It doesn’t take long in the real world to realise that crude assumptions about nuclear families with 2.4 children no longer ring true; but what is the reality of family life and what impact does that have on our ministries? Gail Adcock recently led a study in this area and shares the results.
Something has happened in the last few years. Across the Church there has been a growing awareness that beyond ministry with children and young people lies the ‘family’. From a decade and more of rapid growth and development in children’s work, a new field of practice is emerging: from seeing children as isolated figures to seeing them as people with parents, grandparents, carers, siblings and home lives extending outside and beyond the activities, groups and events they participate in at church. We’re waking up to the notion that family matters. Ministry is evolving to discover new ways of supporting, nurturing and gathering households.
A WELL-TRODDEN PATH
There’s often a sense that work with families is familiar territory: it’s a landscape we recognise, consisting of young children, babies, toddlers, mums and dads. It’s a place that resonates through shared experiences and our own lives as well as those of our friends and neighbours. From a Church perspective, it’s shaped by our grasp of being the body of Christ, our interconnectedness as God’s people and the sense of community and purpose that brings us into. It’s all too easy for family to be perceived as a simple, comfy concept.
Yet as we walk alongside families today, our experiences would say something altogether different. Being family is complex, multifaceted, dynamic and ever-evolving. The roles of parents have altered, as have their working lives and the nature of childcare. The lives of children and young people have shifted dramatically over recent decades. Back in the 90s, millions of TV viewers tuned in to watch the sitcom 2point4 Children. It followed the ups and downs of the Porter family; the stresses, strains and resulting hilarity that accompanied their shared life. With their teenage daughter and mischievous younger son, they were the epitome of family in that era, and its popularity reflected the sense of shared experience: this was an environment many recognised.
A NEW ROAD
The picture in 2015 displays an entirely new landscape, where we meet a myriad of different kinds of family: diverse households with different members, sometimes related, sometimes not, with some choosing to be family together regardless of blood or legal ties. Family exists and is created in a host of different ways, cultures, people and places. Today, the average number of children per family is 1.7 and the number of ‘concealed families’ (households with more than one family living together) continues to rise. The ways families create life together has developed so that the notion of the nuclear family is just one of many forms that exist. Across society we’re exploring a whole host of new and vibrant forms of family, discovering new ways to be family to and for each other.
Diana Garland, a researcher and writer on family ministry, said: ‘Every family has its own unique culture, which develops in the context of and in response to the layers of place, ethnicity, class and religion. But as the family weaves these together in their own history and ecology, the family takes on a culture of its own.’
If we take a moment to reflect on the kinds of families we meet in scripture, we encounter equally diverse forms, often with troubled stories and backgrounds. Matthew 1:1–17, describing the genealogy of Jesus, reminds us of a host of families whose tales of family life contain violent or steamy stories. There are plenty of skeletons in the closet here! The Bible gives us a very real account of a range of families. This not a picture of the nuclear family ideal, but of family in all its raw, stark and complex form. It reflects much of what we might recognise from our own lives and context. God, we’re reminded, is not unaware that family can be both a joy and challenge.
THE CHANGING FACE OF FAMILIES
During the course of our research project we discovered this new landscape of family was very much the context for ministry and support. Workers shared how they met and engaged with a whole host of different kinds of families in their roles: families who were very involved in church life and others participating in activities and events but with little contact otherwise; families experiencing a range of circumstances and challenges, seeking to be family for each other in the midst of a vast array of complex issues, navigating their way through daily life valuing the support and time offered to them.
Our findings show that 12 different forms of family were encountered on a regular basis:
- Families and children with additional needs
- Extended families or those with older relatives
- Families of different faiths or none
- Culturally diverse families
- Couples without children
- ‘Empty nesters’, where adult offspring have left home
- Parents with special needs and children
- Same-sex couples and families
- Single parents
- Blended families
- Families with fostered or adopted children
- Married or cohabiting couples with children
This is the contemporary nature of family: households being family together and for each other, creating homes in villages, towns and cities across the country, reconstructing what family looks like and redefining what we understand family to be. It’s a dynamic environment for church-based family workers to navigate, one that raises questions about practice and the very nature of what ministry with families today might look like today.
Are we ready to shape ministry so that it's easily accessible for all kinds of different
What we see is that the nuclear family is still very much present in work taking place with families; there are many churches welcoming mum and dad with their children into activities throughout the week. Yet there’s a rise in the other kinds mentioned. The research shows that workers interact with many different types for different purposes at different times. Midweek activities often draw those keen to engage in activities with young children during the day and older children once school’s out. This can lead to further support or pastoral care, as well as participation in other ways in church life. It’s noticeable that there is little mention of families with teenagers, which raises a host of questions and is an area ripe for further research.
