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All in the Family

Larry Shallenberger

Get the inside scoop on the top 3 family ministry models-and discover which one is right for your church.

You're convinced: It's time to get into the family ministry game. But where to start? Countless ministry models abound, and each one claims it'll reunite families, reverse the decline of Evangelicalism, inoculate children against secular humanism, and combat a host of ills you didn't even know you had. You need the savvy to see past the hype and choose a model that fits your church to empower families to become faith-incubators. Here's your smart shopper's guide.

FAMILY-INTEGRATION MODEL
The Family-Integration Model advocates it was no accident that at the same time the American church perfected age-segmented children's and youth ministry models, the emerging generations began dropping out of church as soon as they left home. These pastors observed parents abdicating their personal investment in their children's spiritual development. It was just too easy to hand off their children to the ministry "specialists."

As a result, family-integrated churches operate free of any age-and-stage divisions. You won't see nurseries, children's or youth classrooms, singles or college groups. The church is a "family of families." As such, they worship together. Many of these churches host weekly community meals immediately after worship. These meals are learning labs where children contribute to the meal and glean wisdom by listening to the adult conversation.

These churches place a premium on strong male leadership in the church and family. Fathers receive extra discipleship, reading lists, and instruction so they're taught how to provide spiritual leadership for the home.

Strengths This model offers simplicity. Equip the family to be the family, and skip the complexities of operating children's and youth ministries. Census data reveals our culture is blighted with absentee fathers; so engaged fathers lack models on how to lead their families. A training program can offer these men direction. Two-parent families and homeschooling families will find a supportive community with like-minded people.

Weaknesses Non-traditional families will have a hard time finding a place in churches that adopt a Family-Integration Model. Single moms might feel conspicuously different in a church whose ministry strategy is built on two-parent families. Children or youth with unchurched parents must be taken in by a member family to find a place at church. Census data reveals disparity on ethnic and economic lines as to whether children are being raised in single or two-parent homes, so this model has little hope of gaining traction in urban settings.

The Family-Integration Model also depends on theological assumptions that aren't universally accepted: namely, a patriarchal view of family leadership and a conviction that today's churches may only organize themselves using the biblical examples found in the New Testament. (For the family integrationist, a children's ministry isn't extra-biblical, it's unbiblical, and therefore destructive).

Final Assessment Einstein said that an idea should be made as simple as it can be and then no more. This model crosses the line from being simple to being simplistic. A quick reading of Genesis reveals that the same God who instituted and defined family also collected fantastically dysfunctional families and gave them key roles. Family ministers must live with the tension of upholding the biblical standard and providing loving triage for families who don't fit the mold. The Family-Integration Model doesn't embody this tension enough to be effective.

FAMILY-FRIENDLY DEPARTMENTAL MODEL
The family integrationists make one strong point: When a church offers high-powered children's and youth ministries with bells, whistles, and over-promising mission statements, it's hard for parents not to view these departments as their children's spiritual growth specialists. Many parents do make the assumption that if they get their children to church, these programs will bear the weight of their child's spiritual development. Parents are time-starved and stressed, so the myth that placing their child in the "God-box" for an hour a week to get the job done has strong appeal.

Children's and youth leaders see this trend and many have adapted by making their departments family-friendly. These ministers view parents as the primary faith influencers of children and are working to help families see children's and youth ministries as supplemental helps.

Family-Friendly Departments don't scale back their age-specific programs. Instead they seek to multiply the value of parents' current efforts. Take-home pages accompany the curriculum. Special events intended to connect parents and their children dot the calendar. Occasional parent training classes provide help with discipline and communication.

Strengths The Family-Friendly Departmental Model has the potential to connect with many families. Single moms might find an adult Sunday school class with exactly what they're looking for. Unchurched children can arrive at church and find a place designed just for them. Age-segmentation allows for a learner-based approach. After all, the developmental needs of a 3-year-old are radically different from those of a 10-year-old, which are, in turn, radically different from those of a 40-year-old. Churches committed to family-friendly departments can have it both ways. Church can be a compelling and inviting place for children, and parents can find help to spiritually nourish their kids.

Weaknesses The Family-Friendly Departmental Model takes steps to keep parents from a "drop-off" approach to their child's spiritual development. However, there are some vulnerabilities in the model. It's still entirely possible for parents to treat the children's ministry as a drop-off. Even though this model may provide resources for giving parents options for engaging their children, these options are invitations that can be accepted or declined.

Providing parents with a unified vision and strategy for Christian parenting becomes a challenge. It's possible that a parent could hear one parenting philosophy from the children's pastor, a second from the youth pastor, and two others from the preaching pastor and the leader running the parenting class. There's no structure in the organizational model to ensure parents will receive a single parenting strategy that's grounded in biblical wisdom and able to span from birth to graduation.

This lack of alignment creates opportunity for a decidedly family-unfriendly situation: over-programming. Without a "central nervous system" coordinating events and programs, it's possible for churches to keep families too busy. Multiple events can clog a parent's calendar, especially when that parent has children spread out over departments.

Final Assessment Even with its limitations, the Family-Friendly Departmental Model can be adapted into most churches. Formally aligning several ministries around a common goal is a formidable task for an inexperienced staff person or one who hasn't been at a church very long. If you're in this position, the Family-Friendly Departmental Model allows you to make advances in your own area without having to win over your senior pastor or other staff. Over time, you'll create a model of ministry to families that other departments in your church might choose to emulate.

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