I grew up in a nice quiet neighborhood in Southern California. The two-parent family was the norm. When I was in grade school, I remember being told by a friend that only two blocks from his house lived a woman who had “really been divorced.” In those days divorce was rare. Times have changed.
I could fill an entire article with facts and figures that would document the alarming decline and disintegration of the family. In unprecedented numbers our families are changing: we have fathers working while mothers keep house; we have both fathers and mothers working away from home; we have more single parents; second marriages bringing children together from unrelated backgrounds; childless couples; unmarried couples with and without children; gay and lesbian parents. Today we are witnessing a period of historic change in American family life, and all of us, especially our children, are the losers.
If this disintegration was taking place primarily in the homes of unchurched families it would be tragic. However, the tragic reality is that the divorce rate is as high among evangelical couples as unchurched couples. One explanation for this is that Christ can't make a difference in our families, that biblical truth is irrelevant for relationships. Another explanation is that we've not taken relationships as serious as God does and haven't developed meaningful ways to help our people discover how to apply truth in their marriages and families.
The Significance of Family Ministry
From the beginning of time God intended for the family to be the basic unit for all society. A casual view of history reveals that as goes marriages so goes the family. As go families so goes the community. As go the communities so goes the nation. As go the nations so go civilizations.
The Bible tells us that in the beginning God created the family. In his infinite wisdom, when He created mankind in His own image, He chose the family to serve as the cradle for personhood. In Deuteronomy 6, as well as other Biblical passages, it is clear that God designed the family as the crucible in which the reality of the Person of the living God is to be both taught (through formal education) and caught (by the example of the parents' lives).
The quality of family life influences every other part of our life. Surveys have found that American's greatest source of happiness in life is the family. These surveys have also found that the greatest source of frustration and disappointment in people's lives is dealing with family problems. The quality of family life also has a powerful impact on the believability of the Gospel message. Dr. Joe Aldrich states that
“The two greatest forces in evangelism are a healthy church and a healthy marriage. The two are interdependent. You can't have one without the other. It is the healthy marriage, however, which is the ‘front lines weapon.' The Christian family in a community is the ultimate evangelistic tool, assuming the home circle is an open one in which the beauty of the gospel is readily available. It's the old story: When love is seen the message is heard.” (Joe Aldrich, Life-Style Evangelism, Multnomah Press)
The Biblical Basis for Family Ministry
The starting place for a discussion about any ministry is to see what God's word has to say about it. What does the Bible have to say about the family? If you do a careful study of the biblical passages referenced in the recommended resources, you will discover that throughout Scripture, God speaks both directly and indirectly about the importance of the family and provides instruction related to marriage, the family, and parenting. The importance of the family is a basic theme that is emphasized in both the Old and New Testaments.
From before the beginning of recorded time, relationships have been a core part of who God is and who He would have us to become. The priority of relationships in God's plan is seen from the very beginning of His written revelation to us. In Genesis we see God in relationship with Himself, God in relationship with man, male and female in relationship with each other in marriage, parents and children in relationship in the family, and groups of families that made up the 12 tribes of Israel in relationship with other tribes… and the list goes on.
In the Old Testament we find numerous insights into the nature and function of the family. The early Hebrew family was noted for its unity. This cohesiveness developed quite naturally as the very nature of that society placed children and parents in close contact with one another. The majority of activities centered around the home which often included children, parents, grandparents and other relatives.
In biblical times, many of the functions that are today performed by social service agencies or the local church were performed by the extended family. The Hebrew home was the primary educational, recreational and social center for the children. Religious education was centered in the home. As a result, parents spent time with their children–working, teaching, communicating, and playing. This interaction helped produce the kind of family unity that made it possible to pass on values from parents to children from generation to generation (Psalm 78:4). (Rickerson, Getting Our Family Together, Gospel Light)
Today most of the functions provided for in the Hebrew home are now met outside the home. General education takes place in the schools. The majority of social and recreational activities take place outside the home, usually with non-family members. Even the bulk of religious education is left to the local church. When a little more than 100 years ago the Sunday School movement started, one of the major concerns and criticisms was that people would begin to rely on the church to provide biblical training and no longer provide it in the home. While it is not the fault of Sunday Schools that is exactly what has taken place in a large number of Christian homes.