LIFE ON THE ROAD
Mei Yuk, a children’s and family worker based in the north-west, first met ‘Mum’ during a playgroup session. Sitting alone, rarely interacting with other parents and childminders. She discovered Mum’s Thai background presented difficulties in communicating easily, but in time they formed a friendship; one that endured beyond the child moving on to nursery. A connection was made that faith differences between a Christian and Buddhist didn’t hinder.
Anne has known a single dad in her congregation for many years, seeing his daughter grow from a toddler to a teenager, supporting them both as he wrestles with parenting dilemmas and his daughter has mixed feelings about her mum. They’ve volunteered in Messy Church and crèche, actively joining in with congregational life there. There is strong bond between them, their extended family and the wider church, which has provided a place of stability and encouragement.
Carrie is based in the south and has supported a family with complex needs for some time: a blended family with children on the autistic spectrum who have experienced abuse in the past They’re part of church life, participating in a range of ways from dads and lads’ group to kids’ activities throughout the week. She has been able to offer pastoral support as well helping them navigate local social services.
Julie works with a family who have adopted a lively three-year-old boy in Cornwall. They’re an active part of an after-school club she leads, where they’ve found support and learnt new ways to parent this energetic lad. She has observed how they’re increasingly open to questions about faith and life: mum’s attending an Alpha course and they’ve asked for their children to be baptised later this year.
For all these workers there’s a strong desire to meet families where they are, to not bring their own agendas but simply to befriend and start where they are. They all testify to the challenges of doing this – of feeling ill-equipped at times, of lacking knowledge or experience – and yet there are genuine moments of joy in the midst of what they do. This joy is found in seeing a child’s confidence grow over time, observing small steps of Christian faith being taken, witnessing deeper bonds between parents, and children becoming trusted figures in church life. There are profound rewards in travelling with families, being alongside them as they steer a course through the tough and joyous occurrences of life.
For Jo Yair and Rachel Matthews, Methodist family workers in the Vale of Stour circuit, developing new approaches to working with families in their community is a priority. For Jo, these big questions of ministry can be distilled into less complex ideas and ways of working: ‘We simply want to meet families where they are. We seek to get to know them, the lives they lead and the challenges they face and support them as best we can.’
Rachel underlines the importance of creating these kinds of spaces, recognising the need for ministry to be rooted in a family’s ‘real life’: ‘We learn a lot when we get people together like this. We find out about the assumptions they have about church, about being welcomed or not, and that’s a real eyeopener. We also get to hear their stories and some of the hard circumstances they’ve overcome. It’s amazing what you find out. We feel really privileged to do what we do!’
It’s striking how enormously different the families that workers meet and describe are from one another. These are just a handful of examples, yet the research offers a glimpse of a much wider picture of what’s happening across the country. Workers continue to break down barriers to participation and blur the edges of ministry and support so it emerges in a host of different places.
WALKING THE NEW ROAD
It begs the question: are we ready? Are we fully prepared to do the same; to be a Church with wide open doors for all, to shape ministry and practice so that it’s easily accessible for all kinds of different families? Do we plan and organise our programmes and events in ways that remove obstacles to participation or do we actually create stumbling blocks that hinder this? If we embrace the gospel-driven desire to authentically meet families where they are, what needs to change? There are some provocative and sensitive theological and social questions that arise from this debate that warrant our prayerful consideration at a deeper level, but it starts with something as simple as a smile as we say: ‘Hello, come in, you’re welcome.’
The picture in 2015 displays an entirely new family landscape
For the Church, it’s crucial to adjust to this new paradigm of work with families, to recognise that for many the practicalities of being a family has changed. Our practices, attitudes and approaches to supporting and ministering to families demonstrate a genuine desire to meet them where they are, without expectations to conform to perceived ideals of the ‘model family’.
Imminently, CGMC (the Consultative Group of Ministry among Children) will be publishing an extensive research report scoping the nature of work currently taking place with families across the UK. The conclusion of a lengthy project promises to be an exciting and thought provoking, raising questions about the current nature and shape of ministry as well as how to most effectively train, equip and resource those working with them. We’d invite you to join us as we carve out new routes in this field, leading us forward to a fuller understanding of what ministry to and with families might look like.
We are beginning to see a genuine desire to pursue a greater holistic approach to ministry, to continue to wrestle with the challenges of working with families in the 21st Century and celebrating the landmarks of family life - to walk alongside with them through their day-to-day experiences. We remain convinced that it’s a road worth walking.
Gail Adcock is the Methodist Church’s family adviser