Developing a Family Ministry for Your Church
By Gary J. Oliver
I grew up in a quiet neighborhood in southern California where the two-parent family was the norm. When I was in grade school, I remember being told by a friend that, only two blocks from his house, lived a woman who had “really been divorced.” In those days, divorce was rare. Times have changed.
I could fill an entire article with facts and figures to document the alarming decline and disintegration of the family. In unprecedented numbers our families are changing: there are fathers working while mothers stay home; families in which both fathers and mothers work; single parents; second marriages that bring children together from unrelated backgrounds; childless couples; unmarried couples with and without children; and gay and lesbian parents.
If this disintegration was taking place primarily in the homes of unchurched families, it would be tragic enough. The real tragedy, however, is that the divorce rate is as high among evangelical couples as unchurched couples. One explanation for this is that Christ doesn’t make a difference in our families and biblical truth is irrelevant for relationships. A better explanation is that we haven’t taken relationships as seriously as God does, and we haven’t developed meaningful ways to help our people discover how to apply biblical truth in their marriages and families.
The Significance Of Family Ministry
God intended for the family to be the basic unit in society. A casual view of history reveals that as go marriages, so goes the family; as go families, so goes the community; as go communities, so goes the nation; as go nations, so goes civilization.
The Bible tells us that in the beginning God created the family. In His infinite wisdom He chose the family to serve as the cradle for personhood. In Deuteronomy 6, as well as in other biblical passages, it is clear that God designed the family as the crucible in which the reality of the person of the living God is to be both taught (through formal education) and caught (by the example of the parents’ lives).
The quality of family life influences every other part of our life. Surveys have found that an American’s greatest source of happiness in life is the family. These surveys have also found that the greatest source of frustration and disappointment in people’s lives is dealing with family problems. The quality of family life also has a powerful impact on the believability of the gospel message. Joe Aldrich states: “The two greatest forces in evangelism are a healthy church and a healthy marriage. The two are interdependent. You can’t have one without the other. It is the healthy marriage, however, which is the ‘front lines weapon.’ The Christian family in a community is the ultimate evangelistic tool, assuming the home circle is an open one in which the beauty of the gospel is readily available. It’s the old story: When love is seen the message is heard.”1
The Biblical Basis For Family Ministry
The starting place for any family ministry is to see what the Bible has to say about the family. Throughout Scripture, God provides instruction related to marriage, the family, and parenting.
Relationships are a core part of who God is and who He would have us to become. The priority of relationships in God’s plan is seen from the very beginning of His written revelation. In Genesis we see God in relationship with himself; God in relationship with man; male and female in relationship with each other in marriage; parents and children in relationship in the family; groups of families that made up the 12 tribes of Israel in relationship with other tribes.
In the Old Testament there are numerous insights into the nature and function of the family. The Hebrew family was noted for its unity. This cohesiveness developed quite naturally, as the nature of that society placed children and parents in close contact. The majority of activities centered around the home and often included children, parents, grandparents, and other relatives.
Many functions performed by social service agencies or the local church today were performed by the extended family in biblical times. The Hebrew home was the primary educational, recreational, and social center for the children. Religious education was centered in the home. As a result, parents spent time with their children—working, teaching, communicating, and playing. This interaction helped produce a family unity that made it possible to pass on values from parents to children, from generation to generation (Psalm 78:4).2
Today, most of the functions that were provided for in the Hebrew home are now met outside the home. Education takes place in the schools. The majority of social and recreational activities take place outside the home, usually with nonfamily members. Even the bulk of religious education is left to the church.
What Is A Family?
When most people think of the typical American family, they picture a man and a woman who get married, have children, and live together for a lifetime. This is referred to as the biological or nuclear family. In the past, most families knew their neighbors and lived close to relatives. These relatives made up an extended family and included grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, or other adult siblings. The extended family served as supportive roles for the nuclear family.
Today there is no such thing as the “typical” or “normal” family. In addition to the traditional two-parent families we have single-parent families, extended families, adopted families, childless families, and reconstituted or blended families. The role of the extended family and the neighborhood community has significantly decreased, if not disappeared. The dual-parent or single-parent family is faced with a much more complex and difficult task.
Over the last several decades we have come to an increased awareness of the impact of families on personality development. While we’ve always known that families have a tremendous influence, we are now discovering that the influence of our family-of-origin goes far beyond what we had imagined. It would be difficult to overstate the immeasurable influence of early life experiences on the passage of children through adolescence into adulthood.
In an unhealthy family, the members are spiritually, emotionally, and relationally undernourished. This malnutrition produces many devastating effects. Children raised in unhealthy families are much more likely to experience difficulty, or an inability to form long-term relationships. They have a hard time trusting and forming strong commitments and are afraid of intimacy. They pretend everything is fine when it isn’t. They struggle with emotional stability, communicating clearly, effective conflict resolution, as well as difficulty with believing and trusting God. In today’s secular society, without a loving mother or father as a model, it is much harder to conceptualize, let alone give your life to a loving Heavenly Father.
