By Kara Powell, Ph.D.
Eliminating the kids table catastrophe
As a child, 30 of my relatives would regularly gather at my grandparents’ house for family holidays. When we were all assembled, there were far too many of us to fit around one table.
So we set up two tables: the adults’ table and the kids’ table.
The adults ate in the dining room. We kids ate in the TV room.
The adults had pleasant conversation. Somehow our conversation usually degenerated into dinner rolls being thrown at each other and a jello snorting contest.
In theory, we were at the same meal. In reality, we had two very different experiences.
That sounds a lot like how adults and kids experience church today. The adults’ table is in the bigger, nicer room and the kids’ table is down the hall.
Most churches have adult pastors…and youth pastors.
Adult worship services…and student worship services.
Adult mission trips…and student mission trips.
Do 16-year-olds need time to be together and on their own? You bet. But one of my life mantras is that “balance is something we swing through on our way to the other extreme.” I’m afraid that’s what’s happened here. In our effort to offer relevant and developmentally appropriate teaching and fellowship for teenagers, we have segregated—and we use that verb intentionally but not lightly—students from the rest of the church. That segregation is hindering young people’s faith development.
A host of studies suggests that approximately 40-50 percent of kids who are part of a church or youth group will fail to stick with their faith beyond high school. To try to understand more about the current state of both youth and the church, the Fuller Youth Institute studied close to 500 youth group graduates from across the U.S. during their first three years in college. Our primary goal was to identify church and family practices that build lasting faith, or what we call Sticky Faith (see stickyfaith.org).
More than almost any other youth group participation variable, moving kids into an intergenerational context of worship and relationship seems to deepen students’ faith in high school and beyond. In other words, a key Sticky Faith factor is ending the two-table dichotomy and periodically gathering folks of all ages together for worship, service and fellowship.
A new 5:1 ratio
My colleague and the co-author of our parent Sticky Faith book, Chap Clark, says a lot of brilliant things, but I think perhaps his most brilliant insight in the last few years is that we need to reverse the ministry adult/kid ratio.
What does he mean?
Many children’s and youth ministries say they want to have a 1:5 ratio of adults to kids (meaning they want one adult for every five kids) for their Sunday school class or small groups.
What if we reversed that? What if we said we want a 5:1 adult/kid ratio in which five adults are caring for each kid? We’re not talking about five Sunday school teachers or five small group leaders. We’re also not talking about five adults to whom you as a parent outsource the spiritual, emotional, social and intellectual development of your kids. We’re talking about five adults who you recruit to invest in your kid in little, medium and big ways. As the Fuller Youth Institute connects with parents across the country, we have seen families make progress toward experiencing 5:1 when they are both intentional and explicit.
Sticky social webs don’t happen by accident. You need to build those relationships with regular contact. Like most aspects of parenting, we have to be intentional. Just as a spider meticulously creates its web, so we must devote significant time and energy to surrounding our children with intergenerational relationships.
For the 13 years I’ve been at my church, I’ve been inspired by one small group of families who have created a sticky web for their kids. Every three months, they bring their calendars to their small group meeting. As is typical in small groups of busy families, they plan out several months in advance when they are going to meet. But unlike most small groups, they have taken calendaring to a new level.
This small group has covenanted to make each others’ family events a joint priority. So during their quarterly calendar review, not only do they plan their own meetings, but they also share important upcoming dates and events in their families. All five families mark the Sunday afternoon when Claire has her piano recital. All five families make a note of Mario’s Eagle Scout ceremony. All five families jot down the date and time of Isabella’s middle school graduation. And as much as possible, these five families try to attend these milestone events.
That’s 5:1. That’s Kingdom community.
Two years ago, my husband and I decided to follow their 5:1 example by starting an intergenerational group of families to walk through life together. We invited three families to join: one that was in our life stage, one with a newborn, and one couple who is in their sixties and has mentored us since we were engaged.
The group would not be the same without the young family just starting to navigate parenthood. Our conversations would not be as deep without the not-as-young-but-still-young-at-heart couple who talks about their love for Jesus and others—both present and past. We could have simply asked three families in our own life stage to meet with us, but we would be the lesser for it.
Maybe that sort of intergenerational small group isn’t an option for your family. The good news is that even if you can’t develop 5:1 from one cohesive small group, you can create a cluster of relationships that form your own 5:1 constellation.
You could go out of your way to personally encourage your child’s teacher (or small group leader or Sunday school teacher) and invite him/her over for dinner or dessert with your family. Or perhaps you schedule regular video conference calls with adult friends and relatives around the country so your kids feel connected across the miles.
With a bit of planning (and perhaps a bit of courage), most of us can develop a web of adult relationships for our kids that will help develop Sticky Faith.
There’s no need to keep what you’re doing a secret from your children. We encourage you to let them in on your 5:1 goal (or 7:1, 10:1, or whatever you’re shooting for) and celebrate with you as your family develops its own sticky network. If talking about 5:1 itself feels a bit calculated or forced, you can instead regularly remind your kids of the adults (coaches, teachers, neighbors, church leaders) who care about them. If you pray at meals or before bed with your child, you could even thank God for the sticky web God is helping weave.
I recently met a single mom who had a brilliant idea for helping her son visualize their family’s sticky web. In the hallway between their bedrooms, this mom has hung a few large collage picture frames, each of which has several openings for pictures. As her son builds a relationship with an adult—especially with a man—she takes a picture of her son with that adult. Then she places those pictures in her frames to remind them of the amazing adults already surrounding their family. The blank picture frames that are yet unfilled reinforce that there are more 5:1 relationships still to come.
This mom understood the power of intentionally connecting her son to other caring adults.
Is gathering all the adults and children around one intergenerational table more chaotic? You bet.
Is it more messy? Sure.
But is it worth the Sticky Faith pay-off for both the teenagers and adults involved? Absolutely.
This article is adapted from Sticky Faith by Kara Powell and Chap Clark (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011). For more information on Sticky Faith and a host of free resources for parents and grandparents, visit stickyfaith.org.
Dr. Kara E. Powell is the executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary. She completed her Ph.D. in Practical Theology from Fuller Seminary with a focus on Pastoral Role Expectations in 2000, an M.Div. from Bethel Theological Seminary in 1994, and a bachelor’s degree with honors from Stanford University in 1991. In addition to her roles at Fuller Seminary, Kara currently serves as an advisor to Youth Specialties and volunteers in student ministries at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena. She is the author or co-author of a number of books and curriculum guides, including Sticky Faith (parent and youth leader editions and student curriculum, 2011-2012), Essential Leadership (2010), Deep Justice Journeys(2009), Deep Justice in a Broken World (2008), Deep Ministry in a Shallow World (2006), Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum (2001, rev 2009), Help! I’m a Woman in Youth Ministry (2004), and Mirror, Mirror (2003). Follow @kpowellfyi on Twitter.
Kara Powell is speaking June 6 at Boot Camp 2012 and the Fuller Youth Institute is directing a learning track about “Sticky Faith.” See more at saynetwork.com/bc4.