by Jan Johnson
In the last decade, evangelical Christians have become more politically savvy, writing letters to congressmen and editors of newspapers. Heated after-church discussions focus on how media, politicians and celebrities scoff at “family values.” For some, this strident tone lacks authenticity. More than one pro-choice protester has questioned whether the church cares as much about children out of the womb as children in the womb. A public school principal lamented that when he tries to set up programs to help students with behavioral problems (who invariably have problems at home), “it’s the parents from the Christian homes that say, ‘Just teach and stop meddling.’ If the church doesn’t help these families,” he asked, “who will?”
As Christians call for media and politicians to clean up their side of the street in family and morality issues, the church needs to examine its own side of the street. What are churches and Christian organizations doing to help families? Has the family of God heard the cries of the families of God? Is it enough to offer a marriage retreat now and then? Marriages now have only a 50-50 chance of surviving and long-term studies show that children of divorce experience so much upheaval, rejection, and economic insecurity that many don’t “bounce back.” When families that manage to stay intact move, they lose the support of extended family and church friends they have counted on. Parents reel at how even the “nicest” kids become snared by drugs or teen pregnancy, by anorexia or the notion that a compact disc player is a necessity of life.
While opinions vary, it seems that some individuals, churches and parachurch organizations are making vigorous efforts, but the church as a whole needs to do more. Many churches have no strategy to help families except referring them to self-help books, says Dan Simpson of the Charles E. Fuller Institute of Church Growth. “Seminaries focus on academic studies and preparing sermons,” he says, “but pastors have little training in helping families.” Walt Mueller, director of The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding agrees. As he speaks at churches, he asks church leaders what they do to help families and many say, as one pastor of a church of 800 members said, “We don’t need a family ministry because we only have three families here with problems.” Yet, says Mueller, “The teens in these churches are hungry to see their family relationships corrected. I used to have to tell jokes to get teens’ attention; now all I have to do to get them on the edge of their seats is to say that I know some of them cry themselves to sleep at night. There’s too much rhetoric about what’s wrong with the family and not enough action. It seems as if the church is interested only in telling families to turn the clock back forty years to become 1950s suburban families. That’s not realistic.”
Less than half of adults surveyed in a recent poll say that Protestant churches are very sensitive to the needs of families, but more than half view churches as very supportive of men and women as parents. George Barna, in his book, The Future of the American Family (Moody Press, 1993), reconciles these seemingly contradictory views this way: “Churches talk about the importance of parenting and nurturing children, but do not provide the hands-on skills and other practical resources parents feel they need.”
But is it the church’s role to provide practical help for couples and parents? Is the church overindulging its members while a starving world goes without hearing the Word preached? If Jesus walked the streets today, would He heal the sick, raise the dead and lead a support group for parents of runaway teens?
Some churches and parachurch organizations settle that question by looking at the primary task of the church — discipling others — and bring that home to the family crisis in our culture. They have trained lay leaders outfitted with marriage and parenting skills to support and come along side struggling family members. Rarely does a family ministry boil down to a bless-us-four-no-more project. Once the community’s families hear that a church offers programs in which people spend time with them, they often darken the forgotten church door. As they come looking for help, some find Christ in the process.
Out of the laboratory of the 1980s in which church programming for the family was a fad, says Randy Christian, pastor to children and families at Beaverton Christian Church in Beaverton, Oregon, has come an ongoing emphasis in these areas: marriage enrichment that builds communication skills, remarriage and stepfamily programs, premarital preparation, and classes and support groups for parents..
Parachurch organizations in particular have worked hard to build marriages. Studies on Marriage Encounter, for example, find that 90 percent of couples returning from Marriage Encounter (ME) weekends report they fall back in love. Since 1962, over 1.5 million couples have gone to ME weekends and various branches of ME now span ten denominations.
Although many couples who go to ME already have a good relationship, David and Sherrill Lott of Salem, Indiana, attended ME even though they had separated twice and advised by a marriage counselor to hire divorce lawyers. “I’m not good at expressing myself verbally,” says David Lott. “Sherrill and I hardly ever argued, but every so often she would break down crying because we weren’t communicating on an intimate level. I wondered why she couldn’t be self-sufficient like me. A lot of that stems from men, including me, having trouble expressing their feelings. I didn’t know how. On the Marriage Encounter weekend, I identified with the male presenter — 80 percent of what he said described situations I was experiencing. The leaders gave us communication tools and Sherrill and I practiced them all weekend. On Saturday night, we cried and held each other for the first time in a long time.”
