Family ministry

Good things come in threes

Meredith Miller Image Meredith Miller | Sep 4, 2007

Photo by Naasom Azvedo

It’s 8:50 on Thursday morning. The sun is sending warm beams of light through the trees that line your drive to the church. The day is looking wonderful, not just because of the weather, or even the Starbucks in the cup holder of your car, but because you’ve enjoyed the summer season of youth ministry: camp, swimming, summer Bible study groups, the energy your students seem to have on their break from school.

And then it happens. Your senior pastor calls and wants to discuss the vision for the upcoming school year. And it seems that “discuss” really means “tell you that some new things are happening.”

You are told that the leadership of the church is eager to explore the idea of “family ministry” this year. They want to implement a more intentional ministry plan for the families in the youth program. And they want to know: what do we already do for the family, and where can we go from here?

Don’t panic; dropping your coffee and fumbling for an answer doesn’t have to be your response. Below we’ll explore a basic framework that could help answer that question in any youth group setting.

Three modes of family ministry; Or, what do we call the different stuff we do for families?

Much of what a local church does that falls under the heading “family ministry” can fit into one of three basic categories. These categories, derived from the work of Dr. Chap Clark, reflect particular understandings about a) the definition of family, b) God’s purposes for the family, and c) how churches ought to respond to families in light of their views about both a and b. The three categories are:

  1. The Counseling/Care Mode
  2. The Nuclear Family Mode
  3. The “Church as Family” Mode

One goal is for this article to provide you with an understanding of each mode, so that you will be able to see where your own ministry lands. Perhaps you will find that your church is a mix of more than one mode. If so, take it as a good sign. A second goal is for you to see the benefits of each mode as well as its potential problems. Since a church needs to utilize all three modes in order to most effectively minister to a family, the third goal is to begin to look at how a ministry in any one mode can take steps to incorporate the strengths from the other two.

As you dive in, I encourage you to be open to a broad and multi-faceted understanding of family ministry. It is no one program or model, but rather a combination of efforts. As one family ministry expert suggests,

First, the focus of family ministry ranges from developing a congregational life that supports and nurtures all kinds of families to more specialized ministry for particular kinds of families and family experiences. Second, the goals of family ministry range widely, from building on the strengths of families to helping families cope with difficult situations that cannot be changed.” [Diana Garland, Family Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 377.]

This makes it both difficult and exciting to consider how your church could engage the family in new ways.

The counseling/care mode: Guardrails and E.R.s

What is it? The Counseling/Care approach to family ministry manifests itself primarily through education and programs. Since families often need someone with special training and education to help them, the crucial ministers within this mode are counselors and therapists. Two metaphors help us to understand what is offered by this mode.

First, there are the guardrails. Guardrail programs are designed to help a family before a crisis happens. They are preemptive resources. This mode recognizes that parts of life will always be difficult, but that the pains of life can be better coped with if a person has had some preparatory education. For example, pre-marital counseling serves as a guardrail for couples who are headed into a marriage commitment when it offers skills for conflict management, better communication, dreaming and setting goals as a couple, etc. Pre-marital counseling gives the couple resources at the beginning of their journey together that help them avoid the pain and difficulty that a struggling marriage could produce later on.

The second metaphor is that of an emergency room. In the church-as-medical-center mode, churches are places for people to go once damage has been done in order to find healing and recovery. Fundamentally, people need a safe place to deal with realities they cannot face alone. The counseling/care mode is grounded in the realities of sin and brokenness in the world, and therefore looks to meet people in their circumstances. A program such as “Celebrate Recovery,” which is a faith-based addiction and dysfunction recovery program designed to be rooted in a local church, qualifies as a medical center ministry. The program uses 8 principles as the backbone, while encouraging participants to lean on the community around them and most of all to discover how God can heal and free people. [[See]]

Case study: “It was rooted in reality”
One couple described that early on in their marriage they attended a number of seminars for couples. They said that some were helpful, but they both pointed to one in particular that was invaluable for their relationship. It was a seminar on how to have a fight. The seminar focused on understanding how each person approached a conflict. (What is their “fighting style”? Do they try to “win”? Do they withdraw?) The seminar explained how a person’s fighting style would affect the dynamics of conflict, as well as how they would best be able to approach resolution and forgiveness. The couple valued the experience because, as they describe it, “It was rooted in reality: couples fight. It would be unhelpful (and untrue) to say that true Christians just love each other all the time and don’t argue. Instead, it taught us how to handle what would inevitably come.”

