Get in Close!

Yesterday afternoon I attended my daughter’s weekly outdoor netball game. When the game began the weather conditions were favourable, but in the second quarter of the game the wind began to blow strongly. Her team, which had started very well, began to flounder. Their usual game style began to break down in the face of a strong wind which made throwing and catching the ball that much harder. At half-time the coach urged them to adjust their style to come in closer to one another and throw shorter, lower passes. Higher, longer passes were drifting away or holding up in the wind, making it much easier for their opponents to intercept. When they did adjust their style to “getting in close” and “playing shorter” they began to take control of the game again and ran out winners.

As I reflected on the game, it struck me that in the arena of faith formation the “winds have changed” for those ministering to children, youth and their families. In western societies like Australia, the UK and the USA the sweep of popular culture is increasingly against Christian faith and values. There is no longer a shared consensus around faith and values in the way there was (at least to some extent) in past centuries. The church no longer has the status and voice in our communities that it once had. That means that we cannot rely on the wider culture to impart faith and values to our children and youth by default, or to even reinforce our faith and values. The messages that come to us through the media and the views and perspectives of the secular culture around us are often in stark contradiction to a Biblical perspective and worldview. And the “game style” that used to dominate church practice, and still persists in many congregations is no longer working! Ministry that relies on gathering young people together in large groups and in Sunday age-based classroom settings is no longer hitting the mark. Children and young people are not attending these groups and classes in the numbers they once were, and many that do drift away from the life of the church in their late teen and young adult years. The “ball” of discipleship is being swept off course, away from the hearts and minds of our children and young people.

How should we respond? Like my daughter’s netball team, we need to adjust our “game style”! Instead of focusing on big program delivery and age-specific group settings we need to “get in close” to our children, young people and their families. We need to build relationships with them – not just child and youth ministry leaders but adults of ALL ages in our communities of faith. We need to know them by name and include them in person. We need to take an interest in their lives, in their joys and hurts and hopes and struggles. Our children and young people need faith mentors more than they need ministry curriculum. We also need to “get in close” to their families. We need to be intentional and purposeful about providing households with ideas, resources and skills for practicing faith at home in ways that sustainable and manageable for them. We need to welcome and include and whole families in our patterns of church life, instead of segregating them through our ministries.

Here some practical directions to pursue:

  • Work to provide children and young people in your congregation with older mentors or “buddies”, and put in place a support and encouragement system for these mentors.
  • Focus on making your church life more intentionally intergenerational, and on introducing intergenerational elements into existing age-specific programs.
  • Put time, effort and energy into nurturing and support parents and caregivers, and into providing them with help and resources for living out faith at home with their children and youth.
  • Seek to give every child and young people in your faith community a concrete ministry role, reflecting their individual gifts and talents.

One feature of my daughter’s netball game is that it was low scoring. The wind conditions made it much harder to set up and shoot goals. “Getting in close” to children, young people and their families is more resource and people-intensive than “big group” ministry approaches. We should also expect that some families will simply not want to “play ball” with us, preferring the old model of “handing their kids off” to the church for the “faith stuff”. But the measure of effective faith formation is not how many children and youth are involved now – it is how many will be involved through young adulthood and beyond. “Getting in close” may mean lower numbers in the present and immediate future, but I am convinced it will also mean more disciples over the longer term.

What do you think?

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