Intergenerational relationships help youth develop a lasting faith
By Cory Seibel
In a few short months I will turn 40. As this significant milestone approaches, I find myself reflecting on the experiences that have shaped me and contributed to who I am today. From my current vantage point, one thing stands out: how truly fortunate I am to have had so many seasoned Christians take the initiative to support my faith development throughout my childhood and adolescent years.
I have been following Jesus for many years now, and the journey of discipleship has taken me to many places. Nonetheless, the influence of these caring men and women remains with me. The adults that encouraged me, prayed for me and modeled faithfulness played a key role in helping me develop a vital, lasting faith that has “stuck” throughout the years. I am deeply grateful for the gift of time and attention that they invested in me.
Reflecting on these relationships, I quickly recognize that not all young people have access to the benefits of such adult attention. All too often, ministry to the youngest participants in our churches happens in virtual isolation from the life of the broader congregation.
Of course, in most churches there are Sunday school teachers, youth pastors and volunteers who commit their time and energy to invest in the lives of young people. These faithful servants make a tremendous difference. However, these ministries often are structured in ways that cause young people to miss out on the full spectrum of supportive relationships that interaction with adults in the church could provide.
Relationships help faith “stick”
Kara Powell, Fuller Youth Institute executive director, notes in a 2009 interview with Leadership Journal that recent research highlights the limits of this age-segmented approach of youth ministry. In reality, approaches to ministry that are more intergenerational in nature are more effective in helping young people nurture a faith that “sticks” beyond high school.
According to Powell, intergenerational relationships provide one powerful way that adults can impact the faith formation of young people. She says: “Traditional mentoring typically focuses on kids in whom we see some kind of potential, the best and brightest. The danger with focusing on the best and brightest is it’s not good for anyone, because it only reinforces an identity based on achievement and performance for the kids who are good at performing…. If adults in a church caught a vision that every kid needs to have their name known by five adults in the church, then an adult who’s interested in computers can connect with a teen who is interested in computers.”
College Community MB Church (CCMBC) in Clovis, Calif., is one congregation that recognizes the importance of providing intergenerational linkages for its youngest members. For many years, this congregation has modeled a commitment to provide a mentor beginning in the seventh grade for every teen under its care. These intentional mentoring relationships are meant to help support teens throughout their middle school and high school years.
CCMBC’s Children’s Education Commission begins the process of matching young people and mentors by asking the teens and their parents if there is someone who they would like to invite to serve in the mentoring role. For students who don’t already have mentors in mind, the commission takes the initiative to pair them with adults in the congregation.
Prospective mentors need to possess both the time and the willingness to enter into this commitment. Efforts are made to match youth with adults who share similar passions and experiences. “We assume that members of the congregation know that they may be asked and that they should be prayerfully open to this,” says Trent Voth, CCMBC youth pastor.
Mentoring part of larger process
After the new pairings have been made, part of a Sunday morning service is devoted to commissioning these newly formed relationships. This provides an opportunity to affirm that these mentoring relationships are part of a larger process. It also enables the congregation to express its support by affirming both the new pairs and existing ones.
As these mentoring relationships begin, the church sends a letter to mentors and mentees outlining suggestions about how to get started. In addition, the church’s youth ministry provides events once a quarter that mentors and mentees can participate in together. These activities include things like going to baseball games, bowling or participating in the annual white elephant exchange.
Between these events, mentors and mentees are encouraged to find ways to connect. This might involve studying a book together or meeting once or twice a month for lunch. The mentoring pairs are free to find what works for them in light of their interests and schedules. As a result, a variety of different patterns emerge.
The mentoring program has facilitated a broad sense of ownership within the church. Voth calls it “youth ministry on a congregational scale.” He says, “It provides more webbing in the congregation and church family. It helps prevent young people from falling through the cracks…. There are not enough fingers out there to catch everybody if it is just the youth pastor or just the parents.”
Parents appreciate the investment that adult mentors make in walking alongside their teens. As the parents of one teen explain, “We know our son will not tell us everything. We hope you will have a relationship with him where he feels comfortable sharing.”
According to Voth, this sums up the intent of the program nicely. “The mentoring relationships add more wisdom and perspective to the pot, so that when you have a kid that is facing a difficult situation, it is not just mom and dad’s voices that they are hearing,” says Voth. “This facilitates a deeper relationship among the members of the congregation and a strong sense of family relationship.”
Sharing care, wisdom
While CCMBC mentoring relationships are focused on students, the adults involved benefit in very important ways, as well. Mentoring partnerships provide a tie that gives them a reason to stay connected. This can be beneficial to older church members. Voth finds that churches have a tendency to say, “Thanks for your service. Now here’s a comfy seat to ride out the rest of your life.” The mentoring program provides individuals in more advanced stages of life with a chance to exercise care and to share their wisdom.
Though the mentoring process officially concludes with high school graduation, many of these relationships continue beyond high school. In one case, a young woman in her late 20s has continued to meet with her mentor on a monthly basis. Other mentors have concluded their service with a student at graduation and immediately started over by adopting a new mentee.
Recently, CCMBC saw two former mentees become mentors. These individuals, now in their late 20s, were among the first teens to participate in the program. This development is a source of encouragement to those who have been long-time mentors. It provides a tangible reminder of the difference they have made.
In the last several years, the church has added a “prayer pal” program for children younger than seventh grade. The aim is to see church members commit to pray for children over a long period of time. They also send cards on birthdays and find other ways to express care. As Voth notes, “This helps children to foster a sense of belonging to the congregation beyond merely being part of a particular family.”
As the experience of the CCMBC congregation illustrates, intergenerational connections can be a powerful resource in encouraging the faith development of today’s children and youth. Clearly, there are a variety of meaningful ways in which adults can offer support to the youngest participants in our churches.
It’s not a question of being qualified to serve as a mentor or whether older adults believe they have something to offer the emerging generation. What really matters is our willingness to invest our time and attention. The combined impact of these investments can make a significant difference in helping the members of the rising generation to develop what Kara Powell describes as “sticky faith.”
To this day, I still have a collection of notes and cards that church members sent me during my teen years. They bear testimony to the care that older Christians extended to me during a crucial period in my faith journey. The support they showed continues to encourage me and helps to sustain me even now.
Wouldn’t it be great if, two or three decades from now, a generation of men and women could reflect on the influence we’ve had in their lives in a similar light? Through the simple gift of ourselves, we can help encourage today’s children and youth to develop a faith that sticks.
Cory Seibel is assistant professor of pastoral ministries at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary.