Strong Families

February 27th, 2013

What Is a Family?

Families are the core social group of all societies, and all human beings have them. We may love them or wish we didn’t have to eat Thanksgiving dinner with them, but regardless of how we feel about them, we were all born into families.

What is a family? Is it parents with children? Yes, but family is not restricted to this particular structure. The United States Census Bureau defines family as “a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together; all such people (including related subfamily members) are considered as members of one family.” The bureau defines family group as “any two or more people (not necessarily including a householder) residing together, and related by birth, marriage, or adoption. A household may be composed of one such group, more than one, or none at all. The count of family groups includes family households, related subfamilies, and unrelated subfamilies.”

These definitions, articulated for the purposes of the census, point to the variety and diversity of family structures. Family structures vary for many reasons, such as divorce and remarriage, changing attitudes toward marriage, economic factors, and broader acceptance of nontraditional families. Family structures include blended and stepfamilies, cohabiting families, same-sex-parent families, grandparent-led families, and single-parent families. A recent Pew Research Center study determined that attitudes about these different kinds of families vary according to age, race, and economic class.

The Search Institute Study

In a time when much of the news reported in the media about families focuses on areas where improvement is needed, a recent Search Institute study focused on the positive aspects of American families. Search Institute, a nonprofit organization committed to helping people understand what children and youth need to grow up strong, identified assets or characteristics that build strong families and then studied the outcomes.

The purpose of the study was to introduce a new framework of “Family Assets” and to measure their use in families. The assets included relationships, interactions, opportunities, and values that help families thrive. The goal was not only to establish positive practices but also to assess the results of those behaviors. The study linked Family Assets to measurable outcomes for all family members— youth and adults. An examination of Family Assets can be helpful to us in several ways. They can guide us as we relate within both our families of origin and our present families, they can instruct us as we nurture strong families within the church, and they can support us in a theological understanding of each person as a child of God and of the many blessings of families within Scripture.

The study surveyed a parenting adult and a 10- to 15-year-old in 1,511 families that were diverse racially, ethnically, economically, geographically, and structurally. Asian, African American, and Hispanic families each represented 14 percent of the study. Twenty-three percent of respondents reported an income under $35,000, and 28 percent reported an income over $100,000. Of those interviewed, 62 percent were women.

Several of the results are worth noting: (1) On a scale of 1–100, the average American family scored 47 on the Family Asset Index. (2) Families are more alike than different. (3) Some factors such as race, access to community resources, marital status, and race/ethnicity do make a difference, but they are small. (4) Teens and their parents tend to identify similar assets when talking about their families. The study’s conclusions suggest that “the vast majorities of families have both strengths to celebrate and opportunities to grow stronger together.”

One 40-year-old father said this in response to the question, What does family mean to you? “Family? Boy! My first reaction is an emotional one, it’s not even an intellectual one. It’s not words, it’s feelings . . . When I think of family I think of my core, my initial family of origin that lifted me to where I am. And now my being there with my own children and family, and being able to take them where they need to go . . .” Another study participant, a male teenager, responded to the question, What makes families strong? “My great uncle [in Hawaii] told me . . . ‘Ohana means family. And family means no one left behind.’ ”

Families in the Bible

The Bible offers various family structures. In the Old Testament, the words most often translated as family or families suggest “clan,” “household,” “father’s house,” or “ancestral house.” Other words used less frequently suggest “brothers” and “seed.” In legal terms, a man was head of the household; and his wife or wives, his children, and his slaves or servants were considered to be his property. Sons could leave the family to establish their own households, and daughters could marry into another man’s household. The family is defined by its sense of oneness with the male head of the household. The Book of Ruth vividly demonstrates this dependency. In Ruth 1, we learn that when Naomi’s husband and two sons died, she and her two daughters-in-law were still a family unit; but they had no males to support them. Orpah returned to her father, but Ruth traveled with Naomi to Bethlehem. Ruth 2 describes the way Ruth gleaned in Boaz’s fields in order to provide food. Boaz, a close male relative of Naomi’s husband, would later marry Ruth and thus provide security for both women.

In the New Testament, the word used for family denotes a living domestic group, an ancestral lineage, or a reference to Christians as a “spiritual family.” By the time of Paul, families or households generally referred to one husband, one wife, children, and slaves. Paul frequently used family as a metaphor for life together in the early church. Romans 8:12-17 offers an example by referring to God as “Father” and those in the early church as “God’s children” and as “God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ” (verses 15-17).

Across the ages, regardless of the structures, families have existed to support one another for mutual benefit and for survival. When families include children, they grow up within these family groups with the same basic needs. They benefit from parenting that understands these needs and practices positive assets to strengthen their growth.

How to Strengthen Families

While Search Institute’s Family Assets are interesting, they are without much practical value until we ask how they can be helpful to us in our own families and in the faith community. We can respond to the question in a variety of ways. We can begin by understanding what our faith has to say about families and the responsibility of God’s people to care for one another. We can each look at the list of Family Assets and ask how we would score in our own families. As a community of God’s people, we can ask how we can use Family Assets to create ministry for the families in our congregation and/or the community.

Search Institute provides some ideas for how families of all shapes and sizes can nurture relationships. First, they suggest that family members show one another they care in little ways. Second, they suggest that families keep the focus on the relationships even in the midst of challenges. Third, they suggest talking about everyday stuff on a daily basis so that the conversation will be easier when hard topics need to be discussed. Finally, they suggest talking with family members about what interests or excites them (their “sparks”).

Often we think of faith communities as families. One way to practice Family Assets as a church family is to follow the suggestions above. Think about your congregation. Assess how well it already practices care for one another in small ways, focuses on the relationships within the church family, talks about everyday stuff, and talks about one another’s “sparks.”

How the Church Can Use Family Assets

When asked about institutions that helped their families most, study participants said that faith communities did the most to strengthen their family. Almost one out of three participants noted that it was faith communities—in comparison with one out of ten who responded that it was schools, health-care providers, social workers, or employer services––who were most supportive.

The question for congregations then is how they can strengthen and make use of this perception. In addition to suggestions for families, Search Institute makes suggestions to faith communities about ways they can use the assets to strengthen families. They encourage congregations to give young people and adults an opportunity to reflect on the ways their church can reinforce Family Assets, looking at the church’s activities from worship to Christian education and evaluating them.

Another suggestion involves providing opportunities for members of the congregation to