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What do we mean when we say “family” ministry?

by: Trevecca Okholm

When I was first hired by a Christian university to develop and teach a course on “family ministry” I faced the challenge of putting into words the reality that when most churches say family ministry or when they decide hire a director to oversee family ministry, they don’t really have a concept nor a plan but just a general urgency to do something about the breakdown of family in western culture.  

Family Ministry may be the most misunderstood ministry in the church today, and with good reason. The position of family minister and family ministry is a relatively new phenomenon that came about in the last few decades of the twentieth century. Occurrences that contributed to the need for a specific ministry with and to families in the congregation came about primarily due to cultural influences and the church’s accommodation of rapid changes taking place in Western culture. (If you want to read more about these cultural influences and the church’s accommodation of western culture, check out some of the books listed at the bottom of this post.)

At the beginning of my course on “family ministry” I ask my students two questions: 

1) What do we mean when we say “family?” and 2) Who functions as “family” for you? The way we answer these questions tells a lot about how we will go about hiring for, and directing, family ministry.

When asked to define family how do you respond? In our culture today, most of us define family as nuclear family with two parents, 2.5 children, plus maybe a dog and a minivan. This is the way we have learned to see family today in spite of the fact that throughout most of recorded history this model of family never existed. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that this term was first used and came about for a myriad of reasons (Coontz, 2016); however, this model has come to define the way that most churches understand and plan for family ministry. And then there’s those pesky little comments made by Jesus way back in the first century such as Matthew 12: 46-50, “who is my mother, who are my brothers?”, which leads to the second question I ask my students, who functions as family for you?

Perhaps a more effective way to understand how the church does ministry with families is to begin defining the whole of the Christian community as the family of God and the church as our first family. (Clapp,1993)

Instead of the church asking what programs should we offer for families or who should we hire . . . a more important question for the church to ask might be what or who do we define as family or more to the point, what is our theology of family? An adequate theology of family is a relatively new area of theological reflection. (Guernsey, 1990)

Frankly, ministry with families, or family ministry, in the local church has come to be more associated with the social sciences than with theology. One reason for this is that our culture traditionally defines family as a noun. In the New Testament, family is primarily a verb. The infinitive form would be to family one another. That places the focus not on who we are (noun) but rather on how we relate to one another (verb).

So here’s something to challenge your thinking next time your church board gets together to plan for family ministry or hire a family pastor/director. Do you need to offer more programs aimed at fixing the nuclear family unit or do you want to put your emphasis on what it might mean to see ministry with the family of God . . . together? 

Contributed by Trevecca Okholm, adjunct professor of Practical Theology at Azuza Pacific University and author of Kingdom Family: Re-Envisioning God’s Plan for Marriage and Family and The Grand-parenting Effect: Bridging Generations One Story at a Time (Summer, 2020)

For further reading: 

Clapp, Rodney. Families at the Crossroads: Beyond Tradition and Modern Options. Downers Grove. IVP. 1993.

Coontz, Stephanie. The Way We Never Were. New York. Basic Books. 2016.

DeVries, Mark. Family-Based Youth Ministry. Downers Grove. IVP. 1994/2004.

Garland, Diana. Family Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide. (Downers Grove. IVP. 2012.

Guernsey, Dennis. Family Ministry and a Theology of the Family: A Personal Journey. Direction Journal. Spring, 1990. Vol. 19, No. 1, pp.3-11.

Jones, Timothy Paul. Perspectives on Family Ministry. Nashville. B&H. 2009.


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