“Hacemos presencia; cuando no podemos ir con algo en la mano, hacemos presencia. [We practice presence; even when we have nothing else to give, we practice presence.]”
–- Pastor in a church ministry with children and youth in the Dominican Republic [[Pastor, interview and translation by author, Dominican Republic, July 20, 2009. Names of ministries and interviewees will not be included in order to protect the identities of the children served by these ministries. ]]
We practice presence. What does it mean to be present for children and youth in our communities? How can my simple presence make a difference in their often difficult lives?
How can I put on my annual report to the church or ministry board, “I was present for the kids” and expect this to be sufficient evidence of successful ministry?
The children and youth served by the ministry leader quoted above—and those of seventeen other ministries in three Latin American countries that we studied in the recent Ministry to Children at Risk by Latin American Churches project—live their lives in situations of tremendous risk much of the time. Most are living in extreme or absolute poverty. Many struggle to stay in school and have to work from a young age to help their families or to have enough food. Abandonment, neglect, abuse, and problems in their families are common issues faced by these children. [[This description of the lives of these children and youth represent the most common issues identified by those interviewed for this study. Thirty-eight in-depth, qualitative interviews were conducted with pastors, directors, leaders, staff and volunteers of twenty different churches, representing eighteen different projects in Bolivia, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic. Focus groups were also conducted in Bolivia with twenty-two churches represented. Participant observation at many of the projects also helped to enrich the data set. The study was funded by a generous donor and supported by the Fuller Youth Institute.]] How can merely “being present” for them be a “best practice” for ministry among these kids?
And yet this emerged as a key theme in the Ministry to Children at Risk study that I undertook in Bolivia, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic focused on exemplar churches ministering wholistically [[Both “wholistic” and “holistic” are accepted spellings of this term in English. I prefer the former spelling because it emphasizes the word “whole,” which reminds us of the meaning of the term.]] among children and youth in their communities. Most of these churches were very small with few material resources, and they often had little to give the children other than their love and presence.
After analyzing the data from thirty-eight interviews, I was struck by the seemingly simple yet profound reminders of some of the most important ways we can share Christ’s love with young people. We have much to learn from our Latin American brothers and sisters, and I will attempt to share just a few of those lessons here.
Relationships are Key
Practicing presence is about building relationships, a key theme in this study. Latin American cultural values generally include more of an emphasis on dedicating time to relationships as compared to the U.S. So it is no wonder that one of the best practices identified in this study was the importance of building relationships with the kids, their parents, and the members of the community.
1. Building relationships with kids
Over and over again the pastors, volunteers, and leaders mentioned how they saw success in their ministries simply because the children felt loved and cared for by the church. Just as “being present” may not seem like we are “doing” enough, we often get so caught up in flashy programs or exciting curriculum and forget that our first and foremost job is to build authentic relationships based in the love of Christ and respect for the image of God in kids. Everything we do should facilitate these types of relationships.
In large churches, this will likely mean intentionally recruiting volunteers whose sole job is to nurture relationships with a small number of kids. This may also mean re-thinking the way we “do” church and creating spaces where kids can build relationships with people from different generations in our church—a major theme of the work of FYI. Building authentic relationships takes time and commitment, and we will need to help our church members see the value in this and give them the tools to do it well.
When discussing this best practice, one pastor said, “Here the work has been very personal, from person to person. . . . It is to look for the broken person, like the Word says, the little wounded lamb, the abandoned lamb, the beaten lamb, the lamb whose father isn’t around because he left them, the one whose mother is fighting to give them bread. . . . The internal brokenness can best be known in face to face relationships.” [[Pastor/Director, interview by author, translation and emphasis mine, Costa Rica, March 18, 2009.]] Who are those lambs in our ministries?
