Family segregation in church

For the past year or so I’ve been re-thinking this whole family ministry thing. Many of you know that I came out of Bible College with a degree in Bible and youth ministry and then went to DTS for a degree in Christian Education and Family Life Ministry. The idea behind this was to equip myself with the education necessary to not only reach students, but their entire families via the students. For example, if an unsaved family sees life change take place in the life of their teenager, the rest of the family can’t help but notice and hopefully become interested. But recently my thinking has shifted a little further from the evangelistic aspect and has focused more on the family discipleship area. What I’ve noticed in the church so far has not been that encouraging, and unfortunately I do not really have a good solution for it, but maybe some of these thoughts are heading in the right direction.

During a typical week, the family wakes up in morning, the kids run off to school and the parents go to work. They spend their day separated from each other until the evening comes. The parents sometimes arrive home worn out from work about the same time the kids return exhausted from school and extra-curricular activities. Everyone grabs their own dinner and settles to a different part of the house: the parents in front of the living room TV and the kids in their bedroom to do homework, talk to friends, and watch their own TV. Bedtime comes, everyone goes to sleep, and the next day it’s rinse and repeat. There’s not too many people that would consider this lack of interaction and communication to be a healthy pattern.

However, our churches follow a very similar pattern. As soon as a family walks through the church doors, they’re off to different places. The parents go in one direction to their adult classes (sometimes even separated by genders) and the kids run off in other directions to see their friends in Sunday School. Even during the worship service a typical family will sit at different places — the parents with their friends and the kids with their friends. Programs like Children’s Church split up the family even further, so it’s not until everyone is ready to head home for the afternoon that the family finally meets up at the front doors and sees each other again. If our churches are trying to encourage good family values, communication, and time spent together, we certianly don’t seem to be providing a conducive environment for it.

So, my re-thinking family ministry has revolved around this question: How can we minister to the family as a whole and still effectively meet the needs of each individual? No bright ideas have come to mind so far, but at my church we’ve attemped to explore different possibilities that might lend themselves to a more wholistic family ministry sometime in the future.

Last year we held a family worship service that attempted to incoporate all ages of the family. The music included worship songs that both adults and children appreciate, such as Lord, I lift your name on high and This is the day. Announcements were made by kids and there was also a quick object lesson, which always appeal to any age group. Families were encouraged to sit together and then circle up into small groups for brief discussions at certian points during the sermon. The sermon avoided big words and used illustrations all ages could appreciate. Fathers were encouraged to be the spiritual leaders and take the initiative in leading their family discussion times. Although the Sunday service went relatively smoothly, the general evaluation by the church leadership afterwards was that the congregation felt a little uncomfortable and unsure about the change in format.

I am still not sure how to tackle this whole family ministry thing because there is such a wide range of ages to effectively communicate to, a variety of individual needs to meet, and so many “levels of spirituality” to challenge. It seems easiest to meet everyone on an individual basis, but somehow we must find a way to make the parents successful as spiritual leaders in their families and provide an environment that enhances family relationships. It’s a tough challenge, but there must be a way to reach the entire family through the students by building them up as the core family unit God established them to be. How exactly that takes place seems to be a bit of a challenge for me.

Posted on November 26, 2005

  • Tim,

    We have been conducting a intergenerational Sunday School class at my church. Here is an article on it.

    It has been a great success and the parents and kids have been growing together. I would love to see this model implemented in more classes.

    You are thinking about great things! Keep me posted on what you decide to do in your church.

    – Brian

  • What a great way to bring families together centered around Christ. I'd be interested in sitting in on a Sunday School class that does this. Sounds like something I'd want a long time down the road when I have my own family.
    I think this is something more churches should grasp and carry out. I can just imagine the amazing results that would happen.

  • Hey Tim
    How about some Family Life Class. Something that offers teachings on “Raising a Healthy Family in Christ”. Something that teaches about each individaul role in the family and how a family works together. I don’t know if that is possible. It needs to be written. Maybe God is telling you to write something!!!! I will be praying for you as God gives you a vision. Remember “Vision always preceds provision”. Stephanie

  • If you figure this one out, write a book, patent it, and give it away, because no one I know is really making this work. Everyone agrees that it is a problem. There are several books on it, yet no one has really made it happen that I have heard of.

