Although the concepts behind family ministry are far from new, church-based family ministry has turned trendy in some circles over the past few years. After decades on the back burner of congregational life, family ministry has suddenly become a hot topic. Type “family ministry” into a search engine, and you computer is likely to crank out more than twenty-five million results in fewer than ten seconds. Conference after conference claims to provide congregations with the missing key that will enable the church’s staff to launch a lasting family ministry.
As a pastor and as a father, this renewed focus on family ministry is at once encouraging and frightening. It’s encouraging because many Christians seem to be regaining a biblical perspective on God’s vision for the role of parents. For too many years, churches and parents have encouraged paid professionals to take the primary role in the discipleship of children. This, even as research continues to reveal that—although other significant adults are also important—parents remain the most influential people in children’s spiritual, social, and behavioral development.
Why, then, does this new emphasis on family ministry also concern me? Simply this: In many cases, churches are focusing on family ministry as a reaction to dismal retention statistics. It has been repeatedly reported over the past few years that somewhere between 65% and 94% of churched youth drop out of church before their sophomore year of college. As a result, many congregations are shifting their ministry models not because of convictions that have grown from a seedbed of sustained scriptural and theological reflection. Instead, what motivates them is the supposed crisis of abysmal retention rates—a crisis that they plan to solve by launching a series of family ministry programs. Their focus on family ministry is a pragmatic reaction rooted in a desire for numbers with no standard by which to judge the results other than an increasing number of warm bodies.
In contrast, the goal of such congregations should be to develop a theologically-grounded, Scripturally-compelled perspective on family ministry and then to make Spirit-guided transitions in every ministry to move wisely toward this ministry model. Such shifts may increase the numbers that appear in the spreadsheet columns that summarize your congregation’s buildings, budgets, and bodies. Then again, these changes could have a negligible or even a negative effect on those numbers! But the spreadsheet numbers aren’t the point. From the perspective of the contributors to this text, biblical faithfulness in ministry to families is the goal.
Even if numeric gains were the goal, there is every reason to question the infamous statistics that point to overwhelming numbers of youth dropping out of church. For example, the highest of these percentages was drawn from an informal averaging of youth ministers’ “gut feelings” about retention rates in their ministries—not exactly reliable research methodology! Even the most robust survey mixed participants in ways that may have polluted the research results. Perhaps most significant of all is the simple fact that, even at their best, statistical outcomes are subject to change as new information comes to light. As a result, such numbers simply cannot provide sufficiently stable foundations or motivations for widespread change among the churches of God.
So in the end, family ministry is not the answer; family ministry will not fix your church’s problems; and, family ministry will not transform people’s lives.
The Gospel is what changes people—not programs or practices; not models or methods; but solely and only the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Every local church should be concerned first about how the Gospel is portrayed, presented, and practiced in the congregation. This includes considering how local congregations teach on the subjects of marriage and parenting and how they encourage and minister to families. Healthy families are not, however, the goal. To place anything as the church’s goal besides the glory of God experienced through the Gospel is to create an idol, and the idol of family ministry is no less loathsome to God than the orgiastic shrines of Canaan or the pantheon of ancient Rome. The believing household is a target for the enemy, but Christian families are not the answer to humanity’s problems. The Gospel is the answer. Our households are not targeted because Christian families are flawless families. Our households are targeted because they are God-ordained contexts where cross-centered, Gospel-empowered living can be constantly rehearsed and practiced. Through these day-by-day rehearsals of the Gospel, children and parents alike are trained in the fear of God.
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This excerpt comes from Trained in the Fear of God. Click here for more information.