You’ve done the research. You understand the unmatched power of families to cultivate a passionate love of Jesus in children’s hearts. You’re days away from meeting with your key leaders to brainstorm what family ministry will look like at your church. But beware: Many ministries inadvertently sabotage themselves by going down a wrong path when it comes to family ministry. Each of these five detours may look like a good idea initially but these family ministry mistakes will take you down a ministry dead end.
Detour #1: Presenting a “Virtuous Family” as the End Goal
Many well-intentioned family ministry champions desire to motivate Christian behavior in families by holding up virtues such as patience, hard work, and love. If a family adopted those virtues, there’s no doubt that their home would be an exceptional place to live. But there’s a double edge to using a virtue-based approach for family ministry. There’s the danger of inadvertently discouraging families by holding up the idea of the perfect family. This is a standard to which no family will ever measure up. Some families grow discouraged and over time will disengage with your ministry.
Other families will roll up their sleeves and use your ministry’s teaching to improve their family. But even if the family is happier and better functioning, mastering a set of virtues isn’t the ultimate point. We can’t reduce Christianity to a commodity that helps families along their merry way. Christianity is the story of God sweeping us up and letting us participate in his story.
Virtues aren’t bad. They’re necessary and biblical. But watch your emphasis. Virtue must be a response to grace and not the culmination of your instruction. Virtues aren’t the foundation of a Christian home—grace is.
We rightfully emphasize Deuteronomy 6 as the foundational Scripture for our family ministries because it charges parents with the responsibility of passing on God’s commandments to the next generation. But look at the families in the Bible from Genesis 2 forward. We meet families filled with violence, deceit, and brokenness. And God decided to include them in his story of salvation anyway. Throughout Scripture, God had imperfect families and transformed them with his presence. This is a reality that can inspire every family. This is grace.
Detour #2: Compartmentalizing Family Ministry
One of the common mistakes that churches make is to set apart family ministry as another department in an already crowded stable of departments; there’s children, youth, men’s and women’s ministries, small groups, and now family. But that departmentalization is what keeps us from viewing families as systems rather than groups of people waiting to be divided into the proper ministries.
“A comprehensive family ministry strategy should align the children, youth, and adult ministries for effective discipleship that pushes spiritual formation back into the home,” says Brian Haynes, author of Shift: What It Takes to Finally Reach Families Today. “When children, youth, and adult ministries work together, they can equip parents to lead their kids spiritually. Then ministries can partner with Mom and Dad by supporting them at a church in Bible study, events, and so on. A departmentalized approach only creates another silo.”
A better strategy is to build a team of existing staff and volunteers from the departments in your church that minister to families and align their approach to family ministry.
Reggie Joiner’s book Think Orange provides tools to help you work together. Brian Haynes’ book Shift will help your team plot your family ministry along the natural lines of child development and family; lines which, by the way, pay no heed to our arbitrary departmental boundaries.
Detour #3: Assuming Families Are Nuclear
As ministers, we have a deep and proper concern for the biblical ideal of family. But what, exactly, is that ideal? The Bible is full of examples of different types of families — for instance, Esther and her uncle and Ruth and her mother-in-law. There’s a good reason that all those families have a place in God’s Word. And it’s a reminder to us that we can’t assume our ministry to families is a ministry to nuclear families.
It’s incumbent on us to make accommodations for ministering to our culture. Because of America’s estimated 50 percent divorce rate and the commonality of unmarried couples living together, millions of children aren’t growing up in nuclear homes. In fact, an estimated 11 million children aren’t growing up in nuclear homes. If we only design family ministries for nuclear families, we intentionally send the message to countless families that the church and even God have no love and support to offer them. This couldn’t be further from the truth. With that in mind, consider these family members when designing your family ministry.
Single moms and dads bear the challenge of being the sole bread-winner and the primary disciplinarian and nurturer. One-third of single parents live below the poverty level. They don’t need to attend shared family worship experiences as much as they need respite child care, budget-coaching, mentors, and affirmation.
