Laura Phillips is Associate Minister, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Baton Rouge, LA; a Bethany Fellow; and is an editor and contributor of the newly published “Fellowship of Prayer,” by Chalice Press.
The church needs to change its approach to family ministries. Period.
This overall theme of the recently published Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? report, published by The Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values, is something churches have been discussing for years, but have still failed to do well, if at all. Divorce has become a social disturbance at best, plaguing our nation, and this report by Elizabeth Marquardt, Amy Ziettlow and Charles E. Stokes appropriately demands a look at the trauma it is causing congregants, specifically children, in regards to their faith and experience in a faith community.
For too long the American Church, both Catholic and Protestant, has been operating on a 1950’s style of community, requiring people to come to the church building in order to be a part of the community and, although subtly, requiring a traditional-style family in order to thrive within the church family. Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? does a great job of reminding faith leaders that their communities of faith must change family ministry models if they intend to speak to a country of many faithful people who have been touched by divorce. Amy Ziettlow’s “Plan for Congregations – A Mainline Protestant Pastor’s Reflections” offers a tremendous starting point for congregations looking to reach out to youth and young adults affected by divorce. However, one shortfall of this report is that the “Plan for Congregations,” could equally be matched by a plan of action for the adult children in their thirties and forties who are still dealing with ramifications from their parents’ divorce years ago, or by a plan for reaching out to those who are going through these divorces right now.
This report is one of the first of its kind in that it acknowledges fractured families are a significant part of our congregations, without demonstrating the judgment that so often accompanies the situation. The Bible is full of non-traditional and “fractured families,” but when The Church speaks about divorce it often sweeps that part of our faithful stories under the rug, insisting that one marriage, between one man and one woman is the only way God intended families to operate. Rape, incest, polygamy, adultery, and children out of wedlock are just a few examples of sacred stories that we celebrate on Sunday mornings (or Saturday, or Wednesday evenings) but at best punish, or forget altogether when we are offering counseling for those considering or going through divorce, or considering our models of family ministry. While an intact and loving marriage between two parents may prove one of the most successful predictors of a strong faith life of children later in their lives, it is simply not the norm. The Church must quit pretending that this family arrangement is the only way to encourage a strong faith and spirituality or it will lose the near majority affected by alternative family arrangements, especially those that include divorce.
The report does not excuse the actions of parents, however, reminding faith leaders “that the greatest predictor of the religious lives of youth remains the religious lives of their parents.” Filled with the statistics to support this claim, the papers included in the report insist that the religious lives of children affected by divorce will most certainly change. However, it is not always a negative change and this is where churches can make sure to reach out to every member of the family, specifically children and youth. Some children and youth turn to their relationship with God as an alternative to an absent parent, or to the suffering God in Jesus Christ as a way to cope with their own suffering. Both situations lead to a strengthening of their faith and spirituality.
Again, the Church cannot rely on the understanding of community in which they require a traditional family unit to come visit the church building as it strives to reach out. Instead, mainline churches must renew their emphasis on family ministries of all kinds, acknowledging the many ways in which God celebrates community, and reaching out to families of all arrangements. As evidenced in the vignettes provided in the “Plan for Congregations,” proper support and understanding by church leaders toward these family situations can drastically change (for the better) the outcome of youth and children affected by divorce. Intentional ministry that refuses to assume traditional families are the norm and directly faces the difficult ministries of fractured families will not only speak to the thousands who struggle with their faith in light of divorce, but will also more authentically reflect the accepting, forgiving and reconciling love of God-With-Us that we worship every week.