Strengths: We know that real life is full of difficult situations, and that family life today does not look like an idyllic television sitcom. That is why this mode provides a necessary ministry in the church. We must meet the real needs of people. This mode teaches our congregation in order to prepare them, as well as to counsel them and to help them heal.

Some potential problems: This mode is based primarily in programs, and often these programs are not well-attended. Without participants, the potential healing and education this mode offers remains as mere potential, not reality. The lack of attendance may be caused by a variety of factors. It may be that the hurt person does not trust the church. Or perhaps the more a person is hurt, the less inclined they are to sit in a program or to share their struggles with people they may not know well.

Another potential downside to this mode is that these programs can often be fragmented or disconnected from the rest of the church body. Participants become “the hurt people over there” while “we healthy people will do discipleship.” There may not be a sense that the church is the place for hurt people—there are only programs for them.

The nuclear family mode

What is it? According to this mode of family ministry, parents are the primary spiritual nurturers of their children, and it is the church’s job to equip parents to accomplish this task. Theologically, the Nuclear Family Mode is rooted in an understanding that God has uniquely designed family. The nuclear family is a unique entity in the social order; it is not the same as close friendship. Children spend far more time with their families than they ever will at church. While a child may come to church for 40-60 hours per year, they will potentially spend over 3,000 hours in that same year with their families. In this mode, the church thereby serves the nuclear family by providing shared family experiences with parents and children together (think of events like All-Family Game Night at the church, or a Father/Daughter Dance). It also offers resources to parents that help them in their task of discipling their children. The nuclear family model at its best “aims at developing stronger family relationships so that families will be more effective witnesses and messengers of the love of Christ.” [Diana Garland, Family Ministry, 387.]

Case Study: “Just read one book and then show up”
One Jr. High group I heard about chose to equip parents by involving them in various book groups during the summer months. The youth director recruited about half a dozen group leaders and asked each to pick a book they would enjoy leading a discussion about with parents of Jr. High students. Titles such as Messy Spirituality by Mike Yaconelli, Boundaries with Kids by Henry Cloud, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis and Confident Parenting by Jim Burns were volunteered by the group leaders. The Jr. High director then ordered multiple copies of each title and publicized to parents that in order to join a group, all you had to do was pick up a copy, read it, and show up on a summer evening in August. Group leaders facilitated each discussion and at the end of the night parents were raving about the chance to read and think critically about their faith and how it affected their family. Part of the response was that “It was easy. They asked us to just read one book and then show up. And it was worth carving the time into my summer.”

Strengths: Scripture does affirm the unique quality of the parent-child relationship as well as the marriage relationship. Both the Old and New Testaments give specific attention to particular, nuclear family relationships. [Deut. 4:9-10; Deut. 6:6-8; Eph. 6:4] This mode helps the church affirm and support the unique entity of the family.

Some Potential Problems: Parents often feel inadequate to be primary disciplers of their kids. In fact, they sometimes are inadequate. Not all parents have the knowledge or ability to be in that role with their kids. Also, this mode can ignore relationships and needs of “non-traditional” families and singles within a church. Only families that fit the typical “nuclear triad” [Ray S. Anderson and Dennis B. Guernsey, On Being Family: A Social Theology of the Family (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985) 31.] —mother, father, children—find the supportive environment they need.

