Family Affair

Christian Century Interview by David Heim, Executive Editor 
(February 2012)

An interview Rich Melheim founder of Faith Inkubators, the Faith Inkubators Foundation and the Preschool Incubators Project

CC: You’ve stressed the importance of linking church and home in Christian formation. Can you give an example (an ideal) of what you have in mind? How well are churches doing this?

RAM: I think we’ve got to quit doing ministry FOR parents and kids, and start doing ministry WITH and THRU them. The church with a “program” mentality instead of a “process” mentality will always be fighting a losing battle. Either you’re doing programs FOR parents and kids, or you throw that model out the window and try to redefine family ministry as families DOING ministry. Children’s ministry as children DOING ministry.Youth ministry as youth DOING ministry. There’s a big difference.

CC: You’ve got a model for this “DOING” ministry that you taught in 100 cities in the US and Australia recently.

RAM: I’m testing a simple five-step process I call “The FAITH 5” (Faith Acts In The Home) in a number of churches here and in Australia at the moment for my doctoral dissertation. The experiment starts out with churches doing a six-week experiment to redefine family ministry. In the experiment, we ask parents and kids to commit to five minutes a night of simple faith encounters. Families are asked to drop what they’re doing as soon as the first kid is ready for bed, and walk through these five steps:

1. SHARE your highs and lows,
2. READ a verse of Scripture from Sunday’s preaching/teaching text,
3. TALK about how the highs and lows of the day relate to the scripture (is God actually saying something to you?),
4. PRAY for one another’s highs and lows,
5. BLESS one another before turning out the lights on the day.

CC: Does this model assume a nuclear family- and is that assumption warranted? Some kids get dropped off at church – how do we take them into account as we plan ministry?

RAM: This model assumes that someone cares enough for the kid in their charge that they want to make sure the kid knows they’re loved before they go to sleep. My mentor Dr. Peter Benson of Search Institute died today. He was a champion for getting adults to surround kids with love, encouragement and faith. He had 30 years of research that shows one mentor is better than none. Two mentors are exponentially better than one. Three are multiplicatively better than two. You get the drift. And parents are (usually) the most influential and important of all. Yeah, some kids get dropped off at church, and we need to set up systems to encourage them, too, but letting parents off the hook as the DEFAULT mechanism and hiring
a youth worker to do their job is just plain stupid. Parents have been, are and always will be the most important faith guides, mentors and teachers a kid will ever have. If you’re a leader in the church today, you’ve got to be a systems thinker. You’ve got to be thinking about all of the parts all of the time, and getting them all to work for your goal. It’s idiotic to think that you can solve a systems problem by ignoring the most important part of your system. And parents are the most important part. Period.

CC: Many young parents feel like they aren’t equipped to talk about faith. How do you alter that view? What do you say to them?

RAM: I like to altar their view before I alter their view. Len Sweet once told me “The altar ego will alter the id.” I tend to believe you gotta get their butts in the seats or you can’t do their hearts and minds any good. That’s where you – the church leader – have a major lever you need to start using. Parents will do things for their kids that they would never do for themselves. If you make it your expectation – rather than a request – that they are in church and Sunday school WITH their kids, over about three years you’ll find that’s where most of the parents are. Amy Kippen at Faith Lutheran in West Fargo, ND, talks about setting the bar high. 

However high you set it, that’s where most people will end up. If you say, “Just drop ’em off and we’ll take care of ’em” that’s what most people will do. (We tend to settle for the lowest expectation.) If you say, “Hey, you’ve got to drop ’em off, stay for the opening and you’ll get the new Bible verse and story for your nightly faith encounter this week” that’s what most people will do. If you say, “Heck, you have to pick them up, too, why not come in for the closing prayers and hold their little bodies in your loving arms” or “hold their teenage hands next to your heart” – that’s what most people will do. If you say, “We don’t have age-segrated Sunday school taught by a hard-to-guilt volunteer teacher any more. We’re all about helping you hold your family together in a world that can tear it apart, so we’re canning Sunday school and doing a blurred edu-worship for families and those who love them. Come for the hour (IHS in a lot of churches stands for “1 hours service”) you’ll have MOST of your parents and kids worshipping and learning together three years from today. Ask Amy. She has 71% of her dads in Sunday school with their own kids every Sunday… And zero recruiting problems, zero discipline, problems, and no Sunday school for anyone.

CC: Is there a need for educating parents in faith or Bible basics before they can effectively teach kids? Or, in your view, does everyone have to “dive in”?

RAM: I like the “learn as you go” plan. If the parents are there WITH the kids, they’ll actually learn more THAN the kids. There’s an old Chinese proverb: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Who’s more ready to talk about “honor your father and mother” or “daily bread” or “you shall not commit adultery?” The parent is the PERFECT student for remedial Christian education. We just have to be sneaky enough to get them there.

CC: It’s a truism that children model the faith they see. So what kind of faith do children see around them?

RAM: We have in our brains an amazing little set of mirror neurons. Google that and you’ll know the answer to your first question. Is modeling important? It is the only thing that is important. It is the only way we learn. What kind of faith do children see around them? Now that’s a topic for another article.

