Reaching Families


Sunny days, sweepin’ the clouds away.
On my way to where the air is sweet.
Can you tell me how to get, how to get to…

If those couplets strike a chord in your memories of childhood, you
probably watched the American PBS program Sesame Street.
Bert and Ernie, Big Bird and Snuffleupagus, Gordon and Susan, and
Mr. Hooper-all of them were recurring characters in my day as a
preschooler. But my favorite Muppet was the furry blue monster
known as Grover.

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What I remember most clearly about Grover is a skit you may recall,
too. Grover began by running to the camera, pressing his pink nose
toward the lens, and announcing that he was, “Neeeaaarr!” Then,
Grover scurried into the distance and declared that he was now,
“Faaaarrr!” Over and over, Grover rushed from one end of the set to
another, near and then far. The blue Muppet didn’t settle for near,
and he didn’t stay far. He constantly alternated between the

That’s how family ministry ought to work too.

Family ministry isn’t just about reaching those who are near, and
it’s not all about reaching those who are far. It’s about

For some churches, it’s tempting to aim their children’s and family
ministries only at those who are near-church families who seek to
develop discipleship practices in their homes. Families in these
churches do tend to develop spiritual habits. Yet such ministries
also tend to be the ones to attract intact families with faithful
parents who have no recent visits from the Department of Human
Services. This sort of family ministry focuses on the development
of discipleship habits in Christian households.

Other ministries center on those who are far, designing programs to
bypass parents and reach children directly. The focus of family
ministry in these churches is the formation of a church family for
children whose family lives are fractured and fragmented. The
problem is, this focus on reaching children directly can become so
thoroughgoing that the church never explicitly expects any
parents-even Christian ones-to engage actively in their children’s
spiritual development.

So which form of family ministry is more correct?

Neither one.

Alone, neither incarnation of family ministry has it right. One
emphasizes the role of the home at the expense of the church; the
other focuses on the church and underplays the need for faith
influence at home. In both forms, “family ministry” can quickly
become one more program that claws for a spot on the church
calendar and a line in the church budget.

When I use the term “family ministry,” I’m not talking about this
sort of program. What I mean is coordinating what you’re already
doing so that your ministry (1) prepares parents to function as
primary faith influence(rs) in their children’s lives and (2)
equips the entire community of faith to care for spiritual orphans.
That’s the kind of family ministry that can reach near and


Of course, this idea of reaching near and far didn’t originate with
me, and it certainly didn’t start with Grover. This principle is
part of what Peter was proclaiming on Pentecost when he declared
that God’s promise is “for you and for your children and for those
who are far off” (Acts 2:39 NIV). It begins with those who are
near (“you and…your children”) then expands to reach those who
“are far off.”

In this, the big fisherman drew from a pattern that’s as ancient as
the opening books of the Bible. God chose Abraham to “command his
children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord,”
but God’s goal for Abraham reached far beyond Abraham’s clan.
Through Abraham, “all nations” would one day gain access to God’s
blessing. A half-millennium later, Moses commanded the heirs of
Abraham to embrace God’s Word in their own hearts and then to
engrave the same words on their children’s hearts.And what would be
the result of this God-ordained training within the family? Active
compassion for those who were far off-for orphans, widows, and
immigrants in the land.

So how can you develop a ministry to children and families that
reaches near and far? First off, the right biblical and theological
foundations have to be in place. Without these foundations, family
ministries tend to swing back and forth between near and far,
depending on the whims of the particular moment. Here are three
theological foundations that I’ve found to be particularly

All of us are orphans. From the instant Eve took
her first taste of forbidden fruit, we all became orphans. There
are no natural-born children of God among us; we’re all ex-orphans,
brought into God’s family through divine adoption. This idea
doesn’t end with the children who physically lack a father and
mother, though. It also includes “spiritual orphans”-children who
have one or more parents who aren’t yet followers of Jesus. To
bypass the orphan in favor of a sole focus on whole and healthy
families is to neglect a heartbeat that’s long marked the rhythms
of God’s redemptive plan.

Every child is a potential brother or sister in
The Bible calls us to see every person not only as
an orphan because of humanity’s fall but also as a potential
brother or sister in Jesus. Seeing every person as a potential
brother or sister begins with those nearest to us, in our own
households. For Christian parents, the nearest are typically their
own children. And so, Christian parents are called to become
primary faith influencers first in their own children’s
lives-though this responsibility doesn’t end with the children in
believing households.

All parents are called to be primary faith influencers in
their children’s lives-some just don’t know it yet.
human being is invited to turn to Jesus, and the Christian home is
a context for spiritual growth for those who respond to that
invitation. Paul put it this way in his household instructions to
the Christians in Ephesus: “Bring up [your children]in the
discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Paul identified
parents-and particularly fathers-as primary faith influencers in
their children’s lives. God has called every parent to the role of
primary faith influencer in their child’s life; parents who are far
from God (and perhaps even some who are near) may just not know it

At the same time, a generation of well-trained children isn’t the
final goal; if your children stand beside you in the heavenly
realm, they won’t do so as your children but as your sisters and
brothers in God’s family. That’s why family ministry remains
incomplete until it results in the proclamation of the gospel
beyond individual homes. Family ministry that never reaches beyond
individual households is like an unending regimen of spring
training that never results in a real game. When family ministry is
both “for you and for your children” and “for those who are far
off,” the goal becomes far bigger than healthier families. The goal
is for God’s truth to be rehearsed in homes and reinforced through
the church so that the gospel is revealed to all the world.


