These days, trying to define “family ministry” is as challenging as trying to define “family.” Churches all seem to have slightly different perspectives on this ministry area. But everyone agrees that family ministry is growing — in size, importance, and popularity.
Family ministry isn’t new, but parents have “a renewed awareness of the importance of the family unit,” says Reggie Joiner, founder and president of The reThink Group. The church, he adds, realizes it can’t be effective alone and needs the home.
As family ministry expands, it’s also evolving. Just being family- friendly no longer counts. The old approach of keeping people of all ages busy with lots of family-specific programming is missing the mark. All the “random acts of ministry” that churches line up for families overload church and family schedules, ultimately “competing with the very families you’re trying to help,” Joiner says.
Kurt Bruner, executive director of the Strong Families Innovation Alliance, says, “The problem is that the home is in desperate need of fulfilling what it’s called to do. So we need to ask, ‘How do we equip families?’ “
Family Ministry’s New Focus
“Equip” is one buzzword associated with the new-and-improved family ministry. Others include “partnership,” “intentional,” and “simplified.”
Attentive churches move away from family ministry that’s recreational, educational, or organizational, and move toward ministry that meets more of families’ needs, says Art Murphy, founder and president of Arrow Ministries in Orlando, Florida.
Bruner’s alliance has brought together some of America’s leading ministries to explore the family ministry movement. They concluded that the goal is for churches to be catalysts for strengthening marriages, nurturing children’s faith, and keeping teenagers in the church.
Mike Clear, family life pastor at Discovery Church in Simi Valley, California, reinforces the importance of intentionality. “Family ministry needs to be about churches intentionally influencing parents to be the spiritual leader for their kids,” he says. “No one has more potential to influence a child’s relationship with God than a parent.”
While a child might be at church 50 hours per year, Clear says, a parent has about 3,000 hours per year “to impact the heart of their child,” and that influence will be lifelong. “As good as we might think we are as a church and as electrifying and relevant as our ministries might be, we still don’t have the potential to influence children the way parents do,” Clear says.
Make the task too difficult for parents, though, and we repel them instead of equip them. “The very idea of spiritual leadership can be overwhelming to many parents,” Joiner says, “so it’s up to the church to define the parent’s role as a spiritual leader in practical, possible terms — and then actually partner with them to do it.”
Family Ministry’s Key Players
Coming alongside families in the spiritual upbringing of children is a big undertaking, which might make you wonder, Who’s qualified?
Some children’s ministers have redefined their role as ministry to the entire family — not just the children. Some churches rely on a point person who’s skilled at big-picture planning. And other churches hire family ministry pastors with backgrounds in counseling, marriage, child development, and parenting. It’s crucial to have a credible point person. Bruner says, “If everyone owns the ministry, no one does.”
Joiner agrees, saying, “Someone needs to champion the master plan and get everyone in the same room to own the strategy. The best way to get parents on the same page with your strategy is to get the staff on the same page.”
Family Ministry in Action
While churches may share a common goal of offering family ministry, here are practical approaches congregations currently use.
Family Worship Services — Seacoast Church in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, has experimented with a hybrid family service, with children joining parents for family-style worship. Then kids and adults split up for separate teaching times.
“The shared service isn’t for all families,” says Sherry Surratt, children’s pastor at Seacoast. “But we’ve learned that no matter what model we use, we need to engage the whole family, keep parents in the loop, and let them know how they can participate.”
Some churches design special weekly worship productions for children and parents. Discovery Church presents a high-energy, lighthearted experience between the two adult Sunday services. For help with this, Clear turned to Joiner’s reThink Group. These interactive productions help synchronize the learning that occurs at church with the learning that occurs at home, Joiner says.