Spending Sunday afternoons updating the family calendar is a routine for my wife and I. A few Sundays back, as we took note of the various opportunities for fellowship, Bible study and activities listed on the back of the Sunday bulletin, we couldn’t help but notice the incredible fragmentation of our large, suburban congregation. There were activities for junior and senior high youth, mothers with children under the age of three, social outings for parents over the age of forty, quilting for the Ladies Guild, fishing trips and Bible study for the men’s group, and even meetings for mothers of grade school alumni. All of these opportunities for growth and fellowship are certainly important, but as we talked, my wife and I couldn’t help but wonder what, if anything, was available that crossed a variety of social, gender, and age lines. Where were the experiences that would edify the members of the congregation together, as a whole, as a unit, aside from Sunday morning service? We began to rethink our own approach to youth and family ministry.
Most congregational family ministry programs seem to be based on a structural definition of family. Thus, ministry is segmented for different groups: children, youth, single adults, married couples, parents, single parents, empty nest families, seniors, etc. These segmented ministries are undoubtedly helpful to families along various stages of the family life cycle. However, this approach to family ministry tends to cut a congregation into groups, segmenting all married couples into one group, all seniors into another group, and so on. Segmenting also creates congregational specialization, so that one church may be known as the congregation for young families, another as the congregation for young adults, still another as the congregation for senior adults, and so on. (Garland, 1999)
Ultimately, family ministry is rooted in human systems. The individual influences the family system, which in turn influences larger systems such as a church congregation. This pattern of influence is also inverted, with the larger system working to influence the smaller systems. The systems are all interconnected, and are not easily or effectively divided. Thus, family ministry is best understood as a relational ministry, involving spiritual, emotional, and physical relationships between the individual people who make up the larger systems. It is a single ministry that focuses on our relationship with God, on the intra-relationship of self, and on the inter-relationship of persons who make up the large system of the congregation.
For the church to function as an inclusive system, as a family of men, women, and children from every stage of life, every program within the church must commit to “being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.” (Philippians 2:2) Each program area and its leadership must be aware of the ministry goals of other programs and work to form a cohesive whole. Children’s ministry needs to connect with care ministry, social ministry needs to connect with evangelism ministry, music ministry needs to connect with adult education ministry, and so on. Separate ministries within the church must seek to function as a unit, connected and committed to a united vision for every program and ministry within the larger system. (Clark, 1997)
To form a cohesive whole, church leaders must articulate to all members that the people God has drawn together are far more important than any single program. The church must create opportunities for people to connect with others. Ultimately, an intergenerational approach to ministry, connecting the youth to seniors, children to singles, married young adults to empty nesters, is the key to creating a family centered ministry system that thrives.
All of this plays into the fact that the fundamental purpose of the Christian family, and the Christian congregation, is to give witness to the love of God. “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.” (Ephesians 2:19) The church is meant to be the people of God, a community of believers, and a family of faith. The church serves as a source of identity and support for a variety of different family structures, cultures, and needs. The task of church leaders is to recognize the varying needs of the family, which can be difficult to pinpoint at times. By connecting different ministries into one focused system, and by connecting people from the many different stages of life to one another, church leaders empower the people to minister to one another. The Holy Spirit works in all systems; He cannot be hindered. However, connecting the individual units of people together, giving them an understanding that the Body of Christ includes every baptized person from infant to older adult, gives the larger system of the congregation, and ultimately the Church, a more powerful presence in the world.
The Family: A Contemporary Perspective on the Contemporary Home. Balswick, J.O., & Balswick J.K. (1989). Baker Books.
The Youth Worker’s Handbook to Family Ministry. Clark, C. (1997). Zondervan Publishing House.
Family Ministry A Comprehensive Guide. Garland, D. (1999). InterVarsity Press.
The Holy Bible, New International Version. Zondervan, (1984) International Bible Society.