What youth need

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.


  1. Hi,
    I found you several weeks ago…via Idon’trememberwho.

    I love this point. I think it’s very true that growth comes through relationship, or at least it comes most easily through relationship.

    I think this is true for adults as well as children–we all seem to grow better through knowing and relating to other people than we do from hearing a sermon, reading a book, etc. I believe that formation must be approached relationally or it won’t really be formation at all.

  2. Sarah,
    So glad you visited and took the time to comment. You are so, so right about formation taking place in the context of relationship. And maybe what makes doing that well with youth so hard for a lot of churches is our default setting of ministry that segregates. Add to that the ways that adolescence has become so increasingly isolated (Chap does really great work in this area), and it is not surprising that the youth are cut off from receiving from adults in the congregation.

    Again, thanks!

  3. ok, why can’t they have an organization like this in colorado springs? i was just thinking the other day that if i had to pick something to do for the rest of my life, it would be mentoring. maybe i should move back to portland instead…. God has been teaching me in a big way lately how much it’s all about relationships. thanks for reaffirming.

  4. Patty,
    You would be amazing in that role! Maybe Portland is not such a bad idea 🙂 I hear they have good pastries…and pizza!

  5. Relationships and mentoring are the key. No doubt.

    But it’s hard and slow work.

    Jan, Rebecca and I may have successfully loved a dozen youth in 15 years in the inner city.

    While I think mentoring is key, I wonder if youth work sometimes fails because evangelical urban ministries are often unwilling to get beyond youth and deal with the broader issues of urban poverty.

    We reach a few and watch a lot go down the tubes.

    Youth work is often the entry point for urban ministry. When ministries rarely get beyond that entry point, though, it’s no surprise that efforts to ‘turn kids around’ often fail.

    That’s not to say that increased efforts at mentoring aren’t critical. They are.

    And beyond that, we need to see more successful models of raising up community wide leaders among urban youth. My biggest disappointment with the CCDA movement is how little leadership development I’ve seen in spite of all the rhetoric. Without mentoring and serious leadership development you don’t get powerful youth ministry. Or any other kind of ministry.

    There are some cultural issues of authority that block that leadership development in my mind. We may have some pastors and leaders who don’t understand that their job is to work themselves out of a job.

  6. Erika, I really appreciated this post. I finally had to step down from church leadership in part to more actively pursue one-on-one relationships with teens and 20-somethings. I felt what little time I had (read – taking away from my family duties) was being used frivolously on starting and maintaining program after program designed to keep our membership happy and fed – while the younger folks were coming in, looking around and quickly going out of our doors at an alarming rate.

    I don’t know what the answer is for the local church, honestly.

  7. If you want to get a copy of Chap’s lecture, one way would be to contact Fuller’s ATC department (http://www.fuller.edu/atc/contact.asp) and purchase a copy. They always record everything on campus and I have bought CD’s of lectures before–maybe $5? I think they are now making things available in other digital technologies as well which could be cheaper/easier. It’s worth it!

  8. Kim,
    What a testimony!

    I have watched my parents over the years befriend and mentor so many youth in our church, while holding no “official” titles in this area. God bless you for your investment in these lives!

  9. Maria,
    I was a student at North Park University from 91-95. During that time I became involved in a mentoring program on campus that matched college students up with kids in the neighborhood. As my involvement in the kids’ lives and in the community there grew, that program soon evolved to include an after school drop-in center on campus, special event for the local junior high school, and eventually a full-scale after-school program that offered everything from tutoring to science and math club to soccer teams. North Park is located in NW Chicago, a richly diverse community. When I was there, there were 52 different languages spoken at the local grade school.

  10. Tom,
    Sadly, your comments will certainly strike home with any on us doing ministry in the city. Are there any models (outside of CCDA) where you have seen anyone demonstrate successful leadership development methods for urban youth? You’re so right about it being the buzz word–it’s the thing we are always talking about doing, but the reality always seems to fall so short…

  11. Ericka,

    I asked because I am currently a senior at North Park in Youth Min. I’m hoping to start seminary this fall out at Fuller… and if I do perhaps we could meet sometime. Reading your blog has taught me a lot, especially as someone who wants to go into urban youth ministry.

    Thanks for this great post- and I agree- programs are great and have value, but I see their greatest value in being a catalyst for starting those life-changing relationships between adults and adolescents.

  12. Hey, Maria! How fun to hear you are a fellow North Parker! And Fuller is great–I totally recommend coming out here for Seminary.

    I will be on the North Park campus in April for a few days. Do you live nearby? I would be happy to do coffee or something if we could make that work.

    Ginny Olsen was a very dear friend and partner in ministry for me when I was there. I am sure you are enjoying her wisdom and leadership! You can use the contact form on my blog to get in touch if you would like.


  13. Erika, Good thoughts. Programs may help facilitate relationship, but it’s really all about relationship to God and each other.

    It’s almost amazing. Just being together, and working at really relating to each other, as friends- Jesus seems to be there in it, somehow. Life-changing. We need to think and live more along these lines, even beginning at home.

  14. I think Pentecostal churches do a better job of leadership development among American urban youth than traditional CCDA approaches.

    They also do a better job of leadership development among the billion squatter poor around the world.

    But they speak a very different and more anarchical language than most of us educated Phillipians 2 types trying to bring our priveleged gifts to folks who got the cultural and economic short end of the stick.

    CCDA type ministry–and Servant Partners at this point in our development–do our best work as bridge folks and reconcilers between the haves and have nots. A very important and life giving role. Gotta blow up the preconceptions of both the rich and poor so we can all imagine a real community that includes both. But not necessarily a leadership development role among the poor.

  15. Erika good post, through my several years of youth ministry the one lesson I’ve learned is that without a good team of relationally driven leaders a youth pastor or visionary simply can’t make a lasting impact on their lives. What they remember most is a shared spiritual journey that has required sacrifice from both parties.

    I’m reading through Hurt right now and it is probably the most thoughtful Youth-culture book I’ve read. Thanks for the great post…

  16. Your comment reminds me of the ministry I observed at a church in San Luis Obispo. My friend was the youth pastor, and she had such an amazing team of leaders: at their winter retreat where Doug and I spoke and led worship, there were as many adults present as kids. Those adults took so seriously their commitment to those kids, and the kids thrived.

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