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Families - Something to Celebrate: Part 2

By Joan King.

Part I is available here!

Getting Practical

All of us are sons or daughters who may hold several roles in the family - child, sibling, spouse, parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, niece or nephew, cousin. Most of us belong to three or four generation families which live in a number of households and are sometimes geographically spread. In our churches, we talk about being family and we value our own families highly. Being realistic however, we know how easy it is to be locked into the maintenance of existing church activity. Encouraging and maintaining all age worship is difficult enough, without being practical community as well. Then there are the crises to handle and with current pressures on family life there are plenty of them.

What more can a local church do?

Let's begin with the realities. Despite the battering that family life has taken in Britain in recent years, family is durable. We can celebrate with and affirm the elderly at their golden and diamond weddings. Let them share their stories. There must be some lessons for younger adults there. The changing demograph means that there are more older people, many of them,especially women, living alone. There is also an increase in singleness, though not necessarily in celibacy. In addition increasing numbers of couples are unable to conceive children.

The reality is that the traditional nuclear family of married couple with children is a minority household in Britain. However the vast majority of children are in two parent families with large numbers of babies being registered by both parents. Lifestyles are such that while families might live under the same roof they hardly live together, each living an individualistic lifestyle with their own TV, PC or CD. People live and pass like ships in the night.

Divorce is a fact of life though numbers decreased by 7000 in 1994. This figure does not include the number of cohabitees who separated. As the numbers of cohabiting couples increase so the number of separations rises but they are not reflected in the figures. Serial marriage and serial cohabitation are facts of life. Reordered families are often misunderstood though with support they may well be a route towards new and complex forms of extended family.

Families are damaged. All are broken to a greater or lesser degree. They are under social and moral threat and have been under enormous pressure from the speed of social, political and environmental change. But they are still here - almost two-thirds of marriages do last 'till death us do part'. Families care, keeping in touch by telephone even if visits are not possible. A close look at any family will, I believe, reveal something to celebrate - for example, the love and determination of many lone parents to bring up children against the odds.

As we develop the family ministry of the local church, it is important to recognise that those who belong to the Christian family, and those who do not, are all struggling with the realities of being family people. Family realities together with a vision of family in the purposes of God, combine to give us starting points for action as well as direction and purpose. Christ died for the redemption of human structures as well as for individuals. There is hope for all families whatever their shape. This hope may be fuelled through the development of open, relating and supportive family life which requires education, training, pastoral support, care, appropriate political action and advocacy. To enable this to happen, a local church with GodÕs guidance and help might develop and structure its life to be more family friendly, with activities that promote the prevention of crises, the support of those with difficulties, and the growth of relationships including relationship with God.

Local Knowledge

Knowledge of local household demography, services and provision in the wider community will be vital. No doubt there will be opportunities for cooperating with others, eg town-wide initiatives on supporting elderly people through Help the Aged. A survey of the congregation will reveal how much the church is doing while dispersed through work into the wider community. A survey of expertise, paid and unpaid work may reveal a surprising amount of family ministry going on unrecognised by the church. For example involvement in Pre-school Learning Alliance groups, through work in the health and caring services, in life-skills education, family law and homemaking, are family ministry. There may be services that the church wants to provide in cooperation with others. Most churches are involved in youth work. How many see this as an aspect of family ministry? Supporting young people through the family-life-stage of leaving in order to move towards cleaving is family ministry. The exploration of relationships and sexuality in ways sensitive to the pressures that young people are under, together with Christian understandings of these things, is vitally important. Over eight hundred young people turned up at a Greenbelt workshop which I led called '101 things to say on a first date', and this was in the 1990's! Providing a safe environment to discuss such subjects is important. Are the churches helping young people to discover good reasons for keeping genital intimacy for marriage? Here I am thinking of reasons which make sense to them and encourage a thoughtful faith.

Knowing the local situation and the networks with which a local church may work, as well as resource people in the wider community, is part of a vital strategy for nurturing family life through the work of the local church.

Family Life Spiral

Having gathered data about the local situation, resource people, contacts and networks, a church wanting to plan to educate and train its members and those in the community for family life, for living more christianly in relationship, might find the family life spiral a helpful model for ascertaining what might be done.

The family life spiral places the individual into family beginning with the birth family. It takes families at different stages of the family life spiral and considers what is happening to individuals as well as the whole unit at that stage. So, a baby is born to parents, probably into a nuclear unit which may be part of more extended family living in different households. If this stage of family life, ie the family adjusting to having a baby in it, is considered in terms of the transitions which are having to be made as well as the adjustments and the skills necessary for making that transition then some clues are given as to what might be appropriate in terms of education and training for that stage of family life. Similarly pastoral care needs of a specific nature may be ascertained. At each stage of the life spiral there will be knowledge and skills necessary for handling the transitions to be made at that stage.

