The Lord Jesus, in his prayer recorded in John 17, prays for his church. Looking down the centuries from the 1st to the 21st he prays, ‘My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one… As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.’
So we are to be in the world but not of the world; in it to win it for Jesus Christ. There is little point in simply bemoaning the state of society and the erosion of Christian values — we are called to engage with the world where God has placed us. If we are to effectively engage with society, we will need to do two things. First, we must try to understand the real life situations of our friends, neighbours and work colleagues. And second, we must respond with the truth of the gospel appropriate to the context.
Numerous studies help us understand the contemporary context of changing family structures. According to the Office of National Statistics data from 2014, there were 18.6 million families in the UK. 12.5 million are married couple families which is still the most common family type in the UK. However, cohabiting couple families grew by 29.7% between 2004 and 2014 making this the fastest growing type of family in the UK today.
In 2014 there were two million lone parents with dependent children in the UK and women accounted for 91% of lone parents with dependent children. A total of 28% of the 26.7 million households in the UK contained only one person. Significantly, households containing two or more families were the fastest growing type of household in the decade to 2014, increasing by 56% over ten years. These are sometimes known as ‘blended’ families.
These few headline statistics reflect the ongoing changes to families and households occurring across contemporary society and provide a valuable insight into the reality of family life for many in the UK today. The use of the word ‘households’ in contemporary statistical reports reflects the change in family structures. A report commissioned by a leading church denomination in the UK published this year identified over ten different definitions of ‘family’ in contemporary society.
Meeting people where they are
We, guided by God’s Word, wouldn’t want to endorse all of these changing definitions of family. However, we need to recognise that the ideal of the nuclear family which many evangelical churches continue to promote is more culturally conditioned than it is biblical. The bible has many examples of extended family structures similar to those that still operate in non-western cultures. These can be immensely helpful in providing care for both ends of the generational spectrum.
As churches seeking to be faithful to the principles of God’s Word we uphold the biblical definition of marriage as the foundation of society and family life. Genesis 2:24 is endorsed by Jesus in Matthew 19: ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ However, two considerations need to be recognised. First, how households are structured around the basic building block of marriage varies according to cultural contexts.
Secondly, we live in a fallen world where the majority of the population experience a reality far removed from the principles of Scripture. Nevertheless, we are sent by Jesus into that world to share the good news of the gospel with people where they are. Transformation only comes after the gospel has taken root in people’s lives. Meanwhile as church communities we can lovingly relate to people in all their present need – spiritual, moral and physical.
As God’s family, the local church must be a welcoming, outward facing community expressing in our words and deeds the love of a Saviour who came to seek and to save the lost. Our structures, our services and our speech should adapt to relate to people’s lived experiences. As society becomes more fragmented and the quality of social networks become more fragile the local church has a wonderful opportunity to build unconditional and faithful relationships with households in need.
Congregational and community focus
Churches today need to hold together the congregational and community focus of ministry. Within our congregations we need to be intentionally inclusive. Starting small with simple changes in our publicity will help. Descriptions such as ‘Family Worship’, ‘Mums and tots’, ‘Singles’ automatically exclude people, and could be replaced by less traditional and restrictive names. But then our practice must reflect our publicity. Services should be all-age in appeal; dads, grandparents and professional carers should be welcomed in the roles they play.
There is a danger that traditional church models have become too differentiated. In a bid to appeal to more people, our church family has become segregated, with a lack of meaningful relationships between different groups within the congregation. An over emphasis on homogeneous units within the local church can make the church itself seem like a dysfunctional family. We need to strive to have truly transgenerational worship with children, students, unmarried and grandparents all having a part to play. Exploring models of all-age worship and implementing them effectively so that God is glorified and his people nurtured is a challenge that cannot be ignored.
Depending on the church’s locality the community focus of ministry will vary. But we do well to remember the simple apostolic injunction to ‘remember the poor’ as the breakdown of family relationships often results in hardship and deprivation. It is sad that for many outside our walls the perception of the church is alien and daunting. For many it would not be the place to turn to for emotional and physical support. Yet this should be what we are able to offer in Jesus’ name. Food banks, lone parent support, after school clubs, and help to manage family finances are just some ways in which churches can adapt their ministry to the community.
As the congregational and community focus is worked out in practice in the local church the separation between the two becomes less distinct. The ‘fuzzy edges’ will be a challenge for us to navigate and sometimes we will be misunderstood and may even suffer from ‘friendly fire’! Are we content to be consigned to increasing irrelevance in society? More importantly, are we content to ignore the missional mandate of the Lord Jesus to be in the world but not of the world? If not, we must learn, adapt and engage.