What’s So Special About Family Ministry?

I’m excited to be participating in the Family Ministry Blog Tour.  Many people are receiving the opportunity to answer the question “What is family ministry within the local church? I would encourage you to take the time to read the variety of great posts and insights from the other bloggers!  I’m grateful to Matt Norman for organizing this Tour!

The recent Census Data indicated that 30% of all families in the United States—approximately 20.9 million families—have at least one family member who experiences a disability.  Many times that family member is a child.  No parent wants his or her child to be sick or disabled in any way. It is not an experience anyone expects to have; rather, it is a journey that is unplanned.

Many parents have described the progression—and pendulum—of feelings they experienced upon learning that their child has a disability.  Shock, denial, grief, guilt, anger, confusion. The type of emotions these parents experience are intense and often feel overwhelming.

  • A father upon learning of his daughter’s disability wrestles with decisions concerning medical finances.
  • A sibling struggles to understand why his brother with autism requires so much of his parents’ attention.
  • A grandmother feels exhausted from the added responsibilities of caring for a grandchild with traumatic brain injury.
  • A mother is frustrated at the negative comments she hears when her son with ADHD has a meltdown. 

All of the struggles depicted above cry out for genuine support from a caring congregation.  Families should not have to meet the challenges of raising a child with disability without the love, care, encouragement, and tangible support of their church.

When I hear people talk about Deuteronomy 6:4-7, I find that they rarely ever stop and focus on something that I, a father of three boys with special needs, consider to be very important and it’s right at the beginning of the passage:

“Hear, O Israel…” 

In the context of this passage, Moses is speaking to all of Israel about the importance of families passing on their faith to the next generation.  He was speaking to all of Israel and that included EVERY parent.  I imagine myself in the crowd with every other parent of a child with special needs hearing these words:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  These commandments that I give all of you today are to be on your hearts.  Impress them on your children even if they have autism or Asperger Syndrome.  Talk about them when you sit at home, even if your child has ADHD.  Talk about them as you push your child with cerebral palsy in his wheelchair along the road.  Repeat them when they lie down and when they get up because sometimes kids with learning disabilities learn better through repetition.”

Okay, so maybe I modified this passage a little bit.  My bad.  However, I did it with pure intentions:  to drive home the point that Deuteronomy 6:4-7 provides some incredible insights for every parent about their role to influence their child’s spiritual development.  Perhaps this is why this passage is the most frequently quoted to explain the importance of family…every family.

Unfortunately, in our culture, I think there are two primary obstacles that stand in the way of parents of children with special needs taking responsibility for the spiritual development of their children.  There are other obstacles that could, and should, be mentioned.  But I’d like to briefly identify the two that families of kids with special needs have in common with families who have typical developing children.  I’m not going to attempt to identify solutions to these obstacles because that is beyond the scope of this blog post.

The first obstacle is that many parents  have developed a “drop off” mentality when it comes to the spiritual discipleship of their children.  Families drop off their children at the preschool, children, youth, or special needs ministry and expect the Sunday school teacher and volunteers to be the discipleship makers.  Perhaps this is even more true of parents of kids with special needs because they are so exhausted from the day-to-day demands that they cannot even fathom being able to find spare time for faith related matters in their home.

The second obstacle is that most parents did not grow up in a home where their spiritual development was nurtured.  Many of todays parents did not experience what it was like for dad and/or mom to have family devotions, prayer time, Bible reading, and faith talks.  For this reason, many parents of children with special needs feel ill-equipped to assume the primary role of spiritual leaders in their homes.

I appreciate Rollie Martinson’s insight on both of these obstacles and his solution:

“Presently, parents take their kids to church so the church can do the lion’s share of the faith teaching. We’ve got it backward. The kids should take their parents to church to be equipped to nurture faith and life skills in their children and return home ready to shape their kid’s faith.”  (The Family-Friendly Church, p. 75).

Bingo!  This insight makes it clear to me what all of us who do family ministry already know:  that God is calling the Church to help bring Christ back into the center of every home…and it requires partnering with parents.  That’s what makes family ministry special.  Church and parents working together to bring Christ back into every home.

