Chapter OneRobert Herron: "The Pew Pusher"
His name is Robert Herron. My wife affectionately refers to him as a "pew pusher." Mr. Herron didn't actually push church pews, but every Sunday, my wife could count on him to make his way through the pews to the other side of the sanctuary just to say, "Hi."
My wife was very shy throughout junior high and even into high school, so when Mr. Herron first greeted her, she would lower her head, mumble a barely recognizable greeting, and quickly turn to avoid more conversation. But Mr. Herron was persistent. Each week, he came to her after worship, moving his way through the pews, with a big smile on his face and the words, "Good morning, Laurie. It's good to see you. I'm glad you're here."
By the time Laurie was a junior in high school, the greeting had become mutual. He occasionally still needed to "push the pews" to see her, but she was eager to say hello and often looked for him at the beginning of worship. If Mr. Herron was not in worship, he was missed.
Over the years, without either of them really knowing it, a surrogate grandfather-granddaughter relationship had been formed, and it all started with a simple greeting, "Good morning, Laurie. It's good to see you. I'm glad you're here."
What Mr. Herron did for my wife was simple. He communicated to her "I care about you," which to a young person quickly translates into "the church cares about you," and that ultimately translates to "God cares about you."
Chapter TwoWe Call It "Faith Webbing"
Our vision is to wrap children and youth in a web of faith so loving and caring that they will know Christ and always want to be a part of a local congregation. We have been developing the faith-webbing concept in our congregation for over thirty years. We started with a philosophy called "relational ministry." The goal was to have youth leaders at events that did not have programming responsibilities. These caring adults were simply present to be "relational" with young people. They were there to build friendships with children and youth with the hopes that those relationships would point youth to Christ.
Oftentimes, this relational ministry approach was a youth leader going to school functions or to community events or taking a couple of teens out to a restaurant for the sole purpose of building relationships. This relationship did prove important in the life of the young person; although sometimes it was the only significant connection to the church. If the youth leader became occupied with the busyness and demands of ministry, then the connection weakened. Worse yet, if the youth leader moved, then the connection was regrettably broken.
Faith webbing is a much deeper and more purposeful approach to connecting youth to the church. Its premise is to intentionally identify relationship voids in young peoples' lives and then fill those voids with church members of all ages. A young person is then surrounded by numerous faith walks that they can emulate. Nothing is accidental. Relationships are prayerfully, purposively, and intentional sought, built, and sustained.
The end result of this approach to ministry is that youth get to know scores of people of all ages within the congregation. They get to know these folks in a safe, fun, loving, and faith-nurturing environment. As this occurs, the church then becomes a place of deep meaningful relationships.
For some youth, there might not be a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, older sibling, or younger sibling in their life. In faith webbing, we deliberately identify those relational voids and then aim to fill those relationship needs with loving, caring people from within the congregation. It is common for youth to develop "grandparent relationships" with several of the older members. Thus, the church becomes a place where youth develop needed surrogate relationships.
We introduce the faith-webbing concept to children and youth in various ways. Our focus with the elementary school-aged children is on the leadership team. We explain the concept to the adult and teen leaders during training sessions. As leaders catch the vision for faith webbing, we know our children will be surrounded with lots of faith relationships. We aspire to have at least a 2:1 ratio of children to leaders at events. The leaders understand that they are there to intentionally build faith relationships with children. Together, we purposively love kids into the kingdom.
When youth get older, we offer specific faith-webbing sessions. In these sessions youth get the opportunity to begin to define their personal faith web. They contemplate who is in their faith web and who needs to be in their web. We talk about the quality traits we see in the people in their faith web. We plant the seed that youth can develop these qualities in their lives and also be in someone else's faith web. As this exercise is revisited, youth appreciate the people God has placed in their lives, they are reminded that they are not alone in their faith walk, and they are encouraged to reach out and develop more faith web relationships.