Looking at the family life spiral one sees that individuals move from being part of a birth family through to creating their own unit (while remaining members of their birth families) through to grandparenting and to family in old age. That unit is following a spiral in which previous units of the same family have travelled. A single person follows the family life spiral being born into a birth family and leaving to form a close network of friends. The family life spiral gives us clues for common areas of education and training that will enable people to make transitions through the stages of their family lives. These include communication skills, empathy skills, listening skills, parenting and grandparenting skills, negotiation skills, caring skills. The acquisition of these, together with further self understanding in relation to other people and to God, is essential if people are to stay in family and to experience home life as God intended and calls us towards. There are resources available to help churches in their education and training ministries for family life. These include people resources such as those with skills for training trainers, ie those in churches who may take on a training or education role, as well as printed resources such as those which come from the Family Caring Trust and the Scripture Union Training Unit. Other resources, such as 'Belonging', a resource manual from the Baptist Union, will help a church to gain an overview of family life in and outside church, and to look at things from a Scriptural perspective.

The encouragement of hospitality and the sharing of practical skills are important. They develop mutuality and enable people to affirm and be affirmed. Training people to enable and encourage others in their family lives helps them to be salt and light in the ordinariness of life. The ability to spot opportunities can be developed - eg building friendships at school gates, creating opportunities for parent groups to meet and explore parenting issues may be linked to a school PTA. One person known to me invited her post-natal group to continue meeting once their babies were born. Friendships were built, not only with the mothers and their babies, but with spouses where they existed. A monthly coffee morning developed in which people explored issues of common concern and generally supported each other. Social activities developed and spouses joined in. Christians naturally shared their values and beliefs through normal discussions and conversation. Eighteen years later, the parents still meet from time to time. Some have become Christians and joined churches in different parts of the country. In several cases the mother has joined the church and the father not. Others have remained in friendship but not stepped over into faith relatedness. The young people have gone in different directions but they have a friendship network from early childhood.

One church wanting to reach out to the community and to its own families, having leafleted all houses asking for areas of concern, planned a winter series of education and training events for parishioners. The course that developed included why families are important from the Christian faith perspective; understanding of self as a family person; the development of family life; communicating and listening in families; parenting roles; caring roles in families; surviving divorce, etc. What became clear as the course progressed was that working in this area of family raised very deep and personal issues for some people. Fortunately, this had been foreseen and the pastoral care network was in place so that families and individuals wanting help were supported. There is a principle here about education, training and pastoral care people working in cooperation with each other.

Those who attended the evening course at this church not only grew in their understanding and were helped with specific issues in relation to their own family lives, but also experienced the development of their community as friendships and networks were established. And fifty per cent of the participants were from non-church families.

A Summary

Family is God's intention for us, but family is a fallen institution which comes in many different forms today.

God calls us towards his coming kingdom and to work with today's dynamic in ways that will enable people to grow and develop in and through their family relationships.

Our current situation means that families are small; many people live alone and have few kinsfolk. There is an urgent need to help people to create small networks of friends, including different households, and to be family for each other. In churches this may be developed through housegroups that include children.

A local church is a family of families and is a sign of God's kingdom for the world. The families of Christians are vulnerable and share that vulnerability with non-church families. All families need support at some time, and all will be able to give to the wider community. The task of the local church is to help prevent what are normal difficulties at specific stages of the family life cycle from becoming crises. Prevention is better than cure. The local church also needs to have pastoral care support available when needed, and to create a climate in which it is OK to ask for help. The church also has a vital role in terms of extreme trouble, but it is important not to work with a crisis culture that responds only to problems.

Education includes Bible exploration, and it is important that in learning opportunities, including the sermon and housegroups, family life issues are on the agenda and Scriptural norms are explored in relation to them.

Knowing the resource people available as well as local specialists, is important. Recognising and affirming the work of those supporting families through their work and homemaking, encourages individuals and the whole church.

Networking may well be a way forward. For instance, the Churches Together for Families Group is working on marriage preparation materials for the various denominations to use. How wonderful it would be if churches could organise these courses together in a locality, perhaps linked to a community college, rather than preparing people primarily for the marriage service of one denomination.

There are resource materials available to help with different aspects of family ministry. Some of these may be found in the resource library of Scripture Union.

There are some issues around family about which Christians feel deeply and disagree. It is important that open, honest debate continues, and that families see the churches working with integrity to help make sense of experiences in the light of our developing understanding of families and of Scripture. Wrestling with questions raised by experience and our traditional understandings of Scripture is healthy.

The family agenda for the local church is massive but it need not mean lots of extra activity. What may be necessary is a shift in focus from individuals to the families to which they belong, so that individuals may enjoy greater unity in diversity. To engage in continuing family ministry requires continued awareness of and sensitivity to the churches locality and its families. Plans, policies and strategies are necessary as we cooperate with God in answering the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, 'Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven'. This will involve churches together in being prophetic, pastoral and prayerful.

O Father, Son and Spirit

the family divine,

inspire us by your unity

our lives to intertwine.

Creator, overshadow us!

Descend, O holy dove!

Our Saviour, make earth's families

communities of love!

Andrew Body 1994


Joan King works as a Consutant and Trainer with the Scripture Union Family Training Unit.

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You are reading Families - Something to Celebrate: Part 2 by Joan King, part of Issue 8 of Ministry Today, published in October 1996.

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