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Family Ministry: Not Just For the Christian Right Anymore

Family ministry. There. I said it out loud. And I still call myself a progressive Christian.

When I use this phrase among my beloved fellow progressive Christians, they stare politely and intently at me (because we ARE taught to be tolerant after all), and at the same time do that uncomfortable, squirmy dance in their seat. The uncomfortable shifting reveals a deep-seeded discomfort with the word family. I launch into my usual diatribe about the 30 years of recent sociological research, hundreds of years of anecdotal experience of Christian faith formation, and just plain old common sense that tells us that families (especially parents and grandparents) are the primary “passers-on” of faith to the next generation.

My progressive Christian sisters and brothers nod in agreement with the intellectual argument and the reams of research which I present to them, but the emotional baggage associated with the word ‘family’ gets them every time. They perk up and say that they have many different kinds of families in their church. They remind me that grandparents are raising grandchildren (or at least taking them to church); same-gender couples very tentatively put their toe into dangerous waters to attend a welcoming, progressive church to find an accepting spiritual home for their children; divorced parents maneuver the complexities of co-parenting from separate homes; widowed parents overcome grief and taxing schedules to give their children spiritual grounding amidst chaos and tragedy. I listen patiently to their vivid and varied descriptions of family.

I just say, “ALL of those families. Whatever YOU call family. Are welcome. No exceptions.”

Me and my nephew, Aiden, at our silly finest. Not the perfect or traditional family.
Me and my nephew, Aiden, at our silly finest. Not the perfect or traditional family.

Too often ‘family ministry’ gets tossed around by the religious right as a way of extolling the virtues of ‘traditional’ nuclear families thereby denigrating every other family that doesn’t meet this ideal. This family is composed of straight, white, married male and female parents with 2.4 children and a dog in the suburbs. In this ‘ideal’ family, the mother stays home with the children, volunteering her time in schools, church and community organizations. Dad goes off to a solid job that pays their bills and comes home to a clean home and a freshly poured glass of scotch provided by his doting wife. Children stay out playing until dark until they are beckoned back into the home by a warm dinner blessed by a family prayer.

Ya. That ‘ideal’ family doesn’t really exist. Except maybe in reruns of “Leave it to Beaver.”

I’m hear to tell you that I don’t care one iota what your family looks like — whether you are a same-gender couple with or without children; a single person making “framily” away from your biological relations; a grandparent raising a grandchild because of death, divorce or mental illness; or a single parent working three jobs just to make ends meet — YOUR family bears the blessing and responsibility for passing on faith to the next generation. Your church should support you and your wonderful, unique family in living this ministry of the home.

Family-based faith formation ministry, in my mind, honors and strengthens all forms of family by helping people build healthy relationships based on faith. Church recognizes that the home itself is a ministry, calling everyone in it to “love God and neighbor as themselves.” Family-based ministry enables progressive Christians to do just what they want to do most — to serve community, to help the poor and fight for justice not just with our words, but with our lives.

If progressive Christians learn to better live their faith in the home, then the family — in the many wonderful diverse forms it takes — builds a bridge from our daily lives to the justice, peace, and love we want to realize in the world through mission, service and activism. Spiritual practices and family rituals such as prayer, Bible reading and discussion connect us to the fullness of our religious tradition that calls us into deeper relationship first with God, then with others — particularly the others who live on the margins of our society. If we learn to extend hospitality to one another in the home (even when we’re not getting along), we learn to extend hospitality to the stranger we meet on the street, or at school or at our jobs. If we listen regularly for God’s voice in our daily home faith practices, we will hear God call each of us to our vocation, our life’s work, that creates God’s kin-dom here on earth, not just fill our bank accounts or pension funds. Families, not churches, do ministry in the world each and every day.

So this blog series, “Family Ministry: Not Just for the Christian Right Anymore” will dispel the notion that family-based faith formation is a conservative Christian thing. Read along and discuss these ideas with me. I’m sure we’ll learn something. We may even become family.

7 Comments

  1. Back in the olden days, say 40 years ago, we had a brief spate of what we called Intergenerational education. The goal was to teach adults and children how to learn discipleship, and to teach adults and children how to teach discipleship. It was a family educational approach that included all members of the church whether they were traditional families, alternative families, single person families, or students away from home, etc. Sort of like the “framiliy ” of the phone ad.
    We divided the persons who signed up for the experiment in to family groups of 12. 2 elders, 2 middle age adults,, 2 young adults, 2 teen agers, 2 middle schoolers and 2 primary schoolers. They were not necessarily with their biological familites, or affiliate families, but were mixed into “Church families”. We had a ball with this plan!

    • I’m really happy to hear this positive feedback about an intergenerational program. Did the relationships continue beyond the official program? What impact did you see it have long term? Have you done this at other churches more recently?

  2. My fifty something children were 7 and 9 at the time. My daughter continued to correspond with one of the elder women up to and including email and Skype. They exchange Christmas cards, too. My son not so much. But he did bond with one of the other boys. They were inseparable until of course we separated tham by moving.
    I tried it once more in a modified form with a confirmation class. I asked the confermands to choose up to 3 people in the congregation they would like to have on their “confirmation team”. I had all those people to dinner, described the program and showed them the policies and procedures. All of them were excited to be on the teams.
    However, neither effort entended beyond my time at the church. Some comments were that little of the the bible was learned, six weeks on a single topic wasted precious teaching time, and “it wasn’t like my confirmation where I had to memorize the Nicene Creed.” ( I got thrown out of that church!)
    The curiculum is published; I could put it out as a PDF or eBook if anyone is interested.

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