When I was a kid—way back in the 1900s—there were a ton of sitcoms that capitalized on “unconventional” families. Who's the Boss?, Full House, My Two Dads, Punky Brewster, Different Strokes, One Day at a Time: the lineup was full of storylines that didn't revolve around the typical nuclear setup with a mom, dad, and 2.5 kids. It's been a long time since the rest of the world actively acknowledged that families come in all shapes and sizes and the importance of telling those stories. But it's a rarity to see places in our Church landscape where the concept of “Family Life” has grown beyond the narrow “traditional” model.
A pastoral colleague told me about his experience preaching for Family Life Day at a sister congregation. During his sermon, he alluded to the benefits of having a Divorce Ministry in the church. There were more than a few who didn't receive his suggestion well! “Are you advocating divorce?” “We should be upholding the ideal of God’s standards!” I've heard similar arguments over the years railing against showing love and support to single mothers. “If the church gives her a shower, we’re encouraging others to do the same!” Extending kindness to sisters and brothers when they need us is what we're supposed to do. Being a source of strength for divorcees or helping hand to a single parent won't dilute the “holiness” of God—quite the opposite: it's displaying the character of God!
I’ve previously written about the exclusion of singles in church fellowship as well as the ever-present pressure to push them toward marriage. Why not have singles’ ministries focused on things other than “how to get a mate”? Singles aren't all never married 20- and 30-year-olds looking for spouses. Singles consist of widows and widowers, those who've never married, those who never want to be married, and people of all age ranges. Let's not view them as “fractions” of families.
Although it left MUCH to be desired and quite a few areas that were rightfully criticized, the organizational statement on homosexuality did get a few things right, one of which was explicitly stating that everyone is welcome to fellowship, regardless of sexual orientation. But do we really understand what fellowship means? Have we cultivated churches where LGBT brothers and sisters will feel they are even able to be a part of our church “Family Life”? We need to be intentional about integrating these families, too.
We spend thousands of dollars in research trying to “discover” why people leave our churches; meanwhile folks tell us why all the time. Though there are a variety of reasons, one very common refrain is the feeling of separation built between local congregations and those who don't fit into the quintessential model family. “Since my divorce, I’ve felt like an outcast.” “After becoming pregnant out of wedlock, I was disfellowshipped and shunned.” “Being one of the only singles in church, I felt out of place among all the families.” Hearing these stories isn't a new revelation.This isn't earth-shattering news. So if we say we want to retain members and win back those who've left, what have we done to address these real felt needs? How are we making our churches into inclusive spaces? Think about your own church. Do those in families with nontraditional configurations feel embraced? Would you? If not, what needs to change? What can you do to change it?
The attrition in weekly attendance will continue to grow unless we work to embrace people in whatever life circumstance they may find themselves. With the advent of web-streamed services, those who want to participate in weekly congregational worship don't have to endure the feeling of ostracism that they sense when they physically attend. When people feel judged for not being part of the church’s “ideal,” they will stay away.
There are so many other iterations of families too: foster parents, extended families, co-parenting families, childless couples, blended familie. Are they ever considered when we develop our Church ministries? If not, we need to begin retooling our paradigm and catch up to at least the 20th century.
Courtney Ray is an ordained pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Image Credit: FreeImages.com / B S K
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