What is A Family
When most people think of the typical American family they think of a man and a woman who get married, have children, and live together for a lifetime. This is often referred to as the biological or nuclear family. In the past, most families knew their neighbors and lived close to relatives. These relatives made up an extended family and could include grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, or other adult siblings. The extended family served many important supportive roles for the nuclear family.
Today there is no such thing as the “typical” or “normal” family. Changes in our society have led to dramatic changes in the structure and function of the family. In addition to the “traditional” two-parent family, we have many single-parent families, extended families, adopted families, childless families, and reconstituted or blended families. The role of the extended family and the neighborhood community has significantly decreased if not disappeared. The dual parent or single parent family is faced with a much more complex and difficult task.
Over the last several decades, we have come to an increased awareness of the impact of families on personality development. While we've always known that families have a tremendous influence, we're now discovering that the influence of our family-of-origin is far beyond what we had imagined. It would be difficult to overstate the immeasurable influence of early life experiences on the passage of children through adolescence into adulthood.
In an unhealthy family, the members are spiritually, emotionally, and relationally undernourished. This malnutrition leads to many devastating effects. Children raised in unhealthy families are much more likely to experience difficulty or even an inability to form long-term relationships. They have a hard time trusting and forming strong commitments and are afraid of intimacy. They pretend everything is fine when it isn't. They struggle with emotional stability, communicating clearly, and effective conflict-resolution, as well as difficulty with believing and trusting God. In today's secular society, without a loving earthly mother or father as a model, it is much harder to conceptualize, let alone give your life to, a loving heavenly father.
Dr. David Seamonds has observed that the home is the window through which children get their first glimpse of God. It is also where they get their first glimpse of who they are and what they are worth. Children discover their value and worth in the mirror of those around them, by how much they are looked at, listened to and touched, by what their parents say to them and about them in front of others and by how much time their parents make for them (Seamonds, Healing Grace, Victor Books, 1989). Often this initial view will stay with them throughout their lifetime.
What Do Healthy Families Look Like
Is there a difference between a family in which everyone is a Christian and a Christian family? Most definitely. It takes more than the fact that every family member is a born-again Christian to make a Christian family. A Christian family is a family where our relationships with each other are patterned after the way God communicates and relates to us as His children. It is a place where truth is lived out and not merely talked about.
In a healthy family the parents function in such a way as to provide an observable model of what it means to be made in God's image. Family is where we learn the importance of a growing love relationship with Jesus Christ; what it means to be a man or woman; how to relate intimately to another person; how to form strong lasting commitments; how to acknowledge and express emotions; how to have constructive conflict; how to have physical, emotional, and intellectual boundaries; how to communicate; how to cope and survive life's unending problems; how to be self-disciplined; how to appreciate oneself and love others.
A healthy family provides an atmosphere of support, encouragement, and positive opportunities for growth, which includes helping each person come to a knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of God and Jesus Christ, and a knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of himself/herself as a unique person made in the image of God. It involves both a Bible-teaching and a Bible-living ministry. It is a family in which the truth is both taught and caught.
A Unique Opportunity For The Church
Given the significance God places on healthy relationships, a logical question is, “What is the role of the church in building strong marriages and families?” I believe that one vital life-sign of a healthy church is the health of its marriages and families. I've had many discouraged, disappointed and frustrated pastors who have asked me why they can't seem to get the members in their church to function as a body. Even after a sermon series on I Corinthians 12-14 or the “One Another” passages of Paul, the idea of body life is easier to discuss than it is to demonstrate.
My answer is always the same. If truth doesn't work at home, why are we surprised that it doesn't work outside of the home? If we can't help two people to function biblically in their marriages, how can we expect those same two people, plus their children to function biblically as a family? If they aren't functioning biblically in their individual families, how can we expect them to come to church on Sunday morning with hundreds of other families and magically function as the “body” that God designed? If it's not happening with individual couples and families, it's virtually impossible that it will happen when the corporate body meets.
The church has been called to be a lighthouse for people. The church is the source of solutions for what ails a lost and dying society. The church isn't primarily about buildings, budgets, and business. I enthusiastically agree with the growing number of Christian leaders who believe that developing a comprehensive family ministry is one of the most effective means of helping our people learn what it means to “become conformed to the image of his son” and of outreach into our communities.
