Twenty-five years ago I wrote my first book—a collaboration with Dr. Ben Freudenburg, a pioneering family ministry practitioner, innovator, and educator. The book is The Family-Friendly Church, and it’s the story of Ben’s deep dive into the research surrounding parents’ impact on their kids’ faith and his innovative attempts to craft a youth ministry that invited and supported parents’ involvement instead of relegating them to a “chief bottle-washer” role.
As Ben experimented with radical new parent-partnering approaches to ministry, his pastor (wisely) suggested he take a sabbatical to give greater focus to his work. Using Search Institute’s groundbreaking research into effective ministry with families, Ben set out to explore what it would look like if the church really believed parents are the primary faith-nurturers in their kids’ lives. Here is the “working manifesto” he created to guide his work:
“Parents are the primary Christian educators in the church, and the family is the God-ordained institution for faith-building in children and youth and for the passing of faith from one generation to the next.”
At the time, this was a groundbreaking vision—an organic extension of Vibrant Faith founder Dr. Merton Strommen’s seminal book 5 Cries of Youth. To guide his path toward a more fully realized ministry strategy, fueled by this vision, Ben gave himself four questions to explore with the churches and organizations he planned to visit during his sabbatical:
- What skills do family members who are making a difference in each other’s lives possess?
- What common values do they share? What do they work to honor and uphold?
- What’s the significant difference that a healthy home makes in the lives of its members? What makes the home the preferred place to invest one’s life in?
- What joys do they celebrate? (If family members are happy, they will cherish the moments they celebrate together.)
After three months traveling around the U.S., “drinking in ideas from people who were in the middle of theirpassion,” Ben returned to his home church ready to share what he’d learned and light a fire under his congregation. As he dove into the answers he’d collected to his “four questions,” he could sense an “alarm going off” in the people of his church. In honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the book, and the deep impact that Ben’s work has made around the world, here is what he discovered…
Families that are making a difference in each other’s lives possess the following skills:
- teaching the faith,
- nurturing children (especially by fathers),
- empowering others to use their gifts,
- living out the gospel in everyday life,
- setting personal boundaries,
- practicing effective discipline,
- fostering quality interpersonal relationships (family, couple, and friends),
- practicing good family management and planning (finances, time, and decision-making),
- demonstrating the ability to play with children of all ages,
- showing the ability to teach life skills (lawn care, cleaning, washing, cooking, car maintenance, and balancing a checkbook), and
- fostering interpersonal communication.
Families that are making a difference in each other’s lives uphold similar values and are working to provide the following:
- a positive learning environment,
- an emphasis on building Christian character,
- lifelong relationships,
- a support system,
- personal identity,
- a sense of belonging, and
- opportunities for faith growth.
Families that are making a difference in each other’s lives sense that what they’re doing—investing their lives in the home—is significant. They feel the following are important products of their homes:
- good marriages that fuel strong families,
- values that reflect God’s wisdom,
- people of integrity,
- role models in the faith,
- faith-filled young people,
- family traditions and rituals,
- children who turn into productive adults,
- servant hearts,
- life skills,
- concern for the world outside the home,
- empowerment of people to be the best they can be, and
- support systems for people in crisis.
Families that are making a difference in each other’s lives joyfully celebrate the following:
- transitions or milestones—from one grade to another, from one job to another, first steps, and so on,
- the gift of life—birthdays, deaths, healings, gardens, and so on,
- children and adults caring for each other—visiting Grandma in the nursing home, helping people who are sick, and so on,
- doing the right thing—resisting vices, choosing to have the baby, forgiving an enemy, deciding not to cheat, and so on,
- achievements—getting a C in a hard class, promotions, an award for artistic excellence, employee of the week, and so on,
- being with each other—choosing to go to the symphony with your parents, choosing to spend recreation time with your family, and so on,
- promises kept—marriage, appointments, commitments, and so on, and
- times faith shows itself—spontaneous prayer, facing fears, loving the unlovable, forgiving the unforgivable, and so on.
This bullet-list captures what Ben observed over countless conversations during his sabbatical—it was his attempt to represent what productive, caring, faith-nurturing families look like. And it created a “vacuum” of need in his congregation; a hunger for change that kicked off a broad and deep change in the way Ben’s church—and now churches around the world—approach ministry to young people.
Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following Jesus. He’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.