2. Building relationships with parents and the community
While the relationship with the kids was of utmost importance, building good relationships with the parents and the community members was another important strategy. The parents of these kids were often struggling themselves, and sometimes even part of the problems for the kids. At the end of the day, these youth go home, and if nothing changes there, long-term transformation will be difficult. Parents of high-risk kids often resist these ministries at first, but as they see the ways they are helping their kids, they often begin to come closer.
The churches in our study saw the most success by working with mothers, inviting them to serve in some small way in the ministry or teaching them new skills or beliefs, such as women’s and children’s rights. Many eventually saw the kids and their parents become part of their church or another church in the community. “Little by little the church has been growing, and the majority of the growth is from the relatives and the parents and others who have seen what we’ve been doing in the community.” [[Pastor, interview by author, translation mine, Dominican Republic, July 20, 2009.]]
Many of those interviewed emphasized how the perception of those in the community towards the church had changed when they started serving the kids of the community. The projects ranged from meal programs to after school tutoring to life skills teaching, but no matter what they were doing, they sought first to understand the needs of their community. The community began to see them as a partner, rather than simply those annoying people who make lots of noise with their praise and worship on Sundays (and usually several other nights a week). [[Several of the pastors and leaders interviewed mentioned that previously there had been complaints in their neighborhood about the noise of the church, but after the community learned what they were doing for the kids, they actually spoke out against anyone who wanted the church to be shut down.]]
One pastor explained this well, saying we need to “draw close to the community, that they might know us, and find out what they think, what they believe, what their problems are and the things that need improvement, since they see the church as only religion. They need to know the leader of the church… and he or she must become involved in the activities of the school, the Development Association, and the health centers, to be an active part of the community and to collaborate with them. People are tired of the models from television and the routine of worship services only in the church.” [[Pastor/Director, interview and translation by author, Costa Rica, March 26, 2009.]]
This pastor was invited by the community to be the vice president of the local Development Association, and he has been instrumental in helping this very poor community to get water, garbage, and bus service. The community now sees the church as a key ally, and people who don’t go to the church want to help with the programs for kids. Building relationships with the people in the community and investing time in making it a better place for everyone is a kingdom value, but it is also a good practice for being effective in ministry with children and youth.
What do we need to do to better understand the issues in our communities? Who are other stakeholders in the life of the children we serve with whom we can build relationships and partner? How can our churches expand beyond their walls and share the love of Christ with those surrounding us?
Include Youth in the Conversation
In these discussions, we must never forget to include the kids themselves. This was another key theme in the research; involving children and youth at all levels from planning to implementation to evaluation of ministries and programs must be a high value.
Many of the leaders interviewed said this often started by a paradigm shift in the mind of the pastor and other church leaders. Once they began to see children and youth as important and valuable contributors to the church, rather than as people who don’t tithe or have much to give, their attitudes changed. They began to see the young people as made in God’s image with gifts, talents, and skills that can be utilized in the kingdom. The senior leadership in the church passed this vision on to other church members, and many ministries were started.
How do we involve and empower children and youth in planning our ministries? How do we give them a voice in decisions in our church? How do we create spaces where we can listen to their desires, needs, hopes, and fears so that we might partner with what God is already doing in their lives and in the lives of their friends and peers?
This brings us full circle to the idea of “practicing presence.” In order to truly listen to and empower children and youth, we must be present with them. Being truly present is not always an easy task for adults; we are so easily distracted by the many tasks we have to complete. In this, we can learn from our Latin American sisters and brothers who remind us that even when they may have little else to give, they practice presence, and in this presence, God will draw near.
- How similar or different do some of the ministry challenges and insights from these Latin American churches seem to your own context? What can you learn from these differences and similarities?
- If “practicing presence” with young people has been identified as a key best practice in ministry across multiple cultures, what are the obstacles to practicing presence with students in your ministry? What ideas do you have for beginning to remove some of those obstacles?
- To what extent do you involve young people in decision-making now? What are some ways you could invite them to the conversation and truly listen to their contributions?