CC: How does your work on faith formation shape how you view what goes on during the worship hour? That is, what’s your message to worship leaders? The liturgy is all about formation (of all ages), isn’t it?

RAM: You gotta ask yourself, “What are you trying to accomplish” in the worship hour. Putting on a show for someone else just doesn’t cut it in the post-television era. Giving one close encounter with God a week is okay, I suppose, but why settle for just that? What would happen if you reframed worship as the beginning point of a week of engagements with the text, the peoples’ lives, and prayer. The word “liturgy” comes from the Latin “work of the people” or more precisely “action of the people.” If people are turning off the tv and computer and sharing highs and lows, reading God’s Word, applying it to their lives, holding one another’s highs and lows up to God in prayer, and sharing the blessing touch, that’s liturgy. Heck, it may be more liturgy than liturgy is liturgy for most people. It is also worship. (The Old English word weorth and scipe, the vehicle that brings worth to God.) This may be more worship than worship is worship for most of our kids. And if Sunday can simply be the kickoff day for a whole week of nightly worship, you’ll be multiplying your ministry, multiplying your effectiveness, and multiplying your children, youth and family ministry staff by a factor of however many households you have in the church times seven.

Let’s say you have 100 households in your church. You’ve just taken one seed, planted it on Sunday and gotten 700 worship services going. Now there’s a new kind of 700 Club for you. If your IRA only multiplied like that, you could retire just fine.

CC: What tools do those who work in Christian education most need to be successful?

RAM: A Bible. A story. The people’s stories. And a system that connects text to context on a regular basis.

CC: What’s the biggest mistake you see churches making as they develop programs for children and youth?

RAM: The biggest mistake is they’re developing PROGRAMS for children and youth. Trying to be program directors FOR kids and families instead of ministry encouragers WITH kids and families.

CC: You started Faith Inkubaters in 1993. ( Have social changes over the past two decades, in media or the family, caused you to think differently about faith formation? Are there new challenges? What’s been learned in that time?

RAM: The last question is the easiest. I’ve learned that I’m not as smart as I thought I was 15 years ago. I’ve learned that the real brilliant people are those ministering in their contexts with passion, heart, and their ears to the culture and subcultures around them. I’ve learned that the real faith incubators aren’t paid professional church staff, but parents and guardians who commit to “every night in every home” family ministry. Those who intentionally make a point every night to turn off the computer, put down the newspaper, set the cell phone on silence and engage with the kids they love like they’re the most precious people in the whole world. The culture has changed dramatically when it comes to sex, drugs, media and economics, but a few things have stayed the same. Kids still need champions. Kids still need encouragers. Kids still need someone in their face and in their faith. And parents are just big kids who need all that, too.

CC: Children and youth today live in a world saturated with media and technology. Do these tools need to be resisted or used by the church? How so?

RAM: 2005 was a watershed year in the history of human technology, and yet it came and went without so much making a blip on the radar screen of the church. It was the year when the teenagers of America – and much of the developed world – started spending more time online than on tv. Do you know what that means? They entered a world that Len Sweet calls EPIC. (Experiential, participatory, image-driven, and connected) If your worship, your education, your youth ministry, your ever encounter at church isn’t engaging them in experiences that touch them deeply, that they shape by being there, and that connects them with their friends and their God, you’re trying to plug an AC model into a DC plug. It’s just not going to work. For the last 50 years, we’ve been living in a one-way-street sermon/teaching world. I teach. You listen. I try to be entertaining enough to keep your attention for 7 1/2 minutes (about the length before a television commercial is expected.) That world is gone. If the kids aren’t engaged from the get-go, if their input, their questions, their knowledge, their cares, their experience isn’t at the core of the system you design, you’ve just decided to preach and teach to a congregation that doesn’t exist. I spoke in 79 cities in 2009. Many of the pastors I taught were still fighting tech wars in the worship center. Some were fighting screen wars. Do you realize what this means? The bulk of our churches haven’t entered the television era yet, and our kids have already left it.

CC: Many church traditions that have confirmation programs typically see a big dropoff in youth participation after the youth are confirmed. So what is the problem? What needs to be done differently?

RAM: We wonder why the kids don’t come back after confirmation in the mainline. I believe it’s because they were never there. And you can’t come back to a place you’ve never been.

CC: What do you mean “they were never there…?”

RAM: Their bodies may have been sitting in your chair, but their hearts and minds were far from you.

CC: So, how do you get them “there” when they are there?

RAM: Ah, that’s the question, isn’t it? I believe we need to end the “class” mentality and start thinking about living out discipleship during the adolescent years. (Do this well and you’ll be known as “the church with no class!”) Jesus – who was a relatively old man in his day – probably had the disciples shortly after bar mitzvah. That means they were mid-teens. In his day, that was the time they were supposed to get married, get a job, and start contributing in a rather adult way. Those who took off to follow an itinerant rabbi for a few years had it pretty darn good. And how did Jesus take them from their nets and tables and homes and stables? He saw something in them and offered them a real calling: “Follow me and I’ll teach you how to fish for people…” and later “take up your cross…” Now that’s a challenge for a young, hormonal, impetuous, idealistic change-the-world teenager if I ever heard one. Jesus’ call was to do something impossible, difficult, challenging, but ultimately worth it. Our call is to sit in a class, then hand out worship bulletins. If you want to get them “there” when they’re there, you’ve got to ask something great of them, live where they live, love where they love, struggle where they struggle, and if you’re really going to be like Jesus, don’t forget to go fishing now and then. This requires a totally different mind-set than a “sit still while I instill” sage on a stage teacher in a classroom at the end of the day.

