The critical importance of relationships actually has research behind it. Search Institute is a research organization that began in 1958 with a youth survey conducted by the Lutheran denomination. Since then, it has grown and expanded its research for a variety of denominations and secular agencies that relate to youth and the issues affecting their well-being. Search Institute’s most recent research projects have been focused on relationships. Their concluding statements based on this research are, “Nothing — nothing — has more impact in the life of a child than positive relationships,” and “It’s not programs that change people, it’s relationships.”
Okay, wait a minute. What is it that our congregations tend to focus on for forming the faith of our children and youth? Programs. So I can hear you asking, “Then what do we do to ensure that our children, youth, and adults develop a mature faith? What can we do besides offer programs?”
I propose that we create a new focus for faith formation ministries — a focus on fostering intentional, authentic relationships. Our traditional educational and formational methods place a focus on “educating” our young people into the faith. They teach about what we believe, and assume that faith can be taught. Faith is more caught than taught, and the end result is that we’ve been confirming our young people right out the door, with the vast majority never returning. (Have you heard the joke, “How do you get bats out of the church belfry?” “Confirm them, and they’ll never come back to the church.”)
Now ask a young adult (or any adult) who is currently active in a congregation what the most formative church experience was that they had as a child and/or youth, and most all of them will share an experience that included a significant and authentic relationship with someone strong in their faith who was willing and able to nurture them in spiritual ways, such as a grandparent, youth pastor, pastor, and/or camp counselor. Again, faith is more caught than taught. Growth in faith requires walking alongside others who are further along in their journey of faith as well as with those who are just starting on the path.
I recommend that we flip our focus. Rather than spending all of our efforts on programs and curriculum resources, let’s look at all of the places within congregational life that can be broadened to include all ages, growing into Christian discipleship together. Of course, opportunities for each age group to gather and learn together need not be abandoned; however, the sole focus on intellectual learning and separating age groups should be reduced in order to allow opportunities for intergenerational relationships to be fostered, nurtured, and celebrated.
Our congregations have multitudes of adults available to nurture and mentor the next generations into mature faith and Christian discipleship with intergenerational experiences, so let’s put them all to good use! In the words of Maria Harris, the author of Fashion Me A People, “The church does not have an education program.The church IS an education program.” And it all beings with relationships.
Debbie Gline Allen is the Consultant for Christian Education & Youth Ministry MA Conference, UCC.
Many Voices, One Mission is a regular series highlighting the ministries of the
CT, MA, and RI Conference of the United Church of Christ.
Debbie Gline Allen serves as a Minister of Faith Formation on the Conference’s Faith Formation Ministry Team. She also serves as the administrator of the SNEUCC Faith Formation Leadership Program. Her passion for ministry is with children and family...