Family Ministry Will Never Work Unless … What truly impacts families and what doesn’t

Featured Articles / Mar/Apr 2014 //


While much of the dialog today would make one think that “family ministry” is a new discovery, it’s been around in various forms for a long time. (It was certainly needed way back when Adam and Eve first found out that brothers don’t always get along.) We remember discussing family ministry over 30 years ago in seminary. Sadly, while much has been attempted over the years, not every effort has proven to have positive or lasting impact. In fact, back in that seminary class, our professor had us skip a chapter on multi-generational Sunday school, because “we tried that years ago and it was a dismal failure.”

Then one might ask, “Why do we have so much emphasis on family ministry today?” It might be because we’ve spent the past four decades making children’s ministry into a fine art. Our churches have never delivered more creative and engaging ministries to more children than we do now. But at the same time, we’re losing children and families from our churches more quickly than ever before. Not all good intentions are created equally. So today, we’re trying out “family ministry.” Will this trend impact families the way we intend it to? It all depends.

Family ministry will never work unless …

Leaders of the church are appropriately transparent about their own families. 

When we don’t honestly share some of our real-life struggles, people get the impression that our marriages and children are perfect! Followers don’t follow for very long when they see the leader as so far superior to themselves that s/he is beyond reach. We want a leader to be ahead of us, but not out of sight.

Most young parents are insecure. By definition, they lack experience in marriage and parenting. Like the rest of us, they have frequent failures in both of these critical areas. And they feel they will never measure up to church leaders who appear to “have it all together.” Young men are especially prone to giving up when the standard is so high that it makes them feel incompetent.

In reality, we all struggle, we all need help, and we all lead imperfect lives. A fellow-struggler can better lead the way to a healthy family. Calvin Miller in The Empowered Leader says, “Great leaders are not those who have worked their way up to personal confidence. Nor do they see themselves as God’s ready achievers in this world. Spiritual leaders only appear to be giants to others. To themselves they are in desperate need of God. There is no leader quite so powerful as a spiritually needy leader.”

Paul calls leaders of the church to be examples to the flock, but in humility, not by sanitizing the view from the pew. I Peter 5:1-5 “exhorts” spiritual leaders to “shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock … with humility toward one another.”

Family ministry will never work unless …

The senior pastor is engaged in family ministry personally.

While the leadership as a whole needs to model family life, the senior leadership must be actively involved in the ministry to families. Whether we like it or not, it’s a fact that where the senior pastor places value, the congregation follows.

The family is essential to the future of the church and the church is critical to the future of the family. In Children at Risk, Gary Bauer and James Dobson name the church and family as the last two pillars of our culture and report that if one falls, the other will topple. Is it any wonder, therefore, that family ministry is under spiritual attack and more prone to cultural collapse than any other area of ministry? Perhaps, that’s why for family ministry to work, it requires the senior pastor’s full-fledged endorsement more than any other.

But don’t misunderstand us. We aren’t saying that the senior pastor needs to attend six more meetings each week. Yes, s/he needs to attend, promote and be fully engaged in some of the training and mentoring programs, but the senior pastor must first and foremost be ministering well to his or her own family. Scripture calls church leaders to be “good managers of their children and their own households” (I Timothy 3:12). To be fully engaged in family ministry, the senior pastor might let it be known that he is skipping a church meeting to take his wife out for a romantic dinner or to take his child to a baseball game … because that is true family ministry!

Family ministry will never work unless …

We stop thinking of family ministry as a program.

One of the most frequent questions we get from children’s ministry leaders today is, “What is the best curriculum to use for family ministry?” While users can share great pluses of one publisher or another, the reality is that family ministry is not a program and it is not driven by curriculum.

Instead, family ministry needs to be a lifestyle, a way of thinking, a value that threads its way through all we do as children’s leaders. In fact, most traditional children’s ministry positions need to be totally re-thought. As we’ve made children’s ministry into an art form, we’ve turned parents into “customers.” We need to recognize that children’s ministry is family ministry and family ministry is best done by families. So our role is to support families, not replace them or be in competition with them.

What does this look like? Children’s ministry that sees itself as family ministry will …

  • Reduce programming, rather than increase it. It’s time to give families back time to be families.
  • Equip parents to do the work, instead of doing it for them.Spend more time teaching parents how to share Christ and less time doing it for them.
  • Have less of an agenda, and more relationships. Instead of teaching the content of a lesson, try spending time with families to learn together as we journey through life.

Many, many churches have renamed their children’s ministry department to somehow include the word “family.” But family ministry is not children’s ministry or Christian education with a new name. While the goals may be very similar, the strategies are worlds apart.

Family ministry will never work unless …

Family ministry becomes the DNA of every department of the church.

In many churches, there is an ongoing battle about who “owns” family ministry. Children’s pastors, youth ministers, adult leaders, women’s directors, and senior pastors all want a piece of the action. While this battle bubbles below the surface (or sometimes above it), family ministry will never work. Every department of the church must understand that supporting families and the concept of family is essential to its success, including the single adult ministry!

A biblical view of family is essential to our spiritual health. Why else would God call himself our “Father” who “predestined us to adoption” (Ephesians 1:1, 5)? There is nothing so enmeshed with our spirituality as our relationships, especially our family relationships. Because “family” is so complex, pretty much anything and everything that happens at church somehow touches the family.

When every ministry of the church has family ministry at its core and supports the family, church looks different.

  • More opportunities are given for families of all shapes and sizes to worship, fellowship, learn and grow together.
  • Time is allowed for intergenerational discussions, recognizing that both older saints and children bring great value to the church.
  • The church calendar is reviewed by leaders for stress placed on the family, not just for which events win and get prime rooms.
  • When age-specific ministries are offered, they are held on the same day and at the same time, so families are not out on multiple nights.
  • Church leaders guard one or more nights where no church programs demand family members to be onsite.
  • Adult ministries don’t expect childcare services so that their events are bigger, if the children’s leadership thinks the kids would be better served at home.
  • And the children’s leadership doesn’t give a half-hearted effort at providing childcare for adult events, but instead supports the growth of adults while blessing kids with great activities.

Yes, family ministry will never work unless …

We re-think the whole subject right back to the Bible.

If we truly believe in balance of the family (Deuteronomy 6) and the family of God (Titus 2), then we need to take care of our own families, set a good example by revealing our personal journeys honestly, be involved with other families in the church, and work cooperatively with the other ministries as a whole. In Parenting is Heart Work, Scott Turansky and Joanne Miller share, “The reality is that God does miracles in people’s lives every day. God’s Word molds adults’ character regularly, and the Holy Spirit can change even the most stubborn or rebellious person into someone who emulates Christ … God is in the business of changing people, and He uses parents as a primary tool to facilitate that change in children’s lives”

Our goal is still the same—to bring the children of God, no matter what their age, to fullness of Christ Jesus. Family ministry can do that, if we focus on what truly impacts families!

Gordon and Becki West are the founders of KidZ at Heart International based in Phoenix, AZ. As international travelers, they are frequently confused about which time zone they are in, but can find a Starbucks in seven languages. They invite you to join a short-term trip to one of 25 countries where teams equip people to reach and teach kids for Christ within their own culture.






About the Author

Gordon and Becki West are the founders of KidZ at Heart International based in Phoenix, AZ. As international travelers, they are frequently confused about which time zone they are in, but can find a Starbucks in seven languages. They invite you to join a short-term trip to one of 25 countries where teams equip people to reach and teach kids for Christ within their own culture.