Why Congregations Do Family Ministry
Families are one of the most significant contexts in which people attempt to live the principles of their religious faith. The Roman Catholic Church officially declared at Vatican II, "The family is not merely like the Church, but is truly Church." Learning to live justly and lovingly with family members is a challenging daily discipline. When congregations provide education and support programs for families, they are, in essence, providing spiritual guidance. Learning to discipline children wisely, lovingly, and effectively is not simply a way that parents can be more effective parents, but is also an expression of their religious beliefs about what it means to be parents. In short, congregations do family ministry in order to help people live their faith, even and especially in their most intimate relationships.
Second, religious congregations have a mission of service. For Christians, serving people who live in poverty or are otherwise in need is one of the most significant ways of expressing love for God. In the words of Jesus Christ, "whoever welcomes a children like this in my name welcomes me" (Matthew 18:5 New International Version); those who welcome strangers, provide clothing and food to those in need, and visit the sick and imprisoned are doing these thing for Jesus himself (see Matthew 25:31–46).
For centuries, religious congregations were often the only places that families in poverty or in crisis could find help. Members of congregations often informally adopted children orphaned by war and disease. In the aftermath of the American Civil War, so many children were orphaned that individual families could not absorb them, and churches began opening children's homes, especially in the South.
In the early twentieth century, the social work profession began as middle-class women volunteers from congregations started to serve as friendly visitors, visiting poor women and their families, often immigrants, to offer encouragement and support. Many of the first settlement houses designed to serve as community centers in slums were staffed and supported by members of congregations who served as an expression of religious vocation. Although not called family ministry, all of these efforts, and many others, had the same purpose—to encourage and strengthen families, and to care for children when their families could not.
In the mid-twentieth century, a second impetus arose for the flurry of programs that came to be called family ministry, however. There has been increasing concern over the growing fragility of family relationships not only in the larger culture, but also within congregations. Since the 1940s, American congregational leaders have been sounding a warning. The Christian family magazine Home Life was first published in 1947 by the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention. In introducing this new publication, Clifton J. Allen, executive secretary of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board, wrote:
Your heart beats with the conviction, "There's no place like home." But one out of five homes crashes on the rocks of divorce. Family life is being blighted by strong drink, lust, and worldly pleasure. Happiness is driven from literally millions of homes by misunderstanding, selfishness, irreligion, and ignorance. The home front is under siege. This peril is a call to action. Fathers and mother must awake to their God-given privilege and responsibility. Churches must grasp their supreme opportunity to help parents build virile Christian homes. . . . Our homes demand and deserve our best. They are at the center of God's plan. . . . They are the fountain of our nation's life. They are set to preserve the heritage of civilization and to perpetuate the ideals of godliness. (p. 1)
Similar alarms were sounded in other Christian denominations as well. In the mid-twentieth century, when the divorce rate rose to almost one out of two marriages, denominations and congregations began a number of initiatives to shore up family life: publications, marriage preparation, marriage enrichment, parent education programs, and family counseling.
The first marriage enrichment and encounter programs began in Spain in the Roman Catholic Church and rapidly spread to the United States. From Rome, Catholic leaders began advocating taking a family perspective in planning, implementing, and evaluating policies, programs, ministries, and services of the church.
Finally, some congregations have used family ministry programs as marketing tools—a way of reaching out and bringing others into the congregation. People who will not come to a worship service will come to a course that addresses the stresses of living. People will come use the church gymnasium when they will not come to a Bible study.
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