Family Ministry is the Work of the Church (Dec 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by Don Hebbard
December, 1992

8He was a young Timothy of extraordinary ability and enthusiasm. His preaching and teaching brought him the praise and admiration of adults and peers in the church. There was a fire in his belly.

Then his world began to unravel. His ideal Christian home came unglued. A younger sister ran away from home. His parents divorced. The fire in his belly was the knowledge that his father was abusive and there was nothing he could do about it. So we ask, “What went wrong?”

For years I have heard well-intentioned – but somewhat confused – Christians struggle over the relationship between the church and the family. Like the Army medic watching the bridge over the River Kwai explode, we gasp, “Madness, simply madness!” How can we possibly separate church and family?

Yet church leaders are hesitant to begin family ministries. Education programs are warned not deal too heavily with family themes. Congregations are reluctant to conduct surveys on family needs. Leaders wonder when we can “get past this family stuff and back to real church work!”

What is family ministry? What role does it play in the life of the local church? Is family ministry really the work of the church?

Jesus redefined the family. Family in Christ is no longer limited to biological relations, it is expanded to spiritual relations (cf. Mark 3:31-35). The church is a “faith family.” In a world of disconnected, uprooted, and lonely people, the church becomes a place of acceptance, compassion, and healing.

Family ministry simply takes our Lord’s definition and puts flesh and bones on it. It is ministry to families of all types through prevention and therapy to bring holistic healing. It is directed to the church and the community through felt needs, to restore relationships on earth and with the Heavenly Father.

For 10 years I worked in the divorce capital of the world. I used to sit on the third floor of the courthouse in downtown Dallas and watch as couples ended their dreams. They sat on pews in the lobby waiting for their cases to be called. For many it was the first time they had been in a pew in years.

If asked, many would say they did not leave the church but the church left them. Perhaps an overstatement, but a valid point just the same. “The teaching just wasn’t relevant to the problems in our marriage.” “We were having all these difficulties and the last group we would tell would be church folks; it would be all over the place.” Or sadly, “We tried to tell, but they just didn’t believe us or know how to respond.”

Certainly all the blame for family problems cannot be laid at the feet of the local church. People are responsible for their own decisions. However, every local church can learn to deal more effectively with problems in the family.

When Jesus delivered his “final lesson” in Matthew 25, the apostles asked about judgment. he said, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was in prison and you came to see me.”

Roll that list forward 2,000 years. What would it look like today? “I was grieving and you listened. My wife and I were fighting and you helped us communicate. My son was on drugs and you helped us.” Needs-based ministry is not a contemporary concept, it is as old as the ministry of Jesus.

We recently conducted a family needs assessment with the congregation I serve. Of the 750 adults responding to the question “Do you or does someone in your family have a need for individual, marital or family counseling?” fully 50 percent answered, “Yes!” I do not believe this is unusually high in our movement today.

This situation calls for two responses. First, we must respond to the needs of “families that are headed toward waterfalls.” We need wise spiritual counsel that is rooted in the Word of God and understands the complex dynamics of families and family systems.

But family ministry is by definition primarily preventive. We need churches that are willing to get upstream and prevent these problems before they occur. We need forks in the river. This call to preventive family ministry is a mission that can no longer wait. Gone is the day of wringing hands and wondering “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” It may seem impossible to sweep back the ocean of family problems, but it is time to pick up the brooms.

When Jesus taught the crowds, they said, “He teaches like one having authority, not like the Scribes and the Pharisees!” When John the Baptist spoke, the crowds asked, “How should we live righteously before God?” These people responded to truth with questions on how they could change their behavior to live more pleasing before God.

For several years I had the opportunity of teaching a Christian Family Relations course at a local community college. The students were older, returning adults from all cultural, religious and social backgrounds. The task was to share the relevance of New Testament Christianity to daily family life. In five years never once did a student raise his hand and say, “I just don’t think the Bible is relevant to my life.” From agnostics to Buddhists, punk rockers to pilots, the typical response was, “I never knew that was in the Bible!”

We live in a day when the Bible has become a coffee table book. It is nice to look at but rarely explored. Even in our churches, people are hungering for answers to the great “how” questions. How does this verse impact my marriage? How does the Bible define the way we get along? How does rigorous study of the text define my ethics?

Family ministry seeks to illuminate the biblical text with rigor and application that reeks of real life. It can challenge a church with a fresh new excitement about exploring God’s word. Suddenly, men and women are convicted again to want to go “back to the Bible.”

Spend a day in divorce court. Stand outside a day care at 6:30 in the morning and watch the cars line up before it opens. Sit in an aids clinic or inner-city hospital. Look into the glazed-over eyes of the driver next to you in traffic. You will see incredible needs and the tragic search for answers.

Jesus met a Samaritan woman at the well and revealed to her not only the secrets of her life, but the secrets of the kingdom. He challenges us to a model of ministry that “learns to sit by the wells.” For some of us that may first involve heavy doses of listening and crawling into the skins of other people. For others, it may involve visiting for the first time the pain and imperfection in our own life. “Well sitting” is a dangerous threat to the status quo in the life of the church and the life of the church leader.

Is family ministry a part of the mission of the church? Scarlett O’Hara runs frantically to the Atlanta railroad yard in search of a doctor to deliver a baby. The camera pans across acres of suffering soldiers and one exhausted old doctor. “Come with you? Look around you child. No morphine, no bandages – they’re dying right in front of my eyes!”

The time for debate is over. Our families are dying right before our eyes. Family ministry is not an option for any church today. It is something every church will do. They will do it well or they will do it poorly, but they will do it.Wineskins Magazine

Don Hebbard

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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