Three things every family needs and one thing they don’t

Available at Cokesbury

After 18 months of virtual ministry, churches are re-engaging face to face. The question I keep hearing is: “How are we going to get families back to church?” With too many still unvaccinated, during the rise in breakthrough cases from the delta variant, and while the vaccine is inaccessible to young children, a better question to ask is, “How are we going to engage families in our community?” It may not mean butts in pews. It may mean something completely different that we haven’t thought of yet! Regardless of how you shape ministry programming in context – virtual, in person, or hybrid – every family or individual needs three things.


This need seems obvious. Any kind of ministry program should be safe, and the bar for this is set high and low. Check your space. What updates are needed to make it accessible and safe for everyone? Think about your check-in and checkout policies for children, which every church should have. Consider sick policies and masking to ensure health safety. Require that every person who does ministry with young people is certified for Safe Gatherings or Safe Sanctuaries.

Families also expect safety in their homes, neighborhoods, schools, and communities. How can your ministry be a part of addressing these real and tangible needs for safety beyond the local church?

Safety includes more than physical safety from harm and abuse. Leaders foster emotional and spiritual safety as well. Young people should feel safe to wonder, question, doubt, disagree, wrestle with God. Safe to talk (or not, if they don’t want to), cry, be angry, experience joy. Your ministry should be a safe place for people to experience the range of human emotions and to poke and prod their faith. Their questions and concerns might surprise you!

Sometimes participants ask questions for which you do not have an answer. That’s great! It means you can learn together. Create a space where humility is essential as you explore together. Learn how to say, “Great question! Let’s find out together.”


Now halfway into a second year of displaced planning, establishing and communicating a predictable rhythm is even more essential.

What’s your plan? Are you meeting quarterly? Monthly? Weekly? Articulate the plan clearly and often. Consider creating an online calendar (or whatever collaboration tool you use) that can be easily integrated into anyone’s personal calendars. The more predictable your calendar is, the more likely participation will become a habit for families.

The schedule for what happens every time you gather should also be predictable. Establish a routine so that it’s easy for participants to know what they’re getting themselves into. They’ll be more comfortable and more likely to invite others. Start and finish on time, every time. Consider opening and closing with a special ritual or blessing. Fill in the rest of the space with meaningful experiences like play, spiritual practices, service projects, eating together, worship – whatever! Just make it predictable.

Again, families need predictability beyond the local church as well. How many families aren’t sure when they’ll get their next meal or paycheck? Can they count on the church to collaborate with other community services to create a predictable environment for all families in the community?

Available from Cokesbury


Before the pandemic, I would have said that the the primary purpose of children and youth ministries is to disciple children in the essentials of Christian faith and practice. I thought that socializing was an over-emphasized part of the programming. I’ve changed my mind. Sort of.

I still believe that the point of children and youth ministries is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But I think we do that through connection with others – through relationships. And folks connect through social stuff. It’s how most humans are wired.

Kids learn through play. Youth experiment with their identities through their experiences with their friends. Adults still like fun, too, though we sometimes have a hard time finding or creating it. The pandemic put a spotlight on our isolation and loneliness throughout society, and your church has something to say about that.

Sunday School was originally created in the late 1700s by Christians who recognized a need. Children were working all week and not going to school, so they couldn’t read. The only day they had off was Sunday, so churches taught kids to read on Sundays. Get it? Sunday school. Of course, things have changed with public education and child labor laws, but a central part of discipling young people is to meet their real and tangible needs. Our modern needs to meet are things like loneliness, mental health issues, and a slew of social justice inequities. One of the best ways I’ve connected with small groups in the past is to serve together. Offer opportunities to engage the community through acts of mercy and justice and do it together.

People need a sense of belonging. Commonality. They need someone to know their name. They need laughter and play, care and concern. When a family is going through the thick of daily living, they need a safe haven in a relationship – so follow up with phone calls and face to face visits when appropriate. Ask questions. Care about what they care about. Offer to pray with them. And listen. I mean, really listen.

Stay connected through technical means too, such as weekly emails to families, regular check-ins, surveys to get information about what they want or need, Facebook groups and other social media engagement. Connect families to other families in the community. Curate an inviting space that lends itself to connecting and communing.

One thing they don’t need: shame

Let’s retire the phrase “They just need to make it a priority.” No more complaining about soccer practice or band camp or how the family unit just isn’t the same anymore.

You’re right – it’s not the same. Long gone are the days when a single income could support a family. If a child is lucky to have two grown-ups in the home, chances are those grown-ups are both working, and they’re doing the best they can. Give them a break.

Families are busy. We can’t complain about them not coming to our programming if we don’t make it easy for them to come. Consider things like bedtime ranges for younger kids and local sports/activity calendars. You should not try to please everybody – or we’d never have any programming if we did that! I am urging you to think critically about the real and lived rhythms of families in your town. You can have the best programming in the whole world, and if it goes against the current of what’s already going on in your families’ lives, it’s not going to work.

Families don’t exist for family ministry. Family ministry exists for families. If they’re not coming, get curious instead of angry or defensive. Ask questions like, “How can our church support you right now?” Or “You seem really busy! How can we pray for you? Anything the church can do to make your life easier?” No more huge helpings of shame. That strategy won’t work long-term because eventually they’ll find a place where they feel loved, not lectured.

Families are not the only participants who need safety, predictability, and connection. You do too. You don’t need a heaping helping of shame, either. Ministry with families is hard, and a global pandemic magnified the difficulty. All too often, we don’t see the fruit of our labor until years later, if ever, which can feel disheartening. Each new generation sees things differently, thinks differently, has different hopes and dreams than we may have had as young people. That feels hard to navigate and translate. But, deep down, we have a commonality. Each of us (yes, you too!) is made up of God-breathed star-stuff, and that sacred spark within binds us together. Find that spark in each child, student, and grown-up. Programming is just a tool for ministry. Cultivate safety, predictability, connection, and let those sacred sparks shine bright.

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