Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Redefining Family

Is this the picture of a normal American family? White people happily frolicking through a field together? Mom and dad with two kids, all smiles?

Jumping off an idea from Marko's recent post on family ministry, something Andy Root said about the future of youth ministry struck me:
In the next few decades youth ministry will need to face the following: a way to actually work with families in a very complicated familial cultural locale, a way of dealing with pluralism–being able to claim the particularity of Jesus without it sliding into rigidity, and to find a robust theological position that connects revelation (the way we understand God’s revealing presence) with our practices and strategies of day to day ministry.
That phrase, "very complicated familial cultural locale," just jumps out to me. Why? Because the definition of family has changed.

To do great family ministry, we have to understand the changing climate of the family system. We need to understand a new normal. In our culture, "normal" families aren't mother + father + 2.5 kids, all living in the same house. "Normal" doesn't mean "has a basic understanding of Christianity, church, and the Bible."

A new normal includes:

  • Divorced families
  • Single parents
  • Step parents
  • Blended families
  • Adopted kids
  • Step- and half-siblings
  • Extended family living together, including grandparents and aunts/uncles
  • Gay and lesbian parents
  • Foster parents
  • Multiethnic families
  • Multiple faiths/religions in one family
The new normal is all over our media. The popular TV shows Modern Family, Parenthood, and Glee; recent films like The Kids Are All Right, Winter's Bone, and Despicable Me (family = one dad, three adopted girls, and thousands of pill-shaped minions); and articles like this one all point to the shifts in the American family system.

The question is, how does the church grow in cultural intelligence in order to minister in the new climate? I'm not even going to pretend like I have all the answers, but here are a few thoughts:

Listen well. Listen to children, students, and adults about their family experience. Don't make assumptions about the "normal" of a family until you've taken time to get to know them. It takes teachability and a willingness to hear parents and kids about their own unique experience. Enjoy a meal with a family and listen to their stories.

Foster a culture of belonging. For youth ministry, create a safe environment for students to share about their family experience. For the greater church, intentionally pursue creating a culture where all families would genuinely feel welcome, not just families of a certain demographic. This requires knowing what different families feel and value. Avoid making blanket statements about families. Get to know families that aren't like yours, not out of some marketing strategy to become more diverse, but because the incarnational Gospel compels you.

Suffer together. Tolstoy put it this way: "all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." When we suffer together with families who have lost a parent, a child, gone through divorce, are struggling financially, or experiencing a myriad of other trials, we do well to enter into their suffering with them.

Celebrate the family of God. In the kingdom, God is our Father and we are His dearly loved children. It's a beautiful truth that transcends cultures, generations, and dysfunctional family dynamics. We've all got our flaws. We're all awkward in some way. We all desperately need grace from God and for each other.


  1. Great thoughts. I really like Andrew Root. If you have not read his stuff you should!

    In a time where culture trends are far exceeding church cultures we the church can't miss this one or we will miss a ton. The things I have to fight the most are assuming and shock. I grew up in a relatively "normal" home. Dad+Mom= Brother, sister, and me. That's what I know. When I find out "not normal" situations that my students are in I have to fight the gasp that wants to come out. It's crazy out there and any normal we think we know needs to go. Understanding the different worlds we are ministering to is critical.

    Thanks Joel for the reminder!

  2. Your insight & timing is greatly appreciated. I am dealing with a host of non -traditional family issues in my "original" family right now. One baby just weeks away from being born to my niece with her, her boyfriend & his toddler son all living with my retired sister. A temporary custody issue being decided literally as I write this regarding the fate of another niece who @ 5 yrs old has changed schools 3 times this year & has 2 baby 1/2 brothers. These kids are going to need family, ministries & shepherds who think "outside the box" & can love them as only one who has Christ can.

  3. This is an essay worth passing on to many of my pastor colleagues as you name very clearly the shift that has happened in our culture -- a shift that churches and youth ministries seem slow to embrace. Thanks for summing it up so well.

  4. Very solid post. The new normal isn't normal, whatever that really used to be! Good ideas on how to navigate through new family situations. Well done... but with challenges ahead.

  5. @mike - I'm with you on the temptation to gasp, or even just mutter "whoa...okay..." when complex family circumstances come up.

    @Dawn - sounds complicated, but I love the hope in your final sentence!

    @Brian - thanks for the encouragement, and hope the post can offer some great insights and conversation-starters to those pastors!

    @Jon - thanks for the encouraging comment!