This mega-leap in communication skills was made easier for the Lotts by the example and encouragement of Gary and Sherry Hendricks, their ME leaders. Sherry describes the ME weekend as on-the-job training: “You don’t take a notebook full of notes. You practice the same principles and skills all weekend until it wears you out, but you’re prepared to go on with life.”
Much more than a couple-focused romantic getaway, the weekend also focuses on reaching out: “I come away from ME weekends feeling like a missionary,” says Sherry Hendricks. “I see a greater purpose for our love than simply caring about each other. Together we can touch others by being a better picture of Christ.” That picture overflows into their neighborhood and even into Gary’s workplace, where he manages computer programmers: “People walk into my office, and want to talk about their marriage.”
When churchgoing couples have marital problems, however, they often contact their pastor for help, which is why Father Dick McGinnis at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, Florida, felt so overwhelmed a few years ago. As he prayed for troubled couples, he sensed God nudging him to look at what worked. So he stood up in church and asked couples whose marriages had been on the rocks and now were healed to meet with him after church. McGinnis recorded their stories — drug addiction, alcoholism, bisexuality — looking for common elements. He and the couples developed seventeen basic principles and each “couple in recovery” met weekly with a troubled couple, sharing stories, mentioning the principles and listening without judgment. Those original seven couples in recovery have worked with thirty-three couples at St. David’s and there hasn’t been a divorce in the church since 1987.
McGinnis says the program is practical for most busy pastors because “even though pastors organize the program, they essentially put the troubled couples in the hands of the ‘experts.'” But can couples who nearly divorced be legitimate experts? Ted and Jean Fields, who received counsel from a “couple in recovery” believe so. “What we found most helpful was not new information, but that these people spent time with us. They stayed up till midnight if necessary to talk with us, and we weren’t even members of their church.” Jean was also impressed with how they displayed a radical acceptance, another common element in family ministry: “Talking with the other couple provided a safe environment. When you told your story, no one walked away in disgust. They nodded their heads in agreement. They might affirm you or say, ‘The same thing happened to me.'”
Ted Fields was inspired by their couple in recovery’s example as overcomers: “In our culture all you hear about is couples who divorce, but I saw this flesh and blood couple who had worked through their problems. We had felt so alone, but they got to know us pretty well. They were such a spiritual bunch of people and the principles talked about serving each other and the Lord — I wound up making a commitment to the Lord after four weeks. Because of their witness of love to me, I sensed God’s love and reached out for it. These couples were low key, but they were frank. That’s how I want to be.”
Discipling lay people for family ministry holds enormous promise, says author Mike McManus, who with his wife mentors couples at Fourth Presbyterian Church outside Washington, D.C. “In every church are couples sitting in the pew that have been married twenty, thirty or forty years. They’ve survived all kinds of problems and they’re still in love. Many of these couples would mentor other couples if they were asked.”
FAMILIES LIVING IN A PRESSURE COOKER
Some Christian rescue missions are also shifting their focus from primarily drug and alcohol recovery programs to teaching marriage and parenting classes. “When the family system isn’t repaired,” says Gary Meek who teaches these courses at City Union Mission Family Center in Kansas City, “the recovering person relapses quickly.” With families now comprising 35 percent of the homeless, more than half of the 250 missions who are members of the International Union of Gospel Missions offer family-related classes.
Other endangered families — prison inmates and their spouses — also feel alienated, which contributes to the 80-85 percent divorce rate for married prisoners. When Donna Varnam’s husband Steve was in prison and became involved in Prison Fellowship’s worship services and Bible studies, his expressions of faith were difficult for her to hear: “I wondered, How could his prayers from his warm prison bed help me while I cooked dinner with my coat on because I couldn’t afford heat? If couples make it through the incarceration, the marriage often breaks the year after the incarcerated one comes home. Neither of you is the same person. You can’t figure out who’s boss. You ask yourself, Why did I wait for this?”
Rather than considering their task done after evangelizing an inmate, Prison Fellowship is responding to the marriage crisis of those they’ve discipled by bringing wives of incarcerated men into the prison for three day marriage seminars. Like the other marriage programs, the format is not lecture but intense interaction. The focus is not so much on new information, but on peer support and honest communication. In the case of prisoners, communication is poor, says Donna Varnam who is now a PF event coordinator, because wives try to protect their husbands by not telling them how bad they feel. “Often, wives create their own prison of bad feelings until the marriage fails. In one of the exercises at the seminar, the wives stand in a circle facing inward while their husbands stand behind them. The wives finish the sentence, ‘It really hurt me when . . .’ Then they switch places and the husbands talk. Husbands often tell their wives for the first time that they’re sorry for what has happened. The wives are so relieved to hear those words.” In Donna’s case, friends from Prison Fellowship not only provided her with emotional support but they helped her find a job and befriended her daughter. After Steve and Donna attended several of PF’s marriage seminars and worked through their problems, they began leading them after Steve was released.