My answer to the question, “What is family ministry within the local church?”

It’s when the church partners with every parent to spiritually nurture their unique child who is made in the image of God. 

There are 20.9 million families in the US affected by a disability who are in need of the love, care, encouragement, and support of a family-friendly church…

Michael Woods, M.A. BCaBA

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About Michael Woods

Christ-follower, husband, chocoholic, and peanut-butter lover! I'm a father to triplet boys...each on the autism spectrum.

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4 Comments on “What’s So Special About Family Ministry?”

  1. drgrcevich Says:

    Mike…you’re going to be a tough act to follow!

    Do you think the “drop-off” mentality is more of an issue for parents of kids with disabilities than families in general? After all, parents of kids with disabilities are accustomed to dropping them off at the speech therapist’s office, the occupational therapist’s office or their social skills group. Their child may work with a special education teacher on a daily basis for help with reading and math. If this is true, what have you found successful to break parents out of that mindset when it comes to the spiritual development of their kids?

    Reply

    • SpecialNeedsMinistry Says:

      Steve, from my understanding and what I’ve been reading, I think that the drop-off mentality is families in general. Your comment has merit, however, so perhaps parents of kids with special needs might be a little bit more accustomed to this mindset because of the nature of what they have to do on a week-to-week basis. The first thing that I found helpful to break parents out of the drop-off mindset was the realization that I too am guilty of dropping off my boys and relying on the church to take the lead in their spiritual development. My next step is to simply assume that what has helped me to break out of it will probably be useful to some other parents too. I love the “lead by example” philosophy so that kinda drives what happens next.

      Thanks for all that you do Steve and the great team at Key Ministry to be part of the solution in the area of church and disabilities!

      Reply

  2. Amy Says:

    As a homeschooling parent of a child with significant special needs, I have been called to take on the responsibility for what my child needs in all areas including her religious education. Early on, I thought the church might be helpful in meeting her/our spiritual needs but found that to be untrue.

    Faith is primarily learned by my children is by the way I live, what I show and teach is the path that they will follow. The drop-off mentality teaches only that it is all to be assumed by someone who knows more or might be able to do it better…or not. God knows…God equips us, sometimes by the seat of our pants, to meet the needs of our children. When did parents lose the part where they will be held accountable?

    The system encourages parents of children with special needs dependent on them. Only “they” know best. The parents are often excluded from interventions/therapies/education. We can be a troublesome lot as we look for answers in the world of raising a child with special needs. We care deeply and all of our time and energy goes to helping our child with special needs thrive. Often, the emotions that come with the journey are always at the surface and, at times, overwhelming and exhausting. We are taught that we aren’t really capable and therefore can’t be responsible. Feeling inadequate for the role we’ve been given, we might believe that to be true. In partnering with parents, the church can walk with families to discern God’s plan for families within the church and community by first acknowledging that the child/individual has unmet spiritual needs – you know that though. We have a mess in that parents and churches feel inadequate to meet those needs. We will be equipped in that partnership as we kneel before God together acknowledging we are inadequate alone but that our wisdom & strength comes from Him.

    At this point and time, I think the church is humbling herself by asking how we can better serve and support individuals with special needs and their families.
    The drop-off mentality is part of the culture but the church cannot abdicate responsibility for the support of our families so that we can know acceptance and love in supporting our children with special needs. We can do this together!

    Thank you & God bless you for the work you do!

    Reply

    • SpecialNeedsMinistry Says:

      Amy, a very thoughtful and insightful reply. Thank you for sharing what’s on your heart. Many of those in family ministry are moving back towards supporting parents as the ones who are primarily responsible for their child’s faith development. Lots of great ideas being shared as more and more churches seek to find ways to productively support parents in this endeavor. As you know, it’s taking a little bit longer for churches and parents of children with special needs to develop the kind of supportive relationship that God has always intended.
      Thank you for all that you do as a parent!

      Reply

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