Debate over the importance of "role models" and "mentoring" touches on everything from the behavior of professional athletes to the trumpet call to men sounded by Promise Keepers. Charles Barkley claims no responsibility to be a role model, while a Million Men march to proclaim they ought to be.
A steady stream of unsettling incidents involving young people helps propel the discussion on the impact of role modelspositive and negativeon impressionable youth and formative children. It's an especially urgent topic in urban America, where the social and economic fabric continues to unravel. The plagues of racism, violence, poverty, and environmental degradation have some obvious linkages to the more muted crisis of the declining number of healthy, intact families.
The end results of disintegrating family structures are obvious in our troubled Buffalo, New York neighborhood. Adult models of responsibility, maturity, and employment are hard to find on the West Side. Of the 50 or so children and teens that attend our church's youth programs, only one family is headed by a married, employed couple. Pain and disruption mark nearly all of their homes. Missing father, alcoholic mother, poor food, siblings fathered by different men (all now absent), drugs, violence.
Passing On Leadership
The need of younger people for someone to look up to, to pattern themselves after, is not limited to the inner city. It is a virtually universal instinct, one with spiritual overtones, and it raises fundamental questions about the priorities of our churches, ministries, and organizations. New and/or younger Christians often find few older believers willing and able to serve as consistent role models and mentors. Why are caring, competent role models in such short supply in such divergent places?
The Biblical basis for mentoring (or "discipling") is clear. Scripture is full of stories of older, more experienced followers of God taking younger believers under their wings, providing counsel, stretching faith, building confidence, sharing responsibility. It's an inspiring record of relationships carefully nurtured with God's greater purposes in mind, an intentional passing along of faith's deposit from the older and more tested to the younger.
Leadership in the North American church is in a transition that will continue as the senior generation passes from the scene. Will a framework of discipling relationships guide and smooth this process, or will the younger generation of leaders be expected to figure things out on their own? While younger people are capable of making their own way, the Bible points to a different way of doing things.
What might effective mentoring look like? For many leaders, it would require going against some deep instincts, choosing to relinquish power and control in favor of intentional nurturing of promising younger people. It involves embracing several key ideas: 1) God has called the more mature to invest in those younger in faith; 2) the challenge of nurturing younger Christians requires faith and effort; 3) to have this impact, leaders must create room in their lives and ministries for capable younger people.
For veteran leaders, the goal of mentoring is not to reproduce someone exactly like themselves; that's egocentric. The primary aim is to help the younger person grow into the leader that God intends them to be. Demonstrating care can involve opening doors, creating learning opportunities, sharing responsibilities, and encouraging younger people to learn from their peers as well as older believers.
Our churches and Christian colleges increasingly reflect society's trend toward brokenness, mistrust, lack of commitment, and keeping one's distance from others. Like it or not, this is the "pool" that the North American church will draw from to provide leadership for the next century.
Those who utter the most radical calls for obedience to Christ must take Jesus' example of disciple-making far more seriously. As the senior generation of leaders, pioneers, and visionaries move steadily toward retirement, inescapable questions surface: Who have you poured your life into? Who have you equipped to carry your vision and burden further and deeper?
Proponents of a truly wholistic Christian gospel urgently need to reproduce themselves via sustained, personal involvement with younger believers capable of embracing their vision and adding to it their own distinctive insights and experiences.
Mark Cerbone, co-founder and coordinator of the Younger Leaders Project, was a member of West Side Church of the Living Word in Buffalo, New York, when this article appeared.