While this mode advocates and protects the family, it can also be internally focused in a harmful—even idolatrous—way. Families need to be supported and equipped to do God’s work in the world, not simply to be happy families. If there is too much focus on the latter, the former may not happen.

Finally, certain “family” passages in Scripture are describing a dynamic that is not necessarily the same as the nuclear family, but a lack of attention to cultural context has led us to read our own Western understanding of family into the text. [[Ibid.]] A family in the Old Testament would have included parents, children, workers, perhaps adult siblings with their own spouses and children. In fact, households could be compiled of as many as 80 people. These texts, such as Deuteronomy 6, are discussing the communal raising of children. Our own cultural distance from these passages may cause us to put undue pressure on parents alone.

The “church as family” mode

What is it? Any person who claims to follow Christ has thus pledged allegiance to Jesus over any other ties. This mode understands that our most basic identity is “Christian” above all else. The church, then, has priority over nuclear family boundaries. As Rodney Clapp writes, “Jesus creates a new family. It is the new first family, a family of his followers that now demands primary allegiance. In fact, it demands allegiance even over the old first family, the biological family. Those who do the will of the Father…are now brothers and sisters of Jesus and one another.” [Rodney Clapp, Families at the Crossroads: Beyond Traditional and Modern Options (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993) p. 77.] It sees that family can be established and maintained under a functional definition. Therefore anyone in your church can form and maintain family ties with anyone else under the Lordship of Christ.

Case study: “I want them to have what I had”
FYI recently gathered a small group of youth ministry leaders to talk about the relationship between youth ministry and families. At one point we were talking about what motivates a youth pastor to partner with a parent, and one person at the table answered without hesitation, “I want kids to have what I had. I come from a split family, and after the divorce, there were adults in the church who took me under their wing. They loved me and supported not just me, but my mom. Each week my youth pastor and my mom would have a standing appointment. Over the phone they would talk about me, brainstorm and strategize to help me. I know I’m who I am today because of the way those adults in my church stepped in to be my family.” This youth worker’s story describes this mode at its best. While the kid was taken into the family of the church, the mother was not abandoned or usurped. She was supported as well, and as a group those adults cared for the child.

Strengths: This mode is attentive to the teachings from Jesus about a new family, formed from those who do God’s will. [Mark 3:34-35.] It also has the potential to emphasize this type of community without undermining the biological family.

Some potential problems: If a church puts so much emphasis on community, inclusion, and taking care of everybody’s needs, it could undermine the family system by not supporting its uniqueness. Churches who rely only on this mode may also struggle to tangibly support healthy family systems. For example, the mentality may arise that “we don’t preach healthy marriages because it will exclude the single mom, and we want to love her and be a family with her” or “we don’t host a father/daughter banquet because it excludes all girls with negative relationships with their fathers.” The key to operating out of this mode is to not undermine the family system even as your church creates new family in Christ.

One other risk that can accompany this mode is that, despite the community emphasis, it can contribute to even greater fragmentation. For example, the youth church movement reflected the idea that “we don’t need adults, because we are family for each other.” People may sign on for community, but feel it is their prerogative to pick and choose their community. This simply does not work; there must be a whole-church family.

Your ministry and the three modes: asking “Where are we?” and “Where do we go from here?”

Your pastor’s question echoes in your ears: What do we already do for the family, and where can we go from here? Below you’ll find some questions you can reflect on with your team in order to answer for your own ministry situation.

First, using a broad definition of “event” or “program” (anything you are facilitating for your students and/or their families counts), look at your calendar of events and programs. For each event and each program, ask:

  1. What is the goal(s) for this event/program? Is it to connect kids to their families (Mode 2)? Is it to build community among the students; to build a group dynamic that is “family-like” (Mode 3)? Is it education or counseling for a student or their family (Mode 1)?
  2. Are we effectively meeting these goals? If not, you may want to be open to changes within your existing calendar that could help you reach families more effectively.
  3. Based on your stated goals, do you see a pattern in your calendar? Does your ministry fall into one mode particularly? Does it involve more than one mode? If so, how often?

