Mentoring – We say it takes a whole church to nurture the faith of a child – but how?

From generation to generation
In a survey published in the UK in April 2010 (Aquafresh ‘Mum’s Wish List’,  2010) two thousand mums were asked who they would like their children to grow up to be like, and one thousand children were asked who were their top role models.

The results made interesting reading, with a couple of surprises. Of the mums questioned, 15 per cent named Sir Richard Branson as the person they aspired for their children to be like, closely followed by JK Rowling (11 per cent).   However, 20 per cent of six to sixteen year olds named their parents as the ultimate role model for them (followed by Cheryl Cole, David Beckham and Hannah Montana).

Being a child may well have more challenges to navigate than at any time in recent years – and growing in faith through childhood presents even further challenges. Increasingly, the need for good role models within the church is key in helping children and young people to make right choices and learn to live well, so that they are equipped to find a safe path to maturity.

Over recent years this has been an issue that has occupied much of my thinking as well as my practice. As I read the big story of the Bible it strikes me that God’s intention has always been that one generation should serve as a role model to the next, demonstrating what it is to be part of the people of God. The concept of role models or mentors is not a new thing.

What is mentoring?
Mentoring is actually based on one of the oldest models of learning, with its roots way back in the golden era of Greece, many centuries before Christ was born.  Mentor was the name of a character in Homer’s Odyssey, who in his later years befriended King Odysseus. When Odysseus left to fight the Trojan war, he appointed Mentor to watch over his son, Telemachus. So the word ‘mentor’ was adopted firstly to describe the method of teaching both professional and manual labour skills to the next generation, and more recently to define the process of encouraging growth in others.

There are many ways of defining mentoring, but I favour this one:
“Mentoring is an intentional relationship in which one person helps another to grow in their faith by sharing the God-given resources of skills, wisdom, knowledge and experience.”

Of course there is a wide spectrum of mentoring relationships, from a once in a while catch up to structured formal meetings. The degree of formality will largely depend on the age and stage of the young person or child involved.  Often, when I talk about this subject in relation to Youth and Children’s ministry, it’s not too long before this question is asked: “Mentoring is all well and good, and obviously a really useful tool … but is it biblical?”

Good point. If you were to look up the word in a Bible concordance, I can pretty much guarantee that you wouldn’t find it. Even in the modern paraphrase The Message, it only appears three times (Proverbs 5:13; Isaiah 54:13; James 5:10). The word ‘mentor’, then, isn’t a biblical word, but the concept of mentoring is woven right through the Bible, throughout the Old Testament in the lives of the patriarchs and prophets and through the New Testament in the ministry of Jesus and the apostles – as well as in the instructions for churches that we find in the epistles.

Some of the relationships are quite short-term and are about passing on wisdom and advice; some focus on instructions about hearing and responding to the word of God; some are simply concerned with sharing life together. All of them involve some kind of commitment between two people.

Is this not ‘discipleship’?
In previous generations, mentoring may well have been described as ‘discipleship’, and I think that discipleship still plays a large part in what we mean by ‘mentoring’ in the Christian context. As a friend of mind, Paul Wilcox, puts it: “mentoring is discipleship with a kick!”. This kind of relationship has always been part of the Bible’s story, but it seems to me that in recent years we have lost sight of it. Much has been done to improve the way churches provide for children and young people, recognizing that they have distinct learning needs, and so on. But over the last fifty years or so I think there has been a tendency to become more concerned with education than with spiritual formation – or, if I’m honest, more concerned with entertainment than spiritual formation!

We can only begin to fulfil the great commission of Jesus to make disciples of all nations if we start investing in the lives of young believers.

When I started working as a youth and children’s pastor in a local church, I was desperately looking for the one ‘great thing’ that would attract and keep children and young people. When I’d been at the church for about a year, I took some time away to think through the future direction of the youth and children’s ministry. I went armed with my Bible and a notebook, ready to hear from God some master plan that would transform the nation, but the only phrase that kept coming to my mind was, “Spend time with them”. I have to admit, it took me a while to realise that this was God’s master plan and, in fact, always has been.

As we read through the Bible, we can see that it’s there right from the start. Deuteronomy 6:6-7, for example, commands parents to talk about God’s laws to their children – not in a classroom context but in everyday life. It’s as if God says, “Do you want the next generation to share your values, the values I gave you? Then they’ll have to see those values demonstrated in your life so consistently that, no matter what you do, they shine out of you.”

Mentoring is not parenting – let’s be clear about that – but in some respects it uses the same “when you are at home and when you are on the road” method that God gave to parents in Deuteronomy 6. The effectiveness of this kind of training is backed up by Proverbs 22:6, where we read, “Teach your children to choose the right path, and when they are older, they will remain upon it.”
When God wanted to communicate with his people in a definitive way, he didn’t create a programme. He sent his son – Emmanuel, the God who is with us, who invested time in his followers and taught them to be like him.

In many ways the whole issue of mentoring isn’t really about youth and children’s work at all. It is about a way of life, a way that God intended from the start, and a way that Jesus has called us all to follow, as we realize that it is our responsibility to be involved in making disciples of all people.

Spiritual formation is never about how many training programmes a church runs or even about the quality of those programmes. It is about the quality of the people with whom children and young people are interacting and the overall spiritual and relational quality of the community of faith.

