A Letter from the Associate Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Filling the Gap
September 22, 2016
Browse through your local Home Depot or Lowe’s and you will find an amazing product called “gap filler.” Gap filler is home improvement genius in a whipped cream like substance. When you’ve got a gap you need to fill, you simply spray gap filler into the gap and it hardens up, creating a seal. And whoever thought of this product was a genius because the bottom line about a gap is this: if you’ve got a gap, something is going to fill it. So if you don’t do something about a gap, someone (or something) else will.
I’ve been a dad now for almost ten years and I’m beginning to notice that my 9-year-old is just starting to enter into the life stage of pre-adolescence. Having worked with kids for the past decade plus, I’ve grown to recognize this life stage that usually runs from 3rd through 5th grade or so. While not nearly as dramatic or traumatic as adolescence, pre-adolescence is the life stage where people, other than my wife and I, begin to matter more than they did even a year or two ago. Friends, teachers, and other adults are more important in his life right now. While my wife and I still have the vast majority of influence in his life, it’s not quite as much as it used to be.
In short, there’s a gap opening in my son’s life. And something is going to fill it. The only question is what.
This gap I speak of I like to call “the influence gap.” When a child is very young, the gap is very small and usually filled by siblings, childcare providers, and close family and friends. As a child grows, this gap widens and, as it widens, naturally there is more space to be filled. And remember the cardinal rule of gaps: something will fill any gap. As I said earlier, I’m starting to see this with my son – his influence gap is widening and he’s filling it in with other people. But I also know in a few years, that gap will expand rapidly as he enters into adolescence.
Four points that I want to be crystal clear on:
From a developmental standpoint, adolescents are looking to answer three core questions:
Not surprisingly, adolescents will fill their influence gaps with sources that address some or all of those questions. For example, if a child is involved in sports, they will fill part of their influence gap with their coaches, teammates, and other adults connected with that program. Why? Because participating in team sports helps to address all three core questions. What am I good at (soccer), whose am I (I belong to the soccer team), and who am I (I am a soccer player). For example, I took part in 18 seasons of track and field and cross country between middle school and high school, and it wasn’t because I was an especially good runner. It was because my participation in sports helped define and validate who and whose I was.
Given all of this, it is crucial parents and churches need to think seriously about how to leverage the influence gap for the mutual benefit of the child, the family, and the church’s mission in the world. I firmly believe the influence gap is a God-given gift to parents and churches allowing them to further the healthy development of children and youth in ways that strengthens the mission and ministry of the church. But leveraging this gap doesn’t happen without intentional effort on behalf of parents and church leaders.
Often in developing ministry opportunities for children and youth, the first question is “What kind of program should we have?” That’s not a bad question, but it’s the wrong question with which to start. The best question to start with is this one: What can we, as a church, do for our kids that responds to the three core questions of adolescence? How can we help them understand who they are (a child created in the image of God), whose they are (a member of the covenant community), and what they are good at (the gifts God has given them for mission and ministry)? Regardless of the child, their situation in life, or the church they’re connected to (no matter how loosely), there’s an influence gap in that child’s life that will be filled by something. The question isn’t if – but by whom – will the gap be filled?
A few years back when my wife and I were in ministry together we got to know Josh. Josh, like any 8th grader, had an influence gap in his life and some of the influences that had moved in needed to be replaced. My wife suggested we ask Josh to help that summer with our day camp and vacation bible school program. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure that was a good idea – after all, Josh wasn’t a total straight and narrow kid. But my wife firmly believed in Josh and invited him to help with preschool at VBS that year. By the end of day two, Josh had become a legend. Adults were coming up to her and telling her how amazing Josh was at working with preschoolers. I followed her lead and let Josh help with our day camp program. Within two years, Josh was given responsibility for our youngest group of campers (an assignment normally reserved for seasoned college students with a lot of counseling experience) because he had demonstrated the gifts and passion for ministry with children. Today, Josh has just returned from a summer abroad teaching English as part of a Christian mission and is preparing for a future of long-term mission service. And why? He’s doing all that because someone, almost a decade ago, decided to leverage his influence gap in an intentional way.
May we, the churches called to mission in the name of Jesus Christ, recognize the gift of the influence gap, and leverage it for God’s glory and the furtherance of his mission in the world.
The Rev. Brian R. Wallace, Associatel Minister
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