So what can you do, practically speaking, to develop a near-and-far
family ministry? Most importantly, where do you begin? Over the
past three years, I’ve spent much of my time working with churches
around the globe to develop new approaches to family ministry.
Based on what I’ve learned working with these churches, here are
simple starting-points for a family ministry that reaches near and

Develop Families-in-Faith. A Family-in-Faith is
simply a family or an individual who has specific responsibilities
in the lives of one or more children whose parents aren’t yet part
of the church. This is one of the most crucial roles in a
near-and-far family ministry. It’s also one of many key areas where
singles and senior adults make vital contributions to ministry to

Having Families-in-Faith doesn’t mean you simply inform your
current volunteers to pay closer attention to children whose
parents don’t come to church. Developing Families-in-Faith means
intentionally equipping spiritually mature volunteers for this
responsibility and pairing them with particular children.

So what’s involved in this particular task of serving as a
Family-in-Faith? Here are three initial suggestions you can ask of
your volunteers.

1. Whenever your child-in-faith arrives at church,
serve as much as possible as that child’s parent. This may entail
tasks as mundane as asking the child before worship whether he
needs to go to the bathroom. Seek out your child, and constantly
let the child know what a blessing it is to see him or her at

2. Whenever an event calls for parents to attend,
be present and available to step in immediately as this child’s
Family-in-Faith, if his or her parents don’t show up.

3. Make contact at least once a month with the
child’s parent or parents, looking for opportunities to share your
faith. Remember: The goal is for the role as a Family-in-Faith to
be temporary. Your desire is for the parents of this child to
embrace life-transforming faith in Jesus so they become the
spiritual catalysts in this child’s life.

“TIE Test” your ministry. Try this experience with
your children’s ministry staff or volunteers.

On the left side of a whiteboard, list everything your children’s
ministry has done in the past month. Then, in the middle, write
three words: Train, Involve, and Equip (TIE). Consider how each
experience might be more effective if you applied “the TIE
Test”-which is simply asking, regarding each activity, “How could
this activity Train, Involve, or Equip parents as primary faith
influencers? How could it Train, Involve, or Equip our church to
embrace our role with spiritual orphans?” On the right side of the
whiteboard, describe how each experience might look different after
the TIE Test.

Resource all parents-churched and unchurched
If a child’s parents aren’t involved in church,
provide printed resources to the Family-in-Faith and, if at all
possible, mail or email these resources to the child’s parents.
Every parent has the right to know what his or her child is
learning at church. Do not, however, hand these printed resources
to kids with the hope that the resources will miraculously make it
to Mom and Dad! I too was a captive of this quixotic hope for many
years. Then, I became a parent and discovered that such resources
rarely survive the trip home. Placed in the hands of children, most
resources end up crumpled and laid to rest beneath the car seat
amid Happy Meal toys, secondhand suckers, and stray pieces of
cereal. Providing children with papers to clutter the car isn’t the
same as equipping parents with the resources they need to become
primary faith influencers in their children’s lives. Whether
through a well-produced handout or a well-promoted webpage, get the
resource directly to the parents. Each time you make contact with
the parent, include words of encouragement that recognize parents’
God-given role as a primary faith influencer for their

Who knows? These resources could become a catalyst for bringing a
parent to faith in Jesus.


Grover taught me much about near and far-but what Grover couldn’t
know or tell me as a minister was how difficult it is to work with
those who are near without neglecting the ones who are far. After I
presented some of these strategies in one congregation, one very
kind and sincere children’s minister responded, “I want to see this
happen in our church. But our church has never even suggested
anything like this to anyone before. The transition to thinking
this way looks like it could be really hard. And I don’t know about
anyone else, but I feel so inadequate.”

“I want to provide you with a word of encouragement,” I said. “It
is hard, you are inadequate, and so am I.”

Responses like that probably explain why encouragement never shows
up on my spiritual gift inventory­-but I stand by my statement,
though perhaps I should’ve said it a bit differently. And, in my
defense, I did go on to explain what I meant: Implementing
these practices can be hard, and we are inadequate; that’s why God
sent his Son to redeem us and his Spirit to reside within us. If
you want to move your ministry toward equipping families and
Families-in-Faith, do all that you do “with great patience and
instruction.” Trust the power of God’s Spirit and the proclamation
of God’s Word to bring transformation in the lives of God’s people.
Don’t focus on the equipping of families alone; center your life
and ministry on the Equipper. That’s the key to a family ministry
that lasts. cm

Timothy Paul Jones holds a doctorate in
educational leadership. He’s the author of the bestselling
Answers to the Da Vinci Code and Finding God in
a Galaxy Far, Far Away. He’s the editor of Perspectives On
Family Ministry: Three Views.



Reaching Families
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