Next, look at what you teach about and what Bible studies you develop. Pull up the topics or passages you talked about for the last six months, or even the past year if you can. Using that information, ask:

  1. How do we talk about “family” in our ministry? Do we usually mean the nuclear family or the church community?
  2. When we talk about the nuclear family, what kind of language do we use? Is it supportive of the family? Or is it negative? For example: “Yeah, your parents are really pretty out of touch and lame,” or “That’s so dumb that your dad won’t let you come to our barbeque, we’ll just pick you up anyway.” (NOTE: You can be realistic about families while still being supportive.)
  3. Do we teach kids to “be family” for one another? Do we teach them that they are family with the generations above them and below them as well?
  4. When we teach about any sort of “one another” statement, would our students think to apply that teaching with their families or just their friends?
  5. Based on your answers, do you see a pattern in your teaching? Does your teaching and Bible study fall into one mode particularly? Does it involve more than one mode? If so, how often?

Those in Mode 1 may see that their teaching often resembles a session from a seminar: how to stay away from the party scene, how to stay sexually pure until marriage, how to read and study your Bible. You may not talk about family explicitly very often, or you may take on a Mode 2 or 3 approach when the topic comes up.

If you tend to operate in Mode 2, perhaps you often talk about a student’s life at home. Their family is always the place they can live out biblical truth. But you may not talk as much about the importance of their peers and the rest of the church.

If you are primarily in Mode 3, you may notice that you encourage community among students, but do not discuss their families. They are always supposed to love their friends or “do life” together, but you may ignore their own parents or siblings.

Good things come in threes

Effective family ministry can take on a variety of expressions and forms. Yet it is critical to engage all three modes of ministry, layering them together to reach the variety of needs your students and their families have. No one mode will “have you covered”; each requires what is best from the other two as well.

Once you can identify which mode your ministry embraces, then you can begin to brainstorm how to introduce the strengths of the other modes into your ministry. Do you find that you never offer any formal resources to families? Consider who you may invite for a morning to talk with the parents of your students. Some churches host an evening workshop with parents and their kids (early adolescents, usually grades 5-8) on ‘How to Talk with Your Kids about Sex.’ Is it time to get creative about an all family event—maybe an intergenerational service project, or a day hike? Or could your group benefit from the introduction of some new faces—such as the seniors or the young children—to see the bigger community in the church?

One final note as you brainstorm: the goal is not to add more programs to your already-full calendar. As Clark reminds us, “All programs are simply tools to enhance community.” The goal is to think critically and theologically about your broad strategy to minister to families of all sorts and then engage in both a programmatic and relational response.

Action Points:

  • Do you buy the proposition that there are “three modes” of family ministry? If not, what else would you suggest? How would you frame the issues surrounding family ministry differently? Feel free to give us feedback at
  • In the section above entitled “Your Ministry and the Three Modes,” there are lists of assessment questions to determine the primary way your ministry tends to approach families. Take some time to review this article and specifically those questions with your ministry team and with a group of parents. How does your ministry tend to operate now? Where would you like to be heading over the next year when it comes to family ministry? What specific actions need to be taken to reach those new goals and re-orient your approach to families?
  • If your senior pastor or core church leadership hasn’t already asked a question like the one at the beginning of this article, consider raising the question with him, her, or them. Use this article as a launching point to brainstorm together ways to better integrate the three modes of family ministry in a way that fits your context best.

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Meredith Miller Image
Meredith Miller

Meredith Miller is a pastor, parent, and writer with over 20 years of experience in children’s ministry and curriculum. She is co-lead pastor of Pomona Valley Church and author of Woven: Nurturing a Faith Your Kid Doesn't Have to Heal From.

Meredith holds a Master of Divinity from Fuller Seminary, as well as a B.A. in Religious Studies and Spanish Language & Literature from Westmont College.

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