I have had a lot of conversations recently with people around issues of ministering to youth and how that can be done most effectively. While in my hospital bed, Doug and I listened to a recording of Chap Clark’s inaugural lecture at Fuller Seminary where he brilliantly assesses the state of youth ministry in the church today (if you have never read or heard Chap before, I strongly encourage you to connect with his writing or speaking somehow–his most recent book, Hurt, is supposed to be exceptional. I plan to read it as soon as I can get a hold of a copy). His lecture got me thinking about how the church can best love and nurture youth, both within the church family, and beyond. And in my own context here, I am wondering how it is that we can best love this most vulnerable part of our community.
This past week, I also got word that one of our very dearest friends was just hired by an organization that serves at-risk kids in Portland, Oregon called Friends of the Children. While I was telling my sister about our friend’s new position and about the organization, I was struck by how unique their organizational model is. Their website describes their approach this way:
Friends of the Children was founded in 1993 by entrepreneur Duncan Campbell. Campbell was inspired by his own troubled childhood to start a revolutionary new program to help at-risk children in the same neighborhood where he grew up. Campbell designed the Friends of the Children model based on the best research available in the field of youth development. Together with a team of respected researchers, Campbell found that the single most important factor that fosters resiliency in high-risk children is a caring and consistent relationship with an adult.
The Friends of the Children model puts this research into practice by allowing high-risk children to develop caring and consistent one-on-one relationships with professional adult mentors, whom we call “Friends.”
Friends of the Children is a revolutionary mentoring program that connects our nation’s most vulnerable children with paid, professional mentors, whom we call Friends, until their high school graduation date. We help high-risk children develop the relationships, goals, and skills necessary to break the cycles of poverty, abuse, and violence in order to become contributing members of society. Each child is paired with a paid, professional Friend who spends a minimum of four hours of one-on-one time each week with him or her for the next twelve years of that child’s life. Friends permeate all areas of children’s lives: visiting their homes, collaborating with their families, supporting them at school, and accompanying them in their communities. This model enables a child to form a trusting, caring, and sustained relationship with an adult that can truly change his or her life for the better.
As I thought about my own experience in the church that raised me, I realized that my spiritual formation did not primarily come through the things that were programmatic (things which were good and necessary, in my opinion), but through that community of adults who became like other parents to me. I often hear churches wondering why the youth who are active through junior high and high school drop off and leave in young adulthood. And I wonder if the reasons are not very different from the reasons that an organization like Friends of the Children has decided to pour money into the resource of relationship rather than open up yet another youth center or tutoring program.
I ministered for seven years to at-risk youth in Chicago. I did open a drop-in center and start various after-school programs, all of which were great and needful things. But when I think about the lasting impact of those years, the thing that stands out as what really made a difference are the relationships I had with some specific kids where I invested heavily of my time and resources in just being with them.
There was the boy I drove to school every morning because he had no parents around and was living with known gang members who were trying to draw him into their lifestyle. They were happy to see him not attend school, and there was no responsible adult in the house that was going to see that he went. Those thirty minutes we spent together every morning was never in my job description, but probably had more value ultimately than the poetry club or the gospel choir programs in actually changing the course of someone’s life.
There was the kid who snuck into the dances and parties we would host on campus for the local junior high school when he was still in grade school, and who required plenty of attention (in the form of discipline, usually) once he was old enough to officially participate in our programs. It was the hours he spent in my office (again, usually discipline-related, at first) and the funny jobs I would come up with for him to do that grew a relationship where that kid became like a little brother to me. And it was that, the relationship, that ultimately changed his life (and mine!).
I could go on, but the point is this: I think that we would do well to look at our models of youth ministry and outreach and ask where these kind of life-altering relationships are happening, and figure out how we can encourage and expand that, over and above funding new staff positions and programs. I think Friends of the Children just might have something good to teach us in this area.