The home is the window through which children get their first glimpse of God. It is also where they get their first glimpse of who they are and what they are worth. Children discover their value and worth in the mirror of those around them by how much they are looked at, listened to and touched, by what their parents say to them and about them in front of others, and by how much time their parents make for them.3 Often this initial view will stay with them throughout their lifetime.
What Do Healthy Families Look Like?
Is there a difference between a family in which everyone is a Christian and a Christian family? Yes. It takes more than every family member being a born-again Christian to make a Christian family. A Christian family is a family where relationships with each other are patterned after the way God communicates and relates to His children. It is a place where truth is lived out, not merely talked about.
In a healthy family, the parents provide an observable model of what it means to be made in God’s image. Family is where we learn the importance of a growing love relationship with Jesus Christ; what it means to be a man or woman; how to relate intimately to another person; how to form strong, lasting commitments; how to acknowledge and express emotions; how to have constructive conflict; how to have physical, emotional, and intellectual boundaries; how to communicate; how to cope and survive life’s problems; how to be self-disciplined; how to appreciate oneself and love others.
A healthy family provides an atmosphere of support, encouragement, and positive opportunities for growth, that includes helping each person to come to a knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of God and Jesus Christ, and a knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of himself/herself as a unique person made in the image of God. It is a family in which biblical truth is both taught and caught.
A Unique Opportunity For The Church
Given the significance God places on healthy relationships, a logical question is, What is the role of the church in building strong marriages and families? One vital life sign of a healthy church is the health of its marriages and families.
If truth doesn’t work inside of the home, why are we surprised it doesn’t work outside of the home? If we can’t help two people to function biblically in their marriages, how can we expect those same two people plus their children to function biblically as a family? If they aren’t functioning biblically as a family, how can we expect them to come to church on Sunday morning with hundreds of other families and magically function as the Body that God designed? If it’s not happening with individual couples and families, it’s virtually impossible that it will happen when the corporate body meets.
The church has been called to be a lighthouse, the source of solutions for what ails a lost and dying society. Developing a comprehensive family ministry is one of the most effective means of helping our people learn what it means to “become conformed to the image of his son” (Romans 8:29) and of outreach into our communities.
A strong marriage and family ministry serves as salt and light in a world characterized by confused, disoriented, and disintegrating families. It says that truth works, truth makes a difference. By offering tools, resources, support groups, and programs it also says that we care about our community.
People are beginning to realize that the world’s solutions haven’t worked and are once again looking to the church. Charles Sell writes, “When people make enough of a mess out of their lives and when the chosen answers in a society are seen not to work, portions of that society begin asking the ‘God’ questions once again.”4
The church has a unique opportunity to impact the entire family as it moves through the various stages of life. People turn to the church during significant life events such as baby dedications, baptisms, marriages, and death. Ministers perform approximately 75 percent of marriages in the U.S., and over 60 percent of Americans prefer to see clergy about personal problems. The most frequently presented problem is marital difficulty.
Where Do I Start?
Given the fact in eternity past God decided to create us in His own image and designed us to be in relationships; given the importance of the family for personal growth and development; and given the significant opportunity family ministry provides us to communicate help and hope to a hurting world, where can you begin? Here are a few simple steps that will get you going in the right direction.
A Foundation in Prayer
When developing a family ministry, it is easy to start by asking, “What is working for others?” At some point that will be a good question to ask, but it is the wrong place to start. Instead, begin by establishing a prayer team. Ask them to begin to pray, on a daily basis, for what God might want to see take place in your congregation.
A Solid Biblical Base
Scripture makes a strong case that ministry involves caring for the whole person—the spiritual, physical, emotional, and intellectual needs. To ensure the long-term effectiveness of any family ministry, it must be bathed in prayer; rooted and grounded in Scripture; supported by a solid biblical and theological foundation; and the vision must be clearly articulated, owned, and supported by the staff and congregation.
While insights from the social sciences including psychology, sociology, and education can be helpful, it is essential that Christian family ministry be grounded in the clear teaching of Scripture. The resource list at the end of this article contains several books that provide help in this area.
Review Existing Resources
Since our time and resources are precious, it makes good sense to see what is already being done in this area. What are some existing models of family ministry? What are the questions we need to ask? What has worked well in congregations similar to ours? Ask what your church’s current philosophy of ministry is as it relates to congregational care, church growth, and community outreach; and to what degree has it made cultivating strong marriages and families a priority.
Conduct a Needs Assessment
Develop an adequate understanding of the composition, needs, and interests of the congregation and the community. This includes taking a look at the demographics of the community, the demographics of the church, population growth rates, ethnic composition, age breakdown, average income, and unemployment.
Another important question is: What is the church already doing that has had a positive response—what resources already exist in the church and/or community? Are there any regularly scheduled classes or programs that provide people with biblically based principles on relationships, premarital preparation, parenting, divorce recovery, singles, marriage enrichment, dealing with grief, or addictions?
