If we’re not careful, there are pitfalls to family ministry that may threaten effective ministry to children.
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.
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 two.
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 both.
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?
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 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 far.
FROM THE NEAR TO THE FAR
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 important.
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 Jesus. 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. Every 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 yet.
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 far.
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 families.
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 church.
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 alike. 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 children.
Who knows? These resources could become a catalyst for bringing a parent to faith in Jesus.
THE TRUTH THAT GROVER COULDN’T TELL
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.
Timothy Paul Jones holds a doctorate in educational leadership. He’s the author of the bestselling books Proof; 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.
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