Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Articles: Essays

Next Time, Take the Kids
by Jan Johnson

This is a condensed version of chapter 11 of Jan’s book Growing Compassionate Kids.

The volunteer coordinator at the rescue mission downtown was stunned by my request. I had called to volunteer my family of four to serve at their urban “neighborhood” picnic just after the Los Angeles riots. "Your family can join the college group that's coming. This is so unusual. We've never had a whole family volunteer before."

Exactly. Families aren't expected to serve together. Christian parents (especially single parents who have no spouse to watch the children) stand confused as this question wars within them: Do I serve my family or do I serve others?

Those of us who are church leaders are especially torn. We grieve when we see a dad and mom showing up faithfully at umpteen church meetings while their children clamor for attention. We vow not to fall into the same trap and so we clear the calendar and stay home every night. Tired of that all or nothing game, I serve in only one capacity at a time at my church, but I could write an epic poem detailing the gracious ways I've said no to requests to do more. I love my church; I love my family. Why do I feel as if I'm choosing sides, having to balance my attention? Aren't we on the same side?

To prove we could be on the same side, I called the mission downtown and volunteered all four members of my family. As anyone might guess, my eleven and twelve-year-old children worked harder that day than they've ever worked in my kitchen. They cleaned up spills and shared juice cans with each other without one hint from my husband or me. We didn't growl when one of us accidentally splashed red punch on our white shirts. The four of us worked side by side, listening to guests' stories and holding undernourished, cooing babies. When one of us got tired, another spelled that one. Afterward our kids enticed us to explore the crumbling walls of the mission and we enjoyed the kitchen help's offer of ice cream sundaes made from leftovers.

A study by the Points of Light Foundation on family volunteerism verbalizes what we learned that day. The study found that volunteer families enjoy themselves more than individual volunteers do. They get to know each other better and they like working side by side with people they already know. The organizations like having entire families volunteer because they volunteer more frequently and the organization can recruit more volunteers per telephone call. (Their not-so-elaborate recruitment scheme is to ask individuals, Why don't you bring your family along?)

From a parent's angle, volunteering as a family is so practical. Our time is so valuable and we're pulled in so many directions but we want to spend meaningful time together. We're eager to do more than tell our kids that loving God means giving ourselves to others, we want to show them and watch them try it out themselves. One friend feels these pressures so keenly that she told me, "Ministries aren't going to survive the 1990s unless they allow families to serve together."

The main roadblock, according to the study, is finding projects that are suitable for various ages within a volunteering family. Frequent family activities include: friendly visiting, environmental projects, recreation and sports programs, meal delivery and working with the aged.

We as parents can help churches design appropriate activities by "infiltrating" existing programs. When the youth group made its regular trip to a nearby rescue mission, my husband and I volunteered to drive. The director needed an impromptu speaker for the worship service, so my off-the-cuff husband volunteered. My junior high son sat in the service amazed to see his dad using a football illustration and a few favorite Bible verses to explain the gospel. "Is that Dad?" he asked me.

Yet the church program is changing. Some youth ministers are designing mission trips that are for teens' families, not just teens. One nursery coordinator notices when an elementary child or teen volunteers to work in the church nursery and asks the rest of the family to work as a team that day. At another church, families sign up to prepare communion together.

I don't expect anyone to disagree with families serving together. That's what's wrong. This is a yawn-and-doze issue. We're content to let the extremes continue: children isolated from Super Volunteer Mom or Dad or, Mom and Dad dropping everything because they're ministering to their family to the exclusion of everything else.

How about using your voice to speak up for families serving together? Start with what you're already doing and wax eloquent about it to the people who plan your church's activities. If your family helps someone move, tell your pastor how much you enjoyed those father-son heaving-the-piano moments. When planning an event, ask co-workers how families can work together on the event. When you're asked to visit the elderly, take your children with you and let them charm and cheer those you visit.

But let's stay grassroots. Please don't start an organization called Families Serving Together and ask me to sit on the board -- unless the board meeting is in Hawaii and my whole family can come.


This article originally appeared as an opinion piece in Christianity Today.
Parts of it were adapted for the book,
Growing Compassionate Kids.


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