Dale Erwin, director of seminars at Prison Fellowship, knows of no secular organization working with such couples this way, which is evidence of how the church is at times approaching family problems that the culture is not addressing. At other times, the church addresses the same problems in a different way. For example, the national secular organizations Stepfamily Association of America and the Step Family Foundation provide information and resources for blended families, but support and friendship are more likely to come from the local church.
Now that 46 percent of all American marriages involve at least one partner who has been married before (many of whom also have children), some churches are offering divorce recovery seminars and Sunday school classes for blended families. Terry Herman who has led both at Faith Community Church in Covina, California, says that blended families find they haven’t healed from the divorce and they make the same mistakes again. “We talk about resolving issues from previous marriages, dealing with a former spouse and disciplining kids who yell, ‘You’re not my mom! I don’t have to listen to you!'” Like the lay leaders of the programs mentioned above, Terry Herman’s qualification for his job was being an overcomer: he also was divorced, remarried and found healing. This adds to the authenticity of the class: “I appreciate how real everyone is,” says Terry. “You can’t say anything in this room that will surprise them. We’ve been hurt and we’re trying to rebuild our world. I try to create an environment safe from judgment, safe to rebuild families.”
BEFORE TYING THE KNOT
When you consider that 73 percent of all couples get married in churches and synagogues, the church sits in a strategic seat to help build solid marriages. Yet more than 80 percent of engaged couples receive no premarital counseling. “The church has become a ‘blessing machine,'” notes Mike McManus, author of Marriage Savers (Zondervan, 1993). “Anybody can rent a church, an organ and a pastor. Churches have ignored the importance of their role. They could say, ‘If we’re going to perform this marriage, we want to spend time with you.'”
Spending time with couples can take various forms: Engaged Encounter weekends, mentor couples working with engaged couples, and even youth pastors talking with teens about chastity and lasting relationships. One premarital counseling tool, the PREPARE inventory (PREmarital, Personal And Relationship Evaluation), can be used by counselors, pastors or anyone the pastor chooses to train to help couples identify strengths to develop further and growth areas where they need assistance. Wes Hartzfeld, Minister of Marriage and Family Counseling at The Chapel in Akron, Ohio, says that they have used the PREPARE several hundred times in their premarital classes and they’re not having as many divorces.
Entire communities are banding together to make sure couples get the help they need by agreeing to certain policies that will promote strong marriages and support weak ones. More than twenty-seven communities have formed a community marriage policy, as it is called, which usually includes provisions for engaged couples such as premarital counseling using a psychological test, training mentor couples to work with engaged couples, and attending a communication skills seminar. To benefit married couples, the policy encourages attendance at a couples’ retreat of some kind and a mentor couple program for struggling couples. Most policies also ask pastors and clergy to attend couples’ retreats and to ask the church board program to ratify the policy.
In the Louisville, Kentucky, southern Indiana area, twenty executives of fourteen denominations — from Southern Baptist to Episcopal, from AME to Greek Orthodox, from Assembly of God to Church of the Nazarene, signed a community marriage policy. As “marriage covenant partners,” they are taking the policy to the clergy in their denominations to be ratified. Says Mike McManus who has been instrumental in helping communities form community marriage policies: “Many times a lay couple leads the committee, which helps because they don’t represent a denomination. Over this time, the committee grows sensitive to each other’s wording preferences. They often agree to pool resources with specific churches offering different facets of the policy ministries.”
Many public school systems in America have been offering practical parent education classes and workshops for years. Increasingly, churches are offering parenting classes too, as evidenced by how two of the largest secular parenting programs — STEP (Systematic Training for Parents) and Active Parenting — consider churches such an important enough market that they now publish what they call “biblical versions” of their programs. Active Parenting’s biblical version has sold 4000 copies since it was developed in 1987.
Today’s curriculum doesn’t use the old-style talking head film, but what you might call “high tech discipleship,” as videos show parents better ways to deal with kids. For example, the secular curriculum Gary Meek at City Union Mission Family Center in Kansas City uses (Practical Parenting) shows a father coming home from a business trip and saying to his teen, “You’re supposed to mow the lawn. Why didn’t you do it?” When the son tries to answer, the father interrupts. Finally, the son says the lawn mower broke and the father blames the mother for not telling him. In the next video vignette, the same father asks different questions: “How did it go while I was gone? Did anything happen at school?” The son explains that he didn’t make the football team and then mentions that the lawn mower broke. Through the videos and the instructor, the parents have role models to follow.