“Every community influences its children, for good or for ill. What elements come together to create a community that nurtures a vital, healthy growing faith in children and in adults? Both the character of the people who gather and the activities the group chooses determine whether or not it becomes a health-giving community.”  Children Matter, May, Posterski, Stonehouse and Cannell (2005, p131)

Whole church responsibility
“Somewhere in our sincere quest to help children know and love God and live a life in the way of Jesus, we’ve lost our way. Somehow in spite of all the good things happening in our church’s ministry to children over the last two decades we’ve forgotten what spiritually shaping these young lives is really all about and how to do it.” Postmodern Children’s Ministry, Ivy Beckwith (2004, p11)

We’ve lost our way. I think that reflects quite accurately where we are at as a church in relation to children. Don’t get me wrong. Many, many good things are happening in churches up and down the country in the groups that are being run for children. However, I do wonder whether in professionalising the discipleship of children, we’ve delegated this responsibility to the expert few, or those who feel ‘called’ to work with children, rather than seeing it as the heart of what it means to be human, caring for the next generation. And inadvertently in this, we have perpetuated the consumer mentality that is so prevalent in the church. When we think that children’s ministry is something that we have a choice about doing, we are in an unhealthy place.

That’s not to say that the whole congregation should be involved in those activities and groups run specifically for children, but as a whole we are all involved in their lives as spiritual role models, as those they observe and live and worship alongside. As they watch us they are making judgements about God. And out of the ‘all of us’, there are ‘a number of us’ who can be involved in a more structured way, and then ‘a few of us’ who will do the week by week work of leading the children’s groups and activities. If children belong only to a children’s group or a midweek club, with their peers and the few adults who lead them, the formative influence in that child’s life is limited.

John Westerhoff believes that faith cannot be taught; it can only be inspired. Such inspiration comes as “faith is expressed, transformed and made meaningful by persons sharing their faith in a community of faith.” Will our Children Have Faith?, Westerhoff, (p19)

What do children see as they observe their community of faith at worship, in conversation, in welcome? All these things communicate very clearly to children what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We are naive to think that because we ‘aren’t gifted with children’ that we’re not communicating something to them about God and faith. (But hey, I’m preaching to converted here!)

This is where mentoring or intentional role modelling comes in. Children need more than just their parents for adult relationship.

“The Christian formation of children is fostered through a variety of relationships. Children need to know and be known by adults who care about them, invest in them, and give them opportunities to see adults as Christians. Healthy, warm relationships with both men and women contribute profoundly to children.” Children Matter, May, Posterski, Stonehouse and Cannell (2005, p145)

Community Vision
For a church community to be effective in nurturing faith I think there a number of things that the whole church need to get hold of but my top three would be:

A God worthy of belief – what kind of god are we teaching about and demonstrating relationship with? Is our god worthy of praise and trust?

An understanding of children as the people of God too – what we believe about the place of children and the kingdom will hugely affect how we welcome them.

A commitment to shared responsibility for nurturing children – it’s not just the role of parents – God has placed children within a community of faith for a reason.

Images of mentoring
So, the position of role model belongs to all God’s people, but a number of us will have the opportunity to be more intentional. Mentoring takes on a number of forms and there are several images that we can use to illustrate the role that a mentor plays in the life of a child or young person:

Coach: A coach is someone who cheers you on in a race or match, critiques it with you afterwards and provides encouragement and pointers for the way ahead.

Guide: A guide lays out options and choices for you, for the different paths you may want to follow. They point out possible dangers along each path but never tell you exactly what to do. This is important: as tempting as it may be, the mentor’s role is not to tell what to do, but to help those they are mentoring to gain the skills to make good decisions for themselves.

Sponsor: In the mentoring context, the sponsor can open doors to people, ideas and opportunities to which the young person might not otherwise have access.

Spiritual parent/role model: A spiritual parent in no way tries to take on the role of parent, but does offer intentional care and encouragement in nurturing faith. The Apostle Paul at times in the epistles talked about himself in this context, and also the need for more people to take on this role.

The approach that is taken will depend largely on the child or young person and what is appropriate for their age and stage. As a youth pastor I established an official mentoring scheme for the teenagers in the church (you can read more on this in Growing Young Leaders, CPAS), but for those under 11 we had more of an informal mentoring structure where each leader in the children’s ministry has particular concern for two or three children, and other adults (recruited appropriately through the church’s safeguarding policy) also got involved.
All of these relationships were developed with the involvement of parents, who for the most part openly welcomed the investment of other adults in the lives of their children. For some people it helped them work out how they could be more effective godparents, recognising that much of what is being asked of a mentor is relevant to their situation.


Children most definitely need to be taught the things of the faith (and also have opportunity to teach and demonstrate the things of the faith!) but they also need to see this lived out in the lives of those who claim to believe it – that is when it comes alive, when it is inspiring, when they see something of the people they would like to be.

Not people who are perfect, but people who are taking seriously the abundantly generous grace of God, who are honest about their failures and their need for forgiveness, and who are seeking to live out the things they are teaching. People that they can share their life with.

This can start out quite informally, in partnership with families that we’re already close to, and then as children grow older in a more structured and formal relationship.

Discover more, including a reflection on what Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians  tell us about mentoring by visiting our website:

This article was written by Ruth Hassall. She works in a vibrant church in the West Midlands in the United Kingdom. She is responsible for spiritual growth and formation strategies and practices for the whole congregation. She previously worked for the Church Pastoral Aid Society.