

This is a great post....

I think that it is so challenging because as much as I may want every student to have a meaningful relationship with a natural spiritual mentor, programming it seems ineffective. So... is there another way to reach it... possibly a way to challenge people by telling stories about its benefit... maybe then others would at least be looking for such opportunities.