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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Church or Family—Which Should Come First?

Zion Church, across the road from our parsonage home 1969-88
For most of our parenting years, I was a busy pastor and part-time teacher, and our family lived in the parsonage across Zion Church Road from our congregation's meeting house. 

Between the demands of church work and living in our church’s glass house, we had more than our share of stress. Even if I hadn’t been a pastor, I would have still needed to work at balancing the energy needed for our church family and for our own, given my tendency to become over-committed and over-involved in work responsibilities.

Increasingly I hear people resolving this tension with, “We’ve decided our family comes first,” referring, of course, to their nuclear family. In practice this often means parents taking on fewer church responsibilities, taking more family vacations on weekends, and rarely joining in congregational activities other than on whatever Sunday mornings they happen to be in town.

While I support the need to set reasonable priorities, I am concerned whenever church participation gets put further and further down the list of after-school activities, soccer practice, music lessons, and a multitude of other events and meetings. Or when increased time vegetating around the family’s entertainment center takes precedence over maintaining good connections with friends and fellow church members. 

Part of this problem, according to author Tom Sine, is that “the identity of the church and the meaning of community for many have become hopelessly confused with buildings, budgets, programs, personalities, and—regrettably—even the self-seeking values of American culture.”

But assuming a concept of church as a community of like-minded folks committed to caring for each other, I believe it is shortsighted to pit biological family against church family. Why? Because having a people who are our spiritual sisters and brothers, and who become spiritual cousins and uncles and aunts and grandparents for our children, is more important than ever in our child rearing years. 

Our marriages are less likely to thrive, or even survive, if our families aren’t being well nurtured.

While ailing marriages and families can often benefit from professional help, all of them need the kind of regular first-aid offered by members of their biological and spiritual families. In fact, I see a direct correlation between the growing number of marriage breakups and the increased breakdown of this kind of community and extended family support. When couples lack access to wise elders and peers with whom they can share their distresses and from whom they can gain much-needed encouragement and help, even small problems can become overwhelming.

During our minivan years, many of these problems have to do with child rearing itself. Wise couples realize their need for the blessing and support of a whole congregation in order to raise a whole and healthy family. My own parents felt so strongly about this that they made a fourteen-hundred-mile move with their eight children to become a part of a faith community they believed would have a better influence on us.

Their sacrifice paid off. While the church community they chose may not have offered much in the way of polished worship services, great preaching, or eye-catching Sunday-school material, it provided something far more important. The congregation offered lots of support in the form of frequent, warm hospitality and time spent working together at harvest and building or quilting projects, all of which were associated with good meals, conversations, and story telling. It was in those settings and from these church-family mentors that I gained many of my values. I still love these good people and cherish their memories.

In rearing our own three children, we are forever indebted to the good church people who invited our family into their hearts and homes, people like the Algers, Brennemans, Kuykendalls, Lantzes, Millers, Showalters, Souders and many, many others who loved us, took an interest in our children and made a positive impact on us all. We could not have done it without them.

Yet I see very few books or articles on marriage or family life even mentioning a larger context than that of the nuclear family unit of mother, father, and 2.3 children, with an occasional visit by doting grandparents. The underlying notion is that parents do this by themselves, and they alone get the credit (or the blame) for how their children turn out.

So how can we work together to help our children grow in their faith and in their commitment to God and the church? 

Here are some important ways:

• Both at home and with our church family, we celebrate lots of love, joy, peace, and other good Spirit fruit. We realize that as a community we need to demonstrate the same kind of gleam in the eye enthusiasm for serving God and the family of God that we want our children to have.

• We cultivate good relationships with others in our congregations by taking time for warm, stress-free connections and conversations with each other and with each other’s children.

• As much as possible, we make child-care arrangements with other members of our church family or with other folks who share and reinforce our values.

• We try hard to be in agreement with our spouse (and with other parents in our church as much as possible) in setting reasonable expectations and guidelines for involvement in church and youth group activities—without either compromising our positions or engaging in ongoing power struggles.

• We plan for vacation and other family activities that involve the larger church family, such as service projects, camping experiences, and attendance at church-wide assemblies that expose our children to as many good people of faith as possible.

• Meanwhile, we reduce, rather than increase, access to the many forms of entertainment available that compete for good family and church time.

In short, we remember we simply can’t do all of this on our own. We realize it takes a whole congregation to sustain a good marriage and to raise a whole and healthy family.
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