“How much is it going to cost?” This was the slightly unexpected response to my idea of starting a mentorship program at my church.
I managed to stammer out, “Um, nothing really.”
“Well,” the pastor continued, “I only ask because that’s the first question the board will ask. We have a board with a lot of business-minded people.”
This quick exchange really deadened my spirits, for I know when it comes to fostering connection between people within our church community, we often fall short. This is not due to some ill content, rather there are misconceptions weaved throughout Adventist culture.
Imagine your reaction to a teacher who places a textbook in front of you or your child, without any instruction, expecting you or them to learn. As teachers, and for most non-teachers, we understand that simply exposing students to learning material does not automatically mean they will actually learn it.
So why then, do we make the same error when it comes to community building? By that I mean, why do we focus so much on generating events, be they youth gatherings, evangelical series, or potlucks, and expect people to meaningfully connect without showing them how? Perhaps creating events is the goal of businesses, but it is certainly not the goal of church, for fostering family connections is.
Another interesting facet that teachers know is that the Latin root for “assessment” is assidere, meaning to sit beside. I recall this because even before COVID-19 (and now made worse by it) was the epidemic that did not get much spotlight on the stage—that of loneliness. Google ‘loneliness epidemic’ and see what you find. The Harvard Gazette came up right away, and it posted this past February that 61% of those aged 18 to 25 reported high levels of loneliness.
This needs more than greeters with nice smiles, or welcome signs stationed “strategically” throughout the foyer. To sit beside reminds me that the basic root of how I engage with the idea of church is people. To know others so they feel known, to truly see others so they felt seen.
In practicing this, a curious pattern emerged. Whenever a new young adult came to my church, the young adult pastor would point them out to me, tell me their name and then tell me to go talk to them. I do recognize that not everyone is a people-person, but we have church culture which does not fully actuate the call for relational practices. I have written before on returning to a relational based approach, so I shall turn to another key area of community building; baptism.
The typical flow for baptism is a few months of once-a-week bible study with a pastor, attendance at the church, then baptismal day, usually including a shirt or flowers. Then, well, what exactly? This is what led N.T. Wright to write his book, After You Believe, because even in a wider sense of Western Christianity, we do not do well in preparing people for a lifelong pursuit of faith. Milton Adams wrote an excellent article on the subject of why only pastors baptize in our church, opposed to Biblical call for all disciples of Christ to go out and baptize, so I will move on.
Our church’s current method and approach to the role of baptism (not the theology about it) as a process for developing a person of faith echoes our lack of connect-ability to people. For that question remains, after baptism, then what? I have seen people get baptized and a few months later simply just leave.
When I pointed this out to a church leader, I was given the explanation of, “well he just didn’t get involved, that’s his fault.” I then asked what reasons have we given him to get involved? “Well,” he replied, “we have Sabbath school and potlucks and Friday night worships.” This is that event generating mindset coming out. The essence of church is not to just sit in one small room then to sit in a bigger room (sometimes a third room for potluck). Communal worship services are very important, but do not confuse it with the whole of church experience.
An interesting element of human friendship was purposed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar. Based on his research, humans can only have about 150 meaningful and unique relationships. Some researchers have suggested more and others less, but the idea remains of a limited capacity for friendship. More so, a person will still only have 5-6 close friends, with there being different levels of acquaintanceship out towards that 150-ish person limit.
In a practical sense, this means when a new person comes to church with no friends, we have to make room for them within our 150 or so “spots of friendships.” It requires us examine our cliques. You know, the groups of friends that show up together, go to the washroom together, sit together during service and then leave together. Also, we have to understand that in churches over 130 or so people, not everyone will necessarily know the pastor personally.
I was smacked with the reality of this during a conversation with my pastor in the potluck line. As we were talking, he asked me if my ex-girlfriend was a Christian, I was a little dumbfounded but replied, “Yes.”
He took some more scoops of food, “Was she Adventist?”
Dead in my tracks I looked at him, “Pastor, you baptized her.”
All he could respond with was, “Oh, I don’t remember.”
With Dundar’s number we can also see another disparaging level to the “baptisms as a form of vaccine.” For pastors are also humans and therefore also have a limited number of unique relationships. So, while they meet regularly with someone to do Bible studies, thus using one of their 150 “spots of friendships,” that person feels known and seen. But when they are then baptized and the pastor moves onto the next person, what happens to them? This is the pattern I have seen over and over again. To the point that one of my teachers coined the phrase “baptism as a form of vaccine,” because of how we give such little instruction and then move on to the next person waiting for Bible studies, as to fulfill the actual quota of baptism placed on pastors.
We are used to people already having friends in the church, either from having grown up an Adventist or attending the local school. We are not very good at fostering connections for people that do not come from either of those two backgrounds. With our event generating mindset, and our inability to give up “spots of friendships” for new people, it is not surprising that people leave. This is not to understate that making friends can be difficult, but we are used to passing this responsibility to pastors because we ourselves have become consumers of church, not practitioners of it.
Mentorship, as the title states, is the missing link. It was no better described then by a former co-worker of mine. She had grown up a non-Christian but came to a Christian university on a sports scholarship. During her first year she signed up for a faith mentorship program. The lady she was connected with was married and had two small kids. What came to be was a deeply family-like interaction which played the pivotal role in my co-worker’s journey towards accepting Christ. For she would be at this family’s house babysitting, cooking with the mom, going to school events with the family, who in turn would come out to my co-worker’s game nights and cheer her on. Through shared life experiences and a uniquely meaningful relationship with the mom, my co-worker decided to be baptized.
Sadly, after a few years this family moved away and my co-worker was given a different mentor, they met, about once a week for coffee. After sharing this with me, my co-worker asked, who do you think had a bigger impact?
This highlights another important issue worth noting. Our age-based determinism will keep stories like this from happening in our community. Just look at where one should go for Sabbath School, or who is invited to which event. Our overt focus on age sends the message that old people and young people having nothing worth sharing to each other. This undercuts any value the role of elders may have and nullifies any reason for youth to learn from them. Not to mention how many times we have held a teenager’s age over them as a reason they do not know enough to have their voice heard?
As disciples, we are all called to teach others what Christ as taught us. We are all called as imperfect people to come along side the messiness of another’s life. Continually learning together how to connect with a family and a God bigger than ourselves. One does not need to know all the answers, for anyone with a Ph.D. will tell you that will never happen.
What we need is to spend more than a few months with someone, to invest more time than coffee and to stay alongside them long after they get baptized. So that one day, they in turn can sit beside someone else. This cycle is not the work of pastors, this is the work of Christ followers who are equipped and encouraged by the pastors. The crossroads of our limited space of friendships with the need of deeply knowing others, demands a re-examination of current church culture; one that has allowed church service attendance to replace family style engagement.
Can I be honest? I do not like the word volunteer in a church context; being a short-term, task focused word that references a lack of payment. More so, as a business concept we often use in place of social or relational based ideas. What would happen if we use the world mentor just as often as the word volunteer?
Remember, it is in the sharing of experiences that sets mentorship apart as the method for creating reciprocal relationships. It is in creating a church culture that stops assuming someone can just find their own way through all the events. It is about modelling through honesty, and it is about redefining family along Christ’s terms. Only then, can we truly answer His piercing question, one that He thankfully provides the answer to: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mathew 12:48-50)
Kevin R. McCarty is a graduate student in Indigenous & Interreligious Studies at the Vancouver School of Theology and Educational Leadership at Trinity Western University.
Photo by Kate Kalvach on Unsplash
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