    Most of my parents in the youth ministry don’t want to be with their teens at church (sad but true). Frankly the kids want to get away from their parents most of the time as well. Not that the church is in the business of giving people what they want, but I haven’t been able to break the barriers consistently.

    Good luck with this and let us all know if something works consistently.


  • Susan

    I have stumbled across your blog by accident but after reading this post, I am glad I did. Great subject, but does there really have to be a cookie cutter answer? Ministry itself is dynamic and changes rapidly, how can there be a catch-all method. Maybe it serves us well to promote the family from the pulpit of adult services all the way down to the children services. I do think that a service for children is needed seperate from adults in order to present the message of Christ on their level. One thing I have seen that helps is when the leadership of the church speaks of and preaches the train-your-children-to-be godly theme often. We encourage parents not wait until Sundays to set an example of a Christ follower, but to live it every day. This is reenforced through our Home groups and other aspects of the church. It has been better for us to let families know that the best times to teach their children about God is at home rather than letting the church do it all. Again, this subject is very difficult and I would love to hear more on what others have done. My comments are my opinion and by no means are the best route. Thanks for letting me put in my two cents.

  • Hey Tim. Wow – what a thought. Its tought to find answers. But I see the problem and feel its effects at work every day (Im a teacher). The church I grew up in sounds quite similar to yours in that typically we (children) didnt sit with our parents (after we had become teenagers that is) and we were seperated through childrens church prior to our teen years. But I have a close-knit family. I think the reason for this is that parents were encouraged to help out in childrens church and wed night church. The children probably participated in the service at least once every other month. Our pastor gave sermons on how to raise a christian family. Our sunday school teachers taught us how to honor our parents. We had family camp during the summer. We had potluck dinners after church on sundays. We had mother-daughter brunches, men’s breakfasts, daddy-daughter brunches. We also had Family Circles (or something of that nature). Families would get together with other families for a night of food, fun, and fellowship. There was always a lesson, and a game. I think the success in all of this was the willingness of the participants. Intrinsic motivation. Unless they want to become a better parent, most people are just fine with staying where they are. The church environment/atmosphere, needs to push and encourage family activities. I wouldnt say the entire format needs to be changed, but more activites for families might help. Another thing we did, your family could sign up for a church “chore” either once a month or once a week. I remember getting to church early with my parents to either provide donuts, sharpen pencils, arrange pew hymnals, take out the trash, etc. It was time well spent. Good luck!

  • We too have this problem (suprise?!?). I think part of the problem though is not the youth ministry, but the church as a whole. We seperate everyone. Old people to their classes; middle age, older parents, younger parents, singles, etc…everyone gets their own box. And while this is helpful as the teacher in a lecture format, it is harmful to the church. Sitting around talking with my Dad, grandparents, older members of the congregation always brings insight and understanding. Often in both directions. It is fine to have bible education in seperate rooms, but I think we need to have life education in mixed groups of all ages and backgrounds. Older people training the younger people on what it means to be parents and married and Christians in our world. That way parents are equipped to be parents. And they, in turn, can teach their kids what it means to be christian young people.

    Not sure if this is THE answer, but as I thought more about how to get parents and students on the same page this is what came to my mind. Glad I stumbled onto your site. This is a problem we have been dealing with for some time and this thought never occured to me until I read it here.

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  • This is something that i have struggled with as well. One of the effects of this segregation is what I call “The Graduation Syndrome”. We have built, not just in youth ministry mind you, in our Churches this mindset that categorizes things into “Big” Church and “Little” Church. Big Church being the Sunday Morning Thing, or SMT, and its natural off-shoots, and little Church church being us imature youth guys playing Church. What happens is that when teens grow to a certain point, when they have been so segregated from “Big” Church, they are told “now you have to grow up” and are forced into the mold of the “Big” Church. They don’t like that and they skip town. How do we fix it? Idunno. I think, though, that it has to start with a committment to focusing on growth in terms of relevancy. The Church at large, the SMT and all that goes with it has to be prepared to accept teens as soon as they are in graduate phase. I don’t rightly know how to do this, which is why I am still wrestling with it. I do know this, all of our traditional forms of doing this (family worship times etc…) probably won’t do the trick becuase they are focused more on forcing teens to be more mature, and differently stylized than they are, rather than asking the adults to flex some. These approaches seem to rely on a culturally relvancy that has already passed us by.

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