By Ian DiOrio
Confronted with the confusion and diversity in family arrangements today, how does a minister preach and teach biblical values that offer true help and real hope?
On a trip to Boston, I had the opportunity to tour the Old North Church, a National Historic Landmark. The beautifully constructed church, built in 1723, still carries powerful resonances of the spiritual climate of America before the climatic year of 1776.
One of the most notable features of the church are the pews, many of which are sectioned off by family. Families who attended the church had their own small, sacred place for sitting during worship. The architecture of the church simply assumed that church would always be a family affair and families would practice their faith together as a cornerstone of their communal life.
But in just a few hundred years, the spiritual climate of America has shifted dramatically. Not only have family pews become nonexistent, the family itself has been restructured in ways that impact the church and its mission.
Gone are the days when pastors can assume all who grace their churches are part of cohesive families made up of one mom and one dad who have been singularly married to each other. Every church in America reflects a mixture of nuclear families, divorced and blended families, single mothers, single fathers, and couples who have children but remain unmarried, not to mention younger people who are losing faith in the “institution” of marriage altogether.
This creates complexities for Christian leaders, many of whom also do not fit into the traditional notions of family. The fragmentation of the family has negative effects on society as a whole and the church in particular, and it creates both a challenge and opportunity to impact today’s family, no matter what form it takes.
Thoughtful, Compassionate, and Clear
The reality of the modern family requires thoughtful, compassionate, and clear preaching on family. One of the greatest gifts communicators can give people in their congregation is a truly biblical perspective on the family.
I have found that many people in churches have a simple, two-dimensional perspective on the Bible and family. They make many false assumptions: a big one is that everyone in the Bible fits into traditional notions of a nuclear family. But we know this isn’t the case. The Scriptures are replete with portraits of other types of family situations.
Every Christmas we remember an example of this complexity. Just think of what Joseph felt as he married Mary and raised Jesus as his own, knowing that doing so would mean being ridiculed and thought a fool by his surrounding culture. Joseph and Mary and Jesus did not comprise a nuclear family.
One of the greatest gifts preachers and Christian leaders can give their members is a biblical debunking of what constitutes a “normal” family. The idealization of normal causes much grief to those navigating the complexities of doing family in our truly unique era in history.
Many of the patriarchs and heroes of the faith lived in family situations that were radically different from the nuclear ideal, and yet God used them and blessed them. Helping people see that God has not forgotten them just because their family may be a bit complicated. He does not perceive them as somehow “less than.”
Remove the Tension
When it comes to speaking effectively to a cross section of people from various family backgrounds, the following tools have helped me enormously.
First, remove the tension in the room around the subject of family. Instead of placing before people an unreachable ideal, give people hope by teaching them that God is working in every family situation, no matter how it is structured. Always acknowledge the pain and benefits that accompany trying to navigate family roles and always include those who may have suffered the variety of losses that come with family life.
Second, be personal and vulnerable about your own family experiences. If you are from a divorced home, share that with the church. You will be amazed how encouraged people can be when they discover their pastor is made of clay and that he has struggled through family challenges as well.
If you come from a together family that fits snuggly into a cultural ideal, celebrate that, and give wisdom about how you have achieved such stability.
There is nothing more practical than living in a family, and yet this everyday experience is far from simple. When leaders identify with their people by sharing their own personal experience, hearts and minds open in ways they would not have otherwise.
An Eternal Family
One final thought on preaching to the post-nuclear family: always hold up the church as God’s forever family. God’s goal for human beings is for them to flourish in a spiritual family where they acknowledge God as their Father and fellow believers as brothers and sisters in Christ.
For those who find their earthly family difficult, it is a great gift to know that God is still at work in the world, patching together a family made up of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. Those who offer their lives over to the kingdom of God will receive what Jesus promised, “that everyone who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, will be repaid many times over in this life, and will have eternal life in the world to come” (Luke 18:29, 30, New Living Translation).
For those who have been hurt or abused or have become disconnected from their earthly family, there is an offer on the table from Jesus himself to become part of God’s eternal, heavenly family. As we preach and teach on the topic of family, our final point should lead all people to discover in the church a family that adds to, and at times supplements our earthly family.
Only an eternal perspective on family can give refuge to those dealing with family fallout in our time.
Ian DiOrio serves as pastor with Yucaipa (California) Christian Church, Yucaipa.