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  • Writer's pictureEthan Hardin

We are a Family

Reflections on Family Ministry in 2023

Last Sunday, families gathered to enjoy a table of fellowship over a conversation about the future. We opened up about the struggles and opportunities of parenting today. We commiserated about a constellation of issues: sleeplessness, fatigue, self-doubt, and the every-present struggle for balance amid a host of priorities and always-limited time. While that list is heavy, making it gave us a confessional space. Parenting is hard. All the more when you consider how these perennial challenges can frustrate our hopes of cultivating faith in the next generation. There’s something incredibly human and humbling about the realities of family life.

Now, scale that up to gathering a group of families with kids in every stage, temperament, sleep schedule, and social need. That’s a picture of how families experience Sunday mornings. Our conversation followed the challenges of church life. We discussed how kids and parents experience our gatherings: the social barriers of family isolation, the tension between meaningful involvement and families attending to their needs, the often overwhelming nature of spaces for kids, and the ever-fragmented attention of parents as family life is transplanted into these gathering spaces. Parenting, even amid a church family with ministries in service to family needs, is still hard. How does our utterly human experience of church life encounter the divine?

What if it is exactly in the messy realities of family life that we find our God at work? God created humanity as community from the start (Gen. 1:26-7). Something of the inter-relationality of our Trinitarian God is reflected through kinship, through the family unit. God’s redemptive plan was family-oriented, partnering with one family to bless all families of the earth (Abraham & Sarah, Gen. 12:1-3). God reveals his blessing through something as mundane and noisy as the dinner table (Ps. 127). This sounds a bit rose-colored, doesn’t it? Maybe you don’t question God’s partnering with families in his redemptive thread but you cannot connect these lofty aims with the realities of your percussive dinner table, your frantic morning routine, and the sleepless nights of parenting?

Personally, I’ve found it helpful to picture my household as a monastery - a place where I have committed to be stuck with the same people in perpetuity as a vow to God. Maybe that sounds bleak, but hear me out. The monastics speak of a concept called askesis. It is essentially the idea of growing close to God while being stuck in a tight spot or a commitment. In his brilliant book, Under the Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson calls askesis, “a place of confinement, of severe and inescapable limits.” He goes on: “Askesis is voluntary disaster.” Now, that’s an accurate definition of parenting if I’ve ever heard one! But even so, how does a voluntary disaster of inescapable limits like parenting help us grow close to God? Precisely because it is hard. Peterson continues to suggest askesis is no glorified self-help tool, “…but it is rather immersion in an environment in which our capacities are reduced to nothing or nearly nothing and we are at the mercy of God to shape his will in us.

Parents, we are immersed in an environment where our capacities are reduced. And indeed, we are at the mercy of God to shape his will in us. How can we reframe the real struggles of parenting as opportunities to meet with God in the chaos and find ourselves transformed? These are exactly the kinds of hopes bubbling up among our desires for family ministry in 2023. Yes, most of this necessarily plays out in our homes. But this vision overflows into our gathering spaces and church family.

And here’s the beauty in it: God sees the church as his household, his family (Eph. 2:19). That means, whether or not we realize it, we belong to one another. We are a family. So the opportunity to see God at work in family life is not limited to the internal responsibilities of the nuclear family. Family life is for all of us. Maybe you’ve read this as someone who is not in the throes of parenting but as a grandparent or a young adult. Well, my brother, my sisters: My noisy family is yours, too. We are being woven together. And God’s integrative activity should evidence itself for all to see on Sunday mornings.

And it does. Every Sunday, sisters and brothers care for, teach, encourage, and play with the children of the church family in Kids Ministry and the Nursery. But may it grow. May we meet parents as kin and spur them on. May we meet kids as our own and foster their growth. May God weave us closer to each other as we come closer to him and his heart for us. These are the stirrings of Family Ministry at theHeart. And they led us to some simple and strategic initiatives to begin the year.

As families dreamed of possibilities, we identified a few areas to re-envision immediately. In an interest to help the smallest of our kids who have graduated the nursery, we are moving our Kids Ministry small group space into the library. We hope this sets a calmer social tone before the kids unwind in the hyperactive arena of the gym. Further, we are considering moving the Nursery to the near side of the library in the hopes it might be a better space. We also are bringing back an event concept pioneered by college interns of the past: to host date night events where volunteers provide free childcare for our church parents. We want to invest our time, our attention, our very selves to nurture children, marriages, and family life here at theHeart. And we want to follow God in these aims.

So, family (which you are part of!), the dialogue is alive and open. If you are a parent that was unable to attend Family Ministry Night, you are formally invited into the conversation. If you are not a parent or you have grown kids, reach out for ways to serve your younger cohort. If you are a young adult, we have so many ways you can become involved in the lives of kids, youth, and families here at theHeart. And trust me, from experience, I know that once you start pouring out, your life can change. God has used my time serving kids in VBS, kids camp, and in youth group, all before I had children of my own, to shape me. That’s what this askesis thing is all about: growing toward God by staying committed to one another in Christ’s Love. Simple.

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