A good friend and I were talking about the need to make our congregations good, safe places for our children. He observed that it is the tendency for many to think about help in a programmatic way: have a need; fill it by creating a program.
Several interesting thoughts came from that observation. First, we noticed that Jesus did not start a single program. He started a movement, but no programs. Second, we noted that Jesus interacted with people directly to help them. If people were sick he healed them. If they were confused he told them a story or asked them illuminating questions. If children appeared before him, He picked them up and blessed them. In His thirty-three years of human life, he helped people primarily through face-to-face interactions.
As we talked we also wondered why so many of us, when we want to help others, think about programs instead of a one-to-one approach. Organization and structure are deeply rooted concepts in our culture. We tend to value efficiency and want to maximize our efforts. It’s easy to think that programs are the way to go.
We also noticed that in his relationships with His disciples, Jesus suffered all the attendant relational issues. Some of his disciples wanted to misuse their relationship with Jesus to gain an advantage over others. One of them stole from him and betrayed him with a kiss. He seemed to be particularly sensitive to the needs and feelings of women. He talked from the heart to Mary and Martha. Mary Magdalene respected him. Even the woman at the well seems to have experienced a sense of connection in their brief conversation. When he left, it hurt, confused, and discouraged his friends for a time.
Could it be that we prefer programs because we are not willing to engage in the problems that come along with all personal relationships? Relationships are complex and often tricky. They take time. Miscommunication is always a part and can be hurtful. Relationships always leave us vulnerable. It takes courage to love others and to express it to them.
And yet, all the evidence points to one inescapable conclusion: we were created for relationship—with God and each other. I read a study some time ago in which I learned that single greatest indicator of success among undergraduate college students was a caring relationship with a faculty member. In my private psychotherapeutic practice, I see that my clients are healed in the therapeutic relationship. Over the years I’ve seen many young people blossom spiritually in the light of a caring relationship with someone who is older.
When a child feels a sense of closeness with another person in their congregation, they tend to bond to not only to the person but also the congregation. The famous Swiss psychologist, Jean Peaget, noted that eventually the relationship is transferred to God. Those close relationships create a field in which faith and commitment are passed from God through adults to children.
Do programs have any place, then, in a congregation? Programs are not bad of themselves. If they promote relationships, then they can be helpful. The Big Brother, Big Sister program serves as an example of a helpful program, because it creates helping relationships. So many programs, however, were not designed with that purpose in mind. To teach children how to water-ski, for example, is good, but when the instructor sees his instruction as a vehicle for support and relationship, his efforts suddenly become so much more valuable. The real benefit always comes from those close, caring, face-to-face relationships.
If we hope to make our congregations and families the safe places our children need for their spiritual growth, we need to do our work of faith in relationships. That shouldn’t surprise us, for “God is love.”