Extended Family

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to worship at Carmel Presbyterian Church where my fiancé and his family have worshipped for decades. As a pastor, it is always nice to be a visitor to another church’s worship service. You are so often called to lead in a worship service that you forget what it is like to simply gather and receive on a Sunday morning. Please don’t misunderstand, I love leading in worship, but every once and a while it’s nice to sit back and let others do the leading.

This particular Sunday was doubly blessed for me. Not only did I get to worship with a new congregation, but I was also able to meet so many of the people who had watched my fiancé grow up in the church. I met his Sunday School teachers, choir director, and friends of the family who were all to ready to share a story about PJ as a child of the church.

This got me thinking about all the people who have surrounded me on my journey and how important they were in my faith formation. Mark DeVries would call these people my ‘Extended Christian Family,

“An extended Christian family is a community of believers who affirm and encourage growth toward Christian maturity.” - Family-Based Youth Ministry

These extended family members can be Sunday School teachers, youth group leaders and advisors, but the extended family members who make the most impact tend to be the ones who notice and affirm a youth out of genuine interest rather than programmatic involvement. I remember many of my teachers and advisors begin important influencers when it came to my faith formation. But, it was those members of the congregation who would seek me out to have a conversation or who would affirm a gift in me without being directly involved in the programs who connected me to the broader life of the church.

So many of my closest friends in middle school and high school were in my youth group. We were a very involved bunch. We sang in choirs, taught Sunday School and VBS, attended youth group, worship, and Bible Studies. A few of my friends have continued their journey of faith and found congregations and mission where they are involved, but many more of my friends have drifted away from the church. It makes you wonder, why was church so life-changing and formational for me and just a phase for someone else?

Ben Patterson in an article in Youthworker many years ago, made a very compelling point.  He said, 

“It is a sad fact of life that often the stronger the youth program in the church, and the more deeply the young people of the church identify with it, the weaker the chances are that those same young people will remain in the church when they grow too old for the youth program. Why? Because the youth program has become a substitute for participation in the church...When the kids outgrow the youth program, they also outgrow what they have known of the church.”

If young people feel connected with the youth program, that’s excellent! However, if we don’t take that seed and help it to grow and mature, it will wither and die just like a plant that has outgrown its clay pot and is not transplanted.

Helping to connect and involve young people in the life of the church is not just the job of those running children and youth programs.  Sure, we love to affirm the children and youth in our care and help them to find their way, but, as the African proverb says, it takes a village.

I pray that we all might recognize our role as members of that village and members of the extended Christian family for the children and youth in our churches.