This exercise becomes a springboard for deepening relationships and a place to recognize relationship voids. Our mission jumps from sharing the vision to connecting people. We become attentive to relationship needs and prayerfully seek to weave people together in a faith-based environment. God is the supreme faith weaver. We are privileged to be the vessel through which He weaves.
Ultimately, youth become engaged with people of all ages, which leads them to becoming involved in the life and mission of the church. No longer are children and youth separated from the congregation and expected to meet with just their age group in a room set aside specifically for them, one apart from the rest of the congregation. As youth see folks in their faith web living out their faith, youth get a vision of how they can be active in serving others, often working alongside those in their faith web.
Chapter ThreeAdelyn: A Foundation of Faith
One particular occasion, we were working through the faith webbing exercise with a group of high school youth. We gave each high school student a piece of poster board and asked them to place his or her name in the middle. We then asked each student to create a web of names of people in our congregation whose faith they admired. We told them to try to list at least six grandparent-aged people, six parent-aged people, six people in their twenties, six peers, and six people younger than themselves.
It was fascinating to see their minds begin to work. Names were appearing on the papers. Webs were being created all over the room. As the writing slowed down, we encouraged students to think of their Sunday school teachers, vacation Bible school teachers, music leaders, youth group leaders, pastors, people they had heard speak at church, people they see at worship, etc.
Because we were away on a week-long event, this particular group of students worked on their faith webs a little each day. Near the end of the week, each student took a turn presenting his or her poster board to the group, sharing who was in his or her faith web and why.
Adelyn was one of the first teens to present her faith web, as she found the exercise an exciting opportunity to document her relationships. Her poster board was full of names. Adelyn shared one name and story after another. She just couldn't stop. She could have talked for thirty minutes. You see, Adelyn is one of those "church kids." She was practically born in the church. Her mom went to church. Her dad went to church. Her brother went to church. Her grandparents went to church. Her aunts, uncles, cousins, you name it, they were in church each Sunday. In addition, she had been baptized and confirmed in the church. She will likely marry in the church. Yep, Adelyn was not just a "church kid." She was a "St. John's kid."
Without knowing the concept, Adelyn had been building her web of faith her entire life. She probably had more than fifty names in her faith web, and she was still adding names as she was giving her presentation. How fun!
What's the benefit? We never had to worry about Adelyn. If Adelyn missed three weeks of church in a row, a dozen people would track her down. To her, Sunday morning was a giant family reunion where she could come and be surrounded by scores of people she loved and admired ... and who loved and cared for her. It is a perfect faith-building scenario.
Want a greater benefit? All those years of being in the church several times a week really paid off. By the time Adelyn was a teen, she had a rock-solid foundation of faith that was unshakable. Now, as the Apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians 3:2, she was ready to move beyond milk and get into the meatier portion of the faith. To Adelyn, seeking God's calling was second nature. What a joy it is to spend time with a spiritual teen of God!
Chapter FourElisabeth and Dawn: Making the Connection
During the same exercise, at the week-long event, two other teenage girls, Elisabeth and Dawn, presented their personal webs of faith. Without the same family church ties as Adelyn, the two girls did not know quite as many people. There were gaps in their faith webs.
After the experience, Elisabeth and Dawn came up to me and said, "Gary, we don't know anyone in our congregation over fifty years of age."
"Ugh," I thought, "How tragic. The over-fifty crowd is where the wisdom is." (In fact, in our congregation we actually call our seniors the OWLs, an acronym for "older, wiser Lutherans.")
In these two girls, as in most of the youth, we noticed holes in their faith webs, segments of the congregation where they knew little or no one. Hmm, it did not take too long to figure out what the poster had become—a personal ministry plan for each student. That church experience had taken place in June. We told the teens going into the next school year that our goal and our responsibility as congregational youth leaders was to help them fill in those gaps by next Memorial Day. Yep, each student had created a one-year personal ministry plan. It was time to get to work.