One of the many distinctly Christian parent education courses, PRAISE (Parents Reclaiming African Information for Spiritual Enlightenment), was originally geared to African-American parents but now has a multicultural theme. Psychotherapist and social worker Vanella Crawford developed this eighteen session course and more than 350 have taken the three-day facilitator’s training. Ms. Crawford boils down complex concepts of child development and helps parents understand why their children behave as they do, but the skills and attitudes are as much caught as taught. PRAISE attendee Marie Martin, a single mother in Macon, Georgia, has a stressful job and disliked the way she hurried her 5-year-old daughter, Sierra. At the seminar, she not only learned practical, playful ways to get her daughter moving in the morning, but she also picked up a more relaxed, unruffled approach to parenting: “Vanella was calm, warm and caring. You felt comfortable talking to her. She even dressed calmly — loose fitting, bright colors, free-flowing clothes. One morning in class I had a migraine headache. She lit a candle and played calm music, and we all relaxed. My headache went away. Some seminars I hate to go to, but I looked forward to this one. I wish it had lasted two weeks.”
For parents looking for a comrade to partner with, support groups provide a safe place to talk and feel accepted by others who understand what they’re going through. In these groups, parents of teens or parents of disabled children swap advice and often laugh together about the crises they cried over the day before. Support groups for mothers of preschoolers are especially popular because this stage of parenting is so full of isolation and self-doubt. Founded in 1973, the international organization, MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers), now has over 730 local groups. While the mothers share organizational tasks, an older “Titus” woman acts as a discipler. About 40 percent of women who attend are unchurched.
Along the way, the church has taken to discipling parents in the art of both play and service. When Pastor Craig Gammelgard noticed that he never saw his kids at family camp, he began designing camping trips and ski trips for families at church while on staff at Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo, California. “We took busloads of families and played bus-aisle bowling and had ‘Decorate your Dad’ contests,” says Gammelgard.
Some of their mission trips included families too. Cathy Burns, a parent who helped organize a mission trip to a trash dump in Tijuana, Mexico, describes it: “We went to give out food, but we also set up games — ring toss, bean bag tosses. When kids who lived in the dump won, we gave them a loaf of bread or fruit and vegetables. Our kids ran the games and handed out prizes. My neighbor had just started coming to church when she took her sons on the Tijuana trip. ‘It means a lot to do this with my sons,’ she told me. ‘I’m teaching them that this is what loving God is about.'”
Some churches intentionally aim their family ministry at the community as well as the church. Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, does this by sponsoring a city-wide rally and workshop series, advertising on television, radio and newspapers. When they moved the sessions from the church building to hotels and banks, the total attendance increased from 1000 to 5000. “Whole secretarial pools showed up when I gave a talk about what women need to know about men,” says Pastor Robert Lewis. “The session overflowed so we had another one that was also crowded. People sat on the platform and I had only a three yard square from which to speak.”
A MISSION OF DISCIPLESHIP
In the past, says Mike McManus, waiting for expert help has immobilized Christians. Today, family ministry is being championed by some churches and parachurch organizations in such a way that family ministry now flows from those fresh out of the trenches of marriage and parenting — reconciled couples, former prisoners, parents who survived their children’s preschool years. As they work through their difficulties and then take training for a program, they’re ready to lead workshops and support groups for the person in the next trench.
Another mark of discipleship — spending time with people — works well in family ministry where practice is as important as gaining information. Being lectured about marriage never replaces the work couples do in examining their faults and responsibilities and talking to each other about them. Leaders of parent education classes and support groups model wise behaviors and then week after week assign those behaviors as homework and ask parents to be accountable for changing their behavior.
The centrality of discipleship in family ministry means — and what a relief — that it isn’t the domain only of the guru-like family expert or the young, energetic programming whiz kid pastor or even a huge megachurch clergy staff. Those lay and staff people in the church who are now answering the family’s cry for help are marked by their attentive hearts: Dick McGinnis’ despair over splintered marriages; Vanella Crawford’s desire to bring grace and skills to parents in African-American churches; Craig Gammelgard’s frustration over wanting to spend more time with his kids at family camp.
When birthed from burden and urgency, these programs rise up soaked and dripping with purpose. Remarriage ministry becomes one more way of binding the wounds of the broken hearted. Support groups are one more opportunity to turn the hearts of parents to their children. Premarital counseling and marriage enrichment encourage spouses one more time to bear each other’s burdens and spur one another on to love and good works.
This article first appeared in Christianity Today, February 6, 1995.
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