A church can also conduct a need assessment survey of its congregation. For more information on the CMFS (Center for Relationship Enrichment) Church Relationships Assessment (CRE) visit www.liferelationships.com and click on the Church Initiative link.
Assess Strengths, Opportunities, and Challenges
Based on the needs assessment, you will have a clear sense of the community God has called you to serve, the composition of your own church, existing resources in your church and community, as well as the perceived needs of the various age levels of your congregation. Make a list of the existing strengths and resources, the opportunities for ministry in your own church and in your community, and some of the challenges you will face in allowing God to work through you to take your family ministry to the next level.
Develop a 3-Year Plan
This is the most important and, in some ways, the most difficult step. In this step, build on what you are already doing that has been helpful and add to it as you have leadership and resources. Since a meaningful family ministry will eventually include children, youth, single, divorced, widowed, and married adults, you will need to determine one or two target groups; goals for the first year; and additional goals for years 2 and 3.
Look at opportunities to strengthen existing marriage and family relationships; provide care for hurting couples and families; or provide support groups for addictions, weight, divorce recovery, Alzheimer’s, and grief. Develop a strong education and enrichment program; teach biblical relationship principles across the life span; provide mandatory premarital preparation including the use of mentor couples, provide post-wedding care, classes for first-time parents, or classes for couples who are becoming empty nesters.
Incorporate training in spiritual formation and growth throughout all of these programs. In my ministry of over 30 years, I have yet to see a couple with severe marital problems who have had a strong, consistent family and couple prayer time and devotional life. However, I have had many couples who, presented with major marital issues, were actively involved in the leadership of their local church but weren’t making regular time to cultivate the spiritual disciplines with their partner. Being involved and doing things for God doesn’t replace what is gained by spending time with God.
Another essential part of a 3-year plan is to cultivate, cultivate, and cultivate leadership. This starts with you. Who you are in your own relationship with Christ is the most important component of family ministry. Helpers of families must first help themselves, then they can model what they teach and explain the difference Jesus Christ can make in a marriage and family. The reality is that healthy leaders, healthy couples, and healthy families attract others that they can help to grow and mentor who in turn will become effective leaders.
Do It, Review It, and Re-Do It
Start the process. Take some first steps. Don’t be afraid of mistakes. In fact if you’re not making a few mistakes, you are probably being a bit too cautious. Besides, if you believe that power is perfected in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), then you aren’t going to have a powerful ministry unless you are willing to allow a few of your weaknesses to show.
Share this article with others in your congregation. Begin to pray about what God might want to do in your life, your marriage, your family, and then in your congregation. Perhaps you might want to meet with some fellow pastors and see what God might want to do in your community.
Then, as God leads, start with the first step. At The Center for Marriage and Family Studies (CMFS) we work with a handful of churches each year to help them develop a 3-year plan that fits the specific needs of their congregation. Perhaps there are ministries close to you that are equipped to help you in this way.
Let me close with this thought: Salvation by association is a powerful force in any church or community. It restores an ingredient to the Kingdom that has been lost in our latter 20th-century church. That ingredient is relationships. People are hungry for relationships. That is why family ministry is so powerful in the community. It addresses training in the areas of marriage, parenting and death, to name just a few. Evangelism occurs naturally out of a trust relationship among family members and friends.5
Gary J. Oliver, Th.M., Ph.D., is executive director of The Center for Marriage and Family Studies and a professor of psychology and practical theology at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. He is also program director for the D.Min. in marriage and family counseling at Denver Seminary. He is the author of over 10 books including Made Perfect in Weakness: The Amazing Things God Can Do With Failure, published by Chariot Victor, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1995.
1. Joseph C. Aldrich, Life-Style Evangelism (Portland, Oreg.: Multnomah Press, 1981), 20,21.
2. Wayne E. Rickerson, Getting Your Family Together (Ventura, Calif.: Regal, 1977), 8,9.
3. David A. Seamands, Healing Grace (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1988), 47.
4. C.M. Sell, Family Life Ministry 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 30.
5. D.W. Hebbard, The Complete Handbook for Family Life Ministry in the Church (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 37.
Balswick, Jack O., and Judith K. Balswick. The Family, A Christian Perspective on the Contemporary Home, 2nd edition. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.
Gangel, K.O. “Toward a Biblical Theology of Marriage and Family,” Parts 1–4, Journal of Psychology and Theology, Volume 5, Numbers 1–4. 1977.
Garland, Diana S. and Diane L. Pancoast. The Church’s Ministry with Families, A Practical Guide. Dallas: Word Publishers, 1990.
Getz, Gene A. The Measure of a Family, Ventura: Regal, 1976.
Hebbard, D.W. The Complete Handbook for Family Life Ministry in the Church. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.
Rickerson, Wayne E. How to Help the Christian Home. Glendale: Regal, 1978.
Seamands, David A. Healing Grace. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1988.
Sell, C.M. Family Life Ministry 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995.