I agree with Dr. Aldrich that a strong marriage and family ministry serves as salt and light in a world characterized by confused, disoriented, and disintegrating families. It says that truth works, truth makes a difference, and if you want proof, look at the couples and families in our congregation. By offering tools, resources, support groups, and programs, it also says that we care about our community and we're not complacent or content to hide our light under a bushel.
People are beginning to realize that the world's “solutions” haven't worked and are beginning to once again look to the church. Sell (1995) writes, “when people make enough of a mess out of their lives and when the chosen answers in a society are seen not to work, portions of that society begin asking the ‘God' questions once again” (p. 30).
The church has a unique opportunity to impact the entire family as it moves through the various stages of life. People turn to the church during significant life events such as baby dedications, baptism, marriages, and death. Approximately seventy-five percent of marriages in the U.S. are performed by ministers, and surveys have found that over sixty percent of Americans prefer to see clergy about personal problems. The most frequently presented problem is marital difficulty.
Where Do I Start
Given the fact that in eternity past God decided to create us in his own image and designed us to be in relationships, given the importance of the family for personal growth and development, and given the significant opportunity family ministry provides us to communicate help and hope to a hurting world, where can you begin? Here are a few simple steps that will get you going in the right direction.
1. A Foundation in Prayer
When developing a family ministry it is easy to start by looking around us and asking, “What is working for others?” At some point that will be a good question for you to ask, but it is the wrong place to start. I would encourage you to begin by establishing a prayer team. Ask them to begin to pray, on a daily basis, for what God might want to see take place in your congregation.
2. A Solid Biblical Base
Scripture makes a strong case for the fact that ministry involves caring for the whole person, the spiritual, physical, emotional, and intellectual needs of people. For the long-term effectiveness of any family ministry program to be ensured, it must be bathed in prayer, rooted and grounded in scripture, and supported by a solid biblical and theological foundation. Furthermore, the vision must be clearly articulated, owned, and supported by the staff and congregation, starting with the leadership.
While insights from the social sciences including psychology, sociology, and education can be helpful, it is essential that Christian family ministry be grounded in the clear teaching of scripture. The book by Charles Sell (Family Ministry) and the series of four articles by Ken Gangel (Toward a Biblical Theology of Marriage and Family) provide an excellent starting place for you to be like the Bereans and search the scriptures to see what God might want to say to you regarding family ministry in your church.
3. A Review of Existing Resources
Since our time and resources are precious, it makes good sense to see what is already being done in this area. What are some existing models of family ministry, what are the kinds of questions we need to ask, “What has worked well in congregations similar to ours?” Ask yourself, “What is our church's current philosophy of ministry as it relates to congregational care, church growth and community outreach, and to what degree have we made cultivating strong marriages and families a priority?”
Some of the most helpful resources include Family Ministry by Charles M. Sell, The Complete Handbook for Family Life Ministry in the Church by D. W. Heggard, as well as other resources like Family Is Still A Great Idea by Norm Wright, The Measure of a Family by Gene Getz and Wayne Rickerson's How To Help the Christian Home.
4. Conduct a Needs Assessment
The next step involves developing an adequate understanding of the composition, needs and interests of the congregation and the community. This includes taking a look at the demographics of the community, the demographics of the church, population growth rates, ethnic composition, age breakdown, average income and unemployment.
Another important question is to ask, “What is the church already doing that has had a positive response?” What resources already exist in the church and/or community? For example, Family Life offers an exceptional marriage enrichment conference in numerous major cities on a yearly basis. Are there any regularly scheduled classes or programs that provide people with solid biblically-based principles on relationships, pre-marital preparation, parenting, divorce recovery, singles, marriage enrichment, dealing with grief, addictions etc?
You may want to conduct a needs assessment survey of your congregation. At The Center for Healthy Relationships (CHR) at John Brown University, we are developing the CRA. (CRA has been developed and is available).
5. Assess Strengths, Opportunities and Challenges
Based upon a thorough needs assessment, you will have a clear sense of the community God has called you to serve, the composition of your own church, and existing resources in your church and community, as well as the perceived needs of the various age levels of your congregation.
Now is the time to make a list of the existing strengths and resources, the opportunities for ministry in your own church and in your community, and some of the challenges you will face in allowing God to work through you to take your family ministry to the next level. As you read through the list you will find things to praise for and to pray for. Make sure you take time to do both.
