Engaging the Whole Family Part 4: A Way Forward

In this series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) we have used the works of David Elkind, Diana Garland, and Marjorie Thompson to guide our reflections on discerning the family. We continue this reflection by turning to the challenges facing the family and their proposals for a way forward for the church to minister to families.

The Challenges
Elkind, a child psychologist, is concerned with the health of children in North America. He describes three major shifts in the roles of parents, children, adolescents that correspond to the modern to postmodern shift. Parenting in modernity was focused on intuition and technique in postmodernity. The view of the child changed from innocence in modernity to competence in postmodernity. The view of adolescents changed from immature in modernity to sophisticated in postmodernity. Elkind concludes that these shifts led to an imbalance of stress upon children and adolescents which he calls the “new morbidity” of youth (98-152).

Garland, a Christian social worker, is primarily concerned about the faith of families. She is informed by Craig Dykstra’s work in faith practices when she engages the particular stories of families. She finds that the challenges facing the faith practices of families are busy schedules, lack of training of parents, lack of knowledge of Scripture, competing values within a family, and different levels of personal faith in the family (127-198).

Thompson suggests one of the main obstacles to the faith development of families is the church. She writes, “What I am suggesting is the communal church and the domestic church need to recapture a vision of the Christian family as a sacred community. This will require an awareness of the ‘sacred’ in the ‘secular,’ of God in the flesh of human life (20-21).”

A Modest Proposal
Elkind, Garland, and Thompson all suggest a way forward for the family and I believe that youth and family pastors can find a generous and faithful way forward in their collective proposals. In bullet points here are some suggested movements forward….

  • Elkind suggests a concept called the “vital family.” The vital family values include emotional ties of committed love (a movement beyond intimate love and mutual engagement), authentic parenting (blend of parenting out of intuition and technique), interdependence (blend of autonomy and togetherness) and a balance of unilateral and mutual authority.
  • Elkind suggests a reinvention of adulthood. This reinvention includes parents appropriately exercising authority and sharing space with children and adolescents. This space sharing includes the development of safe environments for children to grow in competence and teens to grow in sophistication.
  • Garland and Thompson suggest that the local church is integral in teaching families the practice of faith. They call for the church to see their role as learning community for families of faith.
  • Garland suggests the informal teaching moments for faith in families are found in the dark moments of death and conflict.

I find hope in these suggestions. I believe that God can choose the local church in these days to lead families forward into God’s mission. The church by God’s grace can practice space sharing with youth in our corporate worship. In humility, the church has the opportunity to publicly seek Christian ways of resolving the conflict as a way to train families. We can learn together what it means to seek God in the dark moments of life. We can practice the values of the vital family through Christian faith practices. We can provide space for families to learn and serve together. We can extend the call to all families to enter into God’s saving embrace in Christ as a way forward for their family.

More Resources:

Parent Journey Series

Practicing Our Faith


Photo credit: Capt Kodak

Engaging the Whole Family Part 3: What is the Family?

The value of defining the family for our contemporary context is that it gives us orientation in our engagement. If we can’t name the thing that we encounter, how can we have a meaningful experience? We have a word for God that has some meaning, and that concept seems a lot more complex than family.

So tell me, what is the family? I want to know because, for the life of me, I can’t find one definition that does justice to the multiple realities of family that I experience. For example, I’ve seen heads of households be single, biological parents, biological grandparents with single parents, two biological parents, two legal parents with no biological relation, one legal parent with no biological relation, two legal parents who are also the biological uncle and aunt, and the list could go on. And then try to account for sibling relationships, and I almost want to give up on ever finding a definition.

But what if we moved away from a sociological or structural definition? What if we tried a theological definition?

Here is my stab at it:

Family – a supportive and formative group of people, connected through a common biological lineage or covenant, who are meant to learn and practice the worship of God through their relationships with God, each other, and the world.

Does that definition sound familiar? I hope so because the definition is derived from a definition of the church. And here is my bias in favor of this definition. I think the church is called to be the family of faith for the world.

