Supporting Families this Advent: Should You Make a Switch?

November 29th, 2021
Available from MinistryMatters

Now that the COVID vaccine is available to children, 5 years and older, notice that some churches express expectations to get back to business as usual, with the full schedule of programming and events. And just in time for the holidays!

As the Intergenerational Discipleship Coordinator for the Great Plains Conference, I’m hearing kids and youth ministry leaders express feelings of frustration when they hear folks say something like, “Well now, we can get all the families back.” As if the vaccination rates among kids will immediately and magically skyrocket (even though adult vaccination rates still aren’t so hot).

The story many of us told ourselves is that young families weren’t coming back because their kids couldn’t get vaccinated, with the unspoken nuance that they would come back once they could get vaccinated. And so now, here we are, entering Advent, planning the Christmas pageants, scheduling our young families to light the Advent wreath, and trying to “get” them back to church.

A few years ago, I found myself in a worship planning meeting that quickly surfaced tensions when we started discussing who was going to light the Advent wreath on Sunday mornings. I wanted to extend the opportunity to as many young families as possible, but received pushback that we couldn’t “get” that many families to do it. The conversation felt icky and, looking back, I think I can pinpoint why.

At first I thought it was the shame I felt around the low number of families engaging in ministry, a sense that our ministry wasn’t enough to “get” them there. But really, it’s the word “get.” Why do we talk about humans like that? It sounds like we’re collecting or acquiring them; it’s objectifying! When did families become our sanctuary’s Christmas decor? 

We deck the halls with greenery, ornaments, and tinsel. Perhaps a few lights here and there. Crismon trees! Poinsettias! Nativity sets! And young families, dressed in their holiday best, reading the liturgy and lighting the candles.

It’s a beautiful scene, really. And it’s not that any of those traditions and decorations are wrong or bad - I love a good holiday decor! And the Advent wreath? A wonderful tradition, rich in theology and symbolism, and an experience I remember when I was a child and our family lit the wreath.

But we sure did spend a lot of time talking about “getting” the right families to light those candles. I’m not so sure we spent the same amount of talking about ensuring that young families are supported during the holidays.

Should You Make a Switch?

Families don’t exist to support our ministries; our ministries exist to support families. And the holidays are a perfect time to make that switch! Here are some signs that you might be relying on families to support your ministry:

  • More time and energy spent strategizing ways to get families to come back than spent on caring for the families where they are;
  • Operating under the assumption that they just aren’t committed enough;
  • Restarting programming, events, or traditions without inviting families to provide feedback on what they’ll actually participate in;
  • No young families, students, or children in leadership positions;
  • Focus only on families that are on your rosters;
  • “Plugging in” young people to do the same roles up front, regardless of whether or not that’s their gift.

I know that’s how I was operating some years back. I had good intentions, but underneath was an inward-focused approach to family ministry. I wonder what might have gone differently if we spent our time planning how to help families in our community discover hope, peace, joy, and love rather than scheduling them to read out loud at church.

Of course, churches should not abolish holiday traditions that incorporate young families. I am suggesting that churches check their motivations. If the goal is truly to support young families, then how will you do that this season?

We can focus on “getting” (or attracting) families back through the doors, but we know that giving (a mission) is better than getting. How will your family ministry give hope, peace, joy, and love to young families this season, even if they aren’t re-engaging the way you’d like?

Perhaps your church is doing this well. If so, wonderful! Please share your ideas in the comments for this article, in your social media circles, and with your peers! 

If you find that your ministry has some work to do, don’t fret! Reflect on the questions below with your ministry team to help switch your approach and your narrative so that your ministry will exist to support families this holiday season.

  • What’s the theological point of this [tradition, event, program]?
  • What’s the practical point of this [tradition, event, program]?
  • Who does this [tradition, event, program] benefit?
  • What do the kids have to say about it?
  • What do the students have to say about it?
  • What do the grownups have to say about it?
  • How much time are we spending trying to “get” rather than “give”?
  • Why is that?
  • What can we keep?
  • What can we let go of?
  • How might we spread this message beyond our church building?

May your reflections yield greater hope, peace, joy, and love in your ministries as you seek to support those in your community this Advent and Christmas season!

Check out this podcast about Advocating and Caring for Children with Melissa Collier Gepford and Anna Skates

comments powered by Disqus