6. Develop a Three-Year Plan
This is the most important and, in some ways, the most difficult step. I've worked with many pastors who, having completed steps one through six, wanted to accomplish too many goals in too short a time. They were like the cowboy who jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions.
In step six, the challenge is to build on what you are already doing that has been helpful and add to it as you have leadership and resources. Since a meaningful family ministry will eventually include our children, our youth, single, divorced, widowed and married adults, you will need to determine one or two target groups and goals for the first year, with additional goals for years two and three. By the end of the third year, your plan can include making use of resources in your church, in concert with other churches in your community, and through other community groups to speak the message of redemptive relationships into the lives of 21st century men, women, and children.
The best family ministries also provide for the spiritual development of staff, leaders, couples and families; caring for troubled marriages and families; and building strong marriages and families. You may want to look at opportunities to strengthen existing marriage and family relationships, provide care for hurting couples and families, provide support groups for addictions, weight, divorce-recovery, Alzheimer's, and grief. You can develop a strong education and enrichment program, teach biblical relationship principles across the life-span, provide mandatory pre-marital preparation including the use of mentor couples, provide post-wedding care, and provide classes for first-time parents or couples who are becoming empty-nesters.
I encourage all of my seminary students to incorporate training in spiritual formation and growth throughout all of their programs. In my ministry of over 30 years, I have yet to see a couple with severe marital problems who had a strong, consistent couple and family prayer time and devotional life. However, I have had many couples with major marital issues who were actively involved in the leadership of their local church but weren't making regular time to cultivate the spiritual disciplines with their partner. Being involved in doing things FOR God doesn't replace what is gained by spending time WITH God. This spiritual component is an absolutely essential non-negotiable aspect of growing a strong, healthy, and balanced family life ministry.
Another essential part of a three-year plan is to cultivate, cultivate, and cultivate leadership, and this starts with you. Who you are in your own relationship with Christ is the most important component of family ministry. Helpers of families must first help themselves; then they can model what they teach and explain as to the difference Jesus Christ can make in a marriage and family.
As leaders model healthy family relationships, as we function in biblical ways, the reality of Christ's love and the transforming power of truth will attract others in our church as well as non-Christian and hurting families so that the kingdom of God can be advanced. The reality is that healthy leaders, healthy couples, and healthy families attract others that we can grow and mentor who in turn will become effective leaders.
7. Do It, Review It, and Re-Do It
Now just do it. Start the process. Take some first steps. Don't be afraid of mistakes. In fact, if you're not making a few mistakes, you are probably being a bit too cautious. Besides that, if you believe that power is perfected in weakness (II Corinthians 12), then you aren't going to have a powerful ministry unless you are willing to allow a few of your weaknesses to show.
The purpose of this article has been to outline the basis of, the need for and the key steps involved in developing a family life ministry. I've tried to lay out what the starting point might look like. At this point you may have as many questions as you have answers –what materials do I use, when do we meet, how often, how long, what can lay leaders be expected to do, where is the best place to start
I would encourage you to start by sharing this article with a few others in your congregation and begin praying about what God might want to do in your life, in your marriage, in your family and then in your congregation. Perhaps you might want to meet with some of your fellow pastors and see what God might want to do in your larger community.
Then, as God leads, start with my recommended first step. At The CHR, we work with a handful of churches each year to help them develop a three-year plan.
Balswick, J. & Balswick, J. (2014). The Family: A Christian perspective on the contemporary home (4th ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Gangel, K. O. (1977) Toward a Biblical Theology of Marriage and Family. Vol. 5, Numbers 1-4, Journal of Psychology and Theology.
Garland, D. S. R., & Pancoast, D. L. (1990). The church's ministry with families: A practical guide. Dallas: Word Pub.
Getz, G. (1976). The measure of a family. G/L Publications.
Hebbard, D.W. (1995). The complete handbook for family life ministry in the church. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Rickerson, W. (1978). How to help the Christian home. Regal Books.
Seamonds, David. (1988). Healing grace: Finding a freedom from the performance trap. Victor Books.
Sell, C. M. (1995). Family life ministry (2nd Ed). Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House.
Wright, N. (1992). Family is still a great idea. Vine Books.
Wright, N. and Johnson, K. (1978). Characteristics of a caring home. Vision House.