I also think the definition helps youth and family ministers imagine that the goal of families is to become, in the words of Jonathan Edwards, “little churches.” And the concept of families becoming little churches corresponds to Diana Garland’s sociological research of more than 100 families. Her research revealed faith practices as an essential element of family life. As a complement to that research, Marjorie Thompson’s book argues that spiritual formation naturally happens in families in both positive and negative ways. Therefore, we can conclude that families are going to worship something. It is the role of the church to be the family of faith that invites them into the worship of God.

Questions to Consider:
What is your definition of family?
What do you think about the above definition of family?
What do we do with this definition of family?

Photo credit: greenpin

Engaging the Whole Family Part 2: Nuclear Family

Let’s get this bit o’ info out of the way. The nuclear family is depicted as two parents bonded together in a love-based marriage with biological children. The nuclear family is also referred to as the “domestic family.” Some even refer to the nuclear family as the “traditional family,” as though it has been the longest-enduring family structure in history. And some even hold up the nuclear family as the goal of Christian relationships.

However, the nuclear family is not the longest-enduring family structure, and it is most certainly not the family structure throughout biblical history. In fact, it has only been in the last 200 years that the “traditional” family has emerged. In regards to the love-based marriage, Stephanie Coontz writes, “It took more than 150 years to establish the love-based, male breadwinner marriage as the dominant model in North America and Western Europe. It took less than 25 years to dismantle it (247).”

What’s the point of all this talk about the nuclear family? The point is that it is not biblical to hold up the nuclear family as the goal of Christian relationships for youth and families. Diana Garland argues that nuclear family terms like parent, child, brother, and sister are used in Scripture but not to limit familial relations to the nuclear family. Instead, they are terms God’s people use to relate to others across social and cultural boundaries of family units. Naomi and Ruth are a great example of this use of the language. Jesus is another great example when he points to his family being a community of God’s people (Mark 3:33-35).

David Elkin’s work reveals that there has been a major shift in the structure of the family that corresponds to the shift from the modern period to the postmodern period. He suggests that the best way to describe the family unit in the postmodern context is “permeable.” This type of family structure is neither good nor bad—it is simply contextual.

Marjorie Thompson takes us one step further and suggests that we embrace all family structures in the life of the church. She argues that all families are called to learn the way of God from the church. She adds that it is the church’s responsibility to teach families how to practice the means of grace that are common to it (acceptance, encouragement, loving challenge, forgiveness, reconciliation, and hospitality) in Christian ways.

A transformational approach to youth ministry will engage all family structures as being a place where God can work and transform all members into Christ followers. In this approach we must not slip into the habit of offering one family structure as the biblical solution to family challenges.


Photo Credit: Carl Zoch

Engaging the Whole Family Part 1

Reality TV is often an amusing form of entertainment.  We sit back and are entertained by the shock factor of Wife Swap, where contradictory family value systems collide in quite amusing ways.  Then there was the Osbourne family, who for a short period, appeased the guilt of many families with their previously unimaginable level of dysfunction.  Finally there is the hard nosed quasi-Mary Poppins from Great Britain, Jo Frost (a.k.a. Supernanny), that will put little kids on the “naughty step” in order to right the wrongs of poor parenting in the United States.  And though laughter is what usually flows from these shows, there is an eery feeling that these “reality” programs feel more like a mirror of the North American family then a sensationalized depiction.

In the midst of such depictions of family in the entertainment media, youth and family ministers are left wondering, “What is the family?  What happened to it?  How can we engage the whole family in Christ-like ways?”

I want to suggest three resources that can help you wrestle through these questions.

  • David Elkind, Ties That Stress: The New Family Imbalance
  • Diana Garland, Sacred Stories of Ordinary Families
  • Marjorie J. Thompson, Family the Forming Center: A Vision of the Role of Family in Spiritual Formation

Over the next two weeks we will engage some of the insights of each of these works as we continue to seek meaningful ways to engage the whole family as God’s story-formed people.

Questions to Consider:
How do you define the family?
What are the central challenges facing families today?
What resources have helped shape your engagement with families?

Photo credit: photon_de