I delivered this paper proposing a revised definition for family ministry in May 2017 at the HOUSE Conference in Australia, a gathering sponsored by YouthWorks College and themed around the intersection between family ministry and ecclesiology. This post on a revised definition for family ministry is the first part of a three-part series.
1. A DEFINITION FOR FAMILY MINISTRY
In 2009, I developed a definition of “family ministry.” A few years later, I recognized that my definition for family ministry was incomplete. This paper serves as my retractatio of that original definition—not in the sense of a “retraction” or “rejection” but in the sense that Augustine of Hippo once used the term, a “re-treatment” in light of later reflection.
In my earlier definition, I described family ministry in this way:
[Family ministry is] the process of intentionally and persistently realigning a congregation’s proclamation and practices so that parents are acknowledged, trained, and held accountable as the persons primarily responsible for the discipleship of their children.
I did admit even then that this definition was “far from the final word.” And yet, I missed far more in that first definition for family ministry than I ever imagined at the time.
In the years that have passed since I formulated that first definition for family ministry, what I’ve recognized more than ever before is that healthy family ministry is marked by two distinct, biblically-grounded dynamics: family-as-church and church-as-family. The first of these dynamics is primarily—though not exclusively—a parental dynamic. The second dynamic is a dynamic of diversity, and intergenerational ministry is one essential aspect of the diversity that characterizes this second dynamic. What was missing in my first definition of family ministry was the dynamic of church-as-family. Since intergenerational ministry is one aspect of church-as-family ministry, my earlier work on family ministry turned out to be strong when it came to the equipping of parents but underdeveloped and weak when it came to equipping the church to function as a multigenerational family.
My plan for this presentation is
- (1) to explain the two dynamics of family ministry for the purpose of accurately situating intergenerational ministry within the dynamic of church-as-family,
- (2) to examine the historical reasons for the decline of intergenerational connections in contemporary churches, and
- (3) to explore why youth and children’s ministers should prioritize a recovery of intergenerational connections.
- (4) Lastly, I will provide a tentative, revised definition for family ministry.
The historical exploration that follows is vital for this discussion because it demonstrates the inadequacy of a widely-accepted narrative in which the decline of intergenerationality in churches is attributed to secular influences, Darwinian thought, and the rise of youth ministry in the decades following the Second World War. In fact, the trajectory toward age-organized church programs began in early modernity and became solidified in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as Christian leaders worked to develop discipleship structures in contexts that had been reshaped by the Industrial Revolution.
What I will trace in this historical survey is the emergence in churches of two implicit assumptions that impede healthy intergenerational ministry. These two assumptions are
- (1) that discipleship is most effective when located primarily in gatherings that draw people together according to their age or interests, and,
- (2) that the church’s ministry structures are most effective when they are segmented into specialized components and performed by trained professionals.
I am not suggesting that everyone in every church embraces these two assumptions of segmentation and specialization. What I am contending is that one or both of these assumptions tend to be interwoven in differing degrees in the worldview of many congregants in Western cultures, particularly in evangelical churches in the United States.
My focus will be on church structures in the United States. This is not because I perceive American ecclesial practices to be more significant or more effective than those in the rest of the world (they are neither). It is because practices that are popularized and perceived as successful in American churches tend to be widely exported and replicated in other contexts. In many cases, this replication occurs without sufficient recognition that these practices are inextricably entwined with distinctly American assumptions such as the intercontextual transferability of successful organizational models, the prioritization of individual identity over communal identity, and the tendency to elevate individuals who are perceived to be visionary leaders. What I describe may not precisely describe your context or experiences. For that reason, I eagerly anticipate not only sharing with you but also hearing from you, so that all of us may gain a more comprehensive perspective that will move our practices of family ministry toward greater faithfulness in the contexts to which God has called us.
2. CHURCH-AS-FAMILY AND FAMILY-AS-CHURCH
Family-as-Church: Helping Each Family to Become Like a Little Church
The goal of the dynamic that I have dubbed “family-as-church” is to equip parents to disciple their children in the context of their daily lives together. What this means practically is that Christian households function as living microcosms of the larger community of faith, with families learning and living the gospel together. Martin Luther described the dynamic of family-as-church in this way:
Abraham had in his tent a house of God and a church, just as today any godly and pious head of a household instructs his children in … godliness. Therefore, such a house is actually a school and church and the head of the household is a bishop and priest in his house.
Great Awakening pastor Jonathan Edwards described the Christian household as “a little church” and declared that “the head of the family has more advantage in his little community to promote religion than ministers have in the congregation.” The assumption that believing parents should train their children in God’s precepts is woven throughout the pages of Scripture (see, for example, Exodus 12:25–28; Deuteronomy 6:6-7; 11:1–12; Psalm 78:1-7; Ephesians 6:4).
The dynamic of family-as-church is the one that I described in my initial definition of family ministry. What I neglected in that definition was a second dynamic, one that is essential for the development of healthy intergenerational ministries. That dynamic is “church-as-family.”
Church-as-Family: Helping the Church to Function as First Family
The goal of church-as-family is to enable God’s people to relate to one another more like a family, recognizing that the family of God constitutes a new humanity—a new tribe and nation of people—that fundamentally relativizes all other allegiances and identities. One aspect of what this means in practice is that the church is called to pursue ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic diversity. It also means that we are called to nurture one another within a rich matrix of intergenerational relationships. When this dynamic takes root in a church, children and teenagers whose parents aren’t believers find their lives intertwined with more mature believers who become spiritual parents and grandparents. Married couples mentor singles, and new parents learn child-rearing from empty nesters. The entire congregation works together to meet the needs of widows and orphans (James 1:27). The dynamic of church-as-family declares that, inasmuch as I am united with Jesus Christ and adopted in him, my first family includes anyone who does the will of our Father in heaven (Mark 3:35). “God, in Jesus’ great work of redemption, was not establishing a series of isolated personal relationships with his individual followers. He was creating a family of sons and daughters. The saving work of Christ therefore has a corporate, as well as an individual, dimension.”
In church-as-family ministry, the church draws people together each week in a family reunion wherein a multigenerational community unites around the proclamation of the gospel and the celebration of the sacraments. This glorious reunion declares to the world around us that the gospel of Jesus Christ is strong enough to shatter every division that stands between those who have embraced the good news of God’s kingdom in Christ. Jesus has broken the barriers between us on the basis of his own blood, and his Spirit has bonded us together in a manner that transcends human understanding (Ephesians 2:14–15; 4:1-6). Because of what Jesus has done to remove the barriers between us, the Holy Spirit of God, speaking through the words of Scripture, specifically calls for multi-generational connections among God’s people (Titus 2:1–5).
Part of the church’s witness to the world is that those who rub shoulders in the shadow of the cross should be precisely the people that the world would never dream of mingling together—sisters and brothers from many different ethnicities and generations and socioeconomic strata. This dynamic of church-as-family is the one that my initial definition of family ministry missed, and it is this dynamic that is most vital when it comes to intergenerational ministry.
This post is part 1 of a three-part series.
Which of these two dynamics—family-as-church or church-as-family—is strongest in your church? Why do you suppose that this dynamic stronger in your context? What could you do to strengthen the weaker of the two dynamics in your church?