Elisabeth and Dawn needed to get to know some of the older folks in our congregation, so when we returned from our trip, my wife, Laurie, invited Elisabeth and Dawn to a Saturday morning prayer group. At the time, the group consisted of a dozen or so ladies all over the age of fifty. Monthly, they sat in a circle and crocheted and knitted prayer shawls that would be given away at some point. The sound of clicking needles, conversations about life, the sharing of hopes and dreams, words of encouragement, spontaneous laughter, and moments of shared silence often filled the room during group prayer. We were confident this would be a good place for Elisabeth and Dawn. My wife connected with the group ahead of time and prepped the ladies for the visit from the teens.
The meeting went well. The ladies welcomed the girls, and the girls loved their experience. Elisabeth and Dawn wanted to come back. They did come back, and after several weeks, one of the girls caught me in the hallway.
"Gary," she said, "I love the group. I now have like seven new grandmas. This is so cool."
The girls came regularly at first and then off and on for the next four years. But imagine what went on in that group—a couple of young ladies showing up at church on Saturday mornings to "hang out" with some older, wiser Lutherans who simply wanted to make prayer shawls and love the stuffing out of a couple of teenage girls. Relationships formed; they started connecting when they saw each other at other times during the week. Simple hellos turned into longer conversations. The girls took note of these women attending worship and serving in other roles at church. Subtly and simply, faith was passed on. What great role models these wise women turned out to be to these young women. The girls had a newfound faith that was caught, not taught.
And Elisabeth and Dawn? Well, they spent the next four years perfecting their crocheting and weaving relationships.
One of them completed a prayer shawl that became a blessing to an elderly person in our congregation. The other learned to quilt. Who knows where these gifts will take them and whose lives they will touch, and that's way cool!
Chapter FiveTori: Starting From Scratch
Okay, but what is an example of faith webbing with a kid who isn't active in the church? For one, there's Tori. One day, my wife was at the church, and she got a call from Aunt Julie. "Laurie, you don't know this, but I'm an aunt. I have a niece that lives a thousand miles away. Her father is not a constant part of her life, and her mother just tragically died. I am about to inherit a niece. She is twelve years old, was never baptized, has not been to church much, and is about to start confirmation. I have never been a parent before, and I don't know what to do."
After some heartfelt conversation, my wife said, "Julie, start bringing her to church. We'll figure this out together."
In the mean time, we went around the church and specifically Recruited eight people in the congregation to love the stuffing out of Tori. We recruited a couple of grandparent-aged, parent-aged, college-aged, and high school-aged people. We told them the sixty-second story about Tori and shared with them that a young girl who was going to start coming to our church and that she needed the loving embrace of a church family.
We asked that, whenever they saw Tori in church or around town, they specifically go up to the young woman and say, "Hi, Tori, it's good to see you. I'm glad you are here." Echoes of Robert Herron could be heard.
Over time, the greetings became longer, and conversations and relationships began to form. As Tori continued to attend church, she began to build her own web of faith. After a period of time, it was especially gratifying to see her enter the building and get a hug from Grandma Rose, Grandma Susie, and Grandpa Fred, none of whom were biologically related to her. Tori had found that the church could be a giant surrogate family to her.
After two years in the congregation, Tori was baptized and confirmed. She had developed a faith web of more than a dozen people. By the time she was a sophomore in high school, her faith web was an explosion of relationships. Throughout, she was regularly involved as a teen leader with the younger groups in our congregation, and she found herself in the faith webs of many younger individuals who now admired her faith. Tori, who had been lovingly wrapped in a web of faith, had caught the faith-webbing vision.
Chapter SixWhose Responsibility Is It to Spiritually Raise Children and Youth?
This directive is quite clear in the well-known passage found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. Parents have the ultimate responsibility of spiritually raising their children. The NSRV puts it this way:
Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home, and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorpost of your house and on your gates.