CC: How do you define a successful church program for high school age youth?

RAM: There¹s a basic problem in your question that revolves around three words: “program for” and “success.” I like to define successful youth ministry as youth doing ministry, not youth doing programs. Most teens today don¹t have time for one more program. They¹re programmed out. If you are trying to put on a ³program forŠ² them you¹ll be fighting a losing battle. They¹re over-booked, over-stressed, over-committed, over-stimulated and under-impressed by your programs. They don¹t need one more program. What they need is meaning. I¹d say that meaning comes about when a teen ­ or a anyone for that matter ­ has five things going in their core community: 

Giving in a significant way;
Receiving in a significant way;
Bite-sized ministry in an area of their gifts and passions;
Fun (not a four letter word).

If your youth ministry allows them to DO ministry where they are giving of themselves, getting a lot back, isn¹t over-taxing, is allowing them to know and be known at the depth of their being (thus, small groups for care and prayer), and is fun, you won¹t be able to keep them away.

The other question your question makes me question is the word “success.” John Maxwell defines success as ³those who know you the best love and respect you the most.² If a senior high ministry is challenging teens to do ministry at church and out in the world, that¹s great. But if they¹re not challenged and held accountable to do ministry AT HOME, you¹re missing their primary incubating community, and the primary place they are called to minister to. I¹d challenge teens to take five minutes every night to turn off the tv, log off the internet, put the cell phone on silent and check in with their parents and family members EVERY NIGHT for 1: SHARING highs and lows; 2. READING a Bible verse from Sunday¹s text; 3. TALKING about how that text relates to their highs and lows (how¹s that for text/context); 4. PRAYING aloud for one another¹s highs and lows; 5. BLESSING one another before they turn out the lights on the day. A senior high ministry that call and equips youth to do ministry, that¹s a success to me.

CC: What reading, research, personal experiences or examples of ministry have inspired or challenged you lately?

RAM: The scariest youth ministry book I’ve read lately is Kenda Creasy Dean’s “Almost Christian.” Its full of research about what’s coming down the pike for the church. Not pretty. The best blueprint for what to do about it in the greater church is “Jesus Manifesto” by Len Sweet and Frank Viola. Its all about getting back to Jesus and beyond institutions. The best youth ministry book I’ve ever read – and the one must-read for anyone wanting to start a youth led revolution change the future in, with, and under kids is… George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” The first thing the pigs do when they take over the farm? They kidnap the puppies, train them, and bring them back as tough young dogs, ready to reinforce the revolution. If the church is going to have any future, we’ve got to kidnap the puppies.

The best research I’ve read lately is “The OPERA hypothesis: Why would musical training benefit the neural encoding of speech”by Dr. Aniruddh D. Patel of the Neurosciences Institute in October 3 Frontiers magazine. It’s all about how music creates Overlap, Precision, Emotion, Repetition and Attention in the brain. I’m interviewing Ani at the Nobel “The Brain and Being Human” conference this week and using his hypothesis to design a model for preschools for poor kids this fall. That’s the biggest and most inspiring challenge, too. Designing a preschool of the performing arts that brings “access to excellence” to the poorest of the poor, and then applying that to church planting. (Don¹t start a church, start a preschool that happens to worship on Sundays…)

CC: What’s your ultimate goal in all this?

RAM: To bring Christ to families and families to Christ, every night in every home. To strengthen the church, one family at a time and one night at a time. To create a church where 7/8 of the Bible study, 7/8 of the prayer ministry, 7/8 of the pastoral care is being done off site every night. To hold families together in a world that could tear them apart. To see a shoot coming forth from the mainline stump of Jesse before the mainline becomes the flat line. And to let pastors go to sleep every night in peace, knowing they’re set up a system that multiplies their Sunday by a factor of 700.

Seven nights a week x 100 households = 700 mini-worship experiences spawned from one Sunday’s worship/unveiling/exortation on the theme. I want to make faith talk as natural as putting your child to sleep. Parents have certain rituals – brush teeth, read stories, say your prayers, etc. We don’t have to add a new time. Just add intentional faith encouters that tie back to Sunday’s theme to the night.

This is an “every night in every home” faith encounter spawned from an “every week in every church” hope. You don’t not NOT feed your child tonight. Why would you starve them spiritually?

*Rich is in the research phase of his doctoral dissertation on “meaning-making in family ministry” and preparing a book titled “Holding Your Family Together (in a world that could tear it apart)” for spring 2013. Follow his travels, research and findings at or friend him and stay in touch at

Copyright © 2012 by the Christian Century. “Family affair” is reprinted by permission from the February 22, 2012, issue of the Christian Century.

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