Other Significant Adults
Make a decision regarding how you’ll engage adults in the home who aren’t parents. A live-in boyfriend, girlfriend, or roommate may not fit your ideal for a family, but these people will likely have more influence over the children than you do. Decide how you can engage them in God-honoring, respectful, and genuine ways. And remember: Choosing not to engage them won’t reduce their influence in the home.
These families are dealing with the unique challenges of integrating two family systems into one. They need your support in negotiating realistic expectations regarding bonding, discipline, and sharing a home.
Ensure your program acknowledges variances in family structures that are the result of cultural diversity or complex family situations. The extended family is more influential in the upbringing of children within some ethnic groups, and increasingly children displaced from their parents are being raised by extended family. Consider strengthening your ministry to grandparents, uncles, aunts, and other family members.
Detour #4: Misunderstanding a Lack of Engagement From Parents
There’s a prevalent myth children’s ministers tend to repeat that simply isn’t true: “Parents aren’t interested in taking ownership of their children’s spiritual formation.” Children’s ministers see their volunteer shortages, see some parents dropping off their children and leaving, and conclude that parents just aren’t invested in their children’s spiritual development. Then they design family ministries with the expectation that parents won’t engage. They expect failure — and they’re rewarded with a self-fulfilling prophecy— and a scapegoat.
But not so fast: Research by the Barna Group reveals that 85 percent of parents with children under age 13 believe they have the primary responsibility to teach their children about God and religious matters. The research goes on to suggest that a big reason parents rely so heavily on the church for their children’s religious instruction is that they don’t know what else to do. Only one in five parents has ever been contacted by the church to discuss strategies to teach spiritual matters to their children. So the problem isn’t that parents don’t care about their children’s faith; they just don’t know how to lead faith conversations in the home.
Respond by offering affirmation and training that equips parents to talk about faith at home. Mark Holmen, the founder of the Faith Begins at Home movement, prescribes annual training for parents. During that training, parents learn one parenting skill (for example, praying with or blessing your child) that they take into their homes for the next year. Parents leave the session energized with the knowledge that they’re capable of leading their children into a relationship with God. Holmen avoids overwhelming time-starved parents by offering bite-sized bits of information. A strategy such as this keeps parents from being shamed or discouraged and helps parents take the lead in their family’s spiritual development.
Detour #5: Making Family Ministry a Program, Not a Partnership
Family ministry events are necessary. Big events such as movie nights, Pinewood Derbies, and shared family worship events are all opportunities that allow you to cast your vision, bring the generations together, build momentum, and start faith conversations between parents and children.
Big events are necessary — but they can’t bear the weight of family ministry. Family ministry occurs when parents disciple their children in the home. Everything else that occurs in family ministry is supplemental and designed to encourage those scheduled and spontaneous moments in the home.
We make a mistake when we create a family ministry that’s so event- and church-campus-based. Parents view family ministry as just another place or program to take their children to. This approach actually erodes parents’ confidence that they’re able to lead their families. (If the church thinks we need to parent under their supervision, maybe we aren’t ready yet.) Instead, consider these steps to help parents take the lead in the home:
Offer regular parenting classes on topics such as discipline, how to have faith conversations, and how to talk to children about sex. Offer a brief, regular podcast filled with parenting tips, strategies, and affirmations for parents.
Stock your church bookstore or library with resources such as parenting books, kids’ Bibles, DVDs, and music that parents can purchase or borrow. Create or subscribe to a parent newsletter that intentionally equips parents practically and regularly, such as -.com.
When you have an event, send families home with suggested activities and devotions they lead to keep the conversations going. Use other events that bring people together so they can report on what’s happening in their families’ spiritual lives. Celebrate successes with families-and be a constant encouragement.
Now you know the five detours that can derail your family ministry. Check your map (or GPS), assemble your dream team, and start designing a strategy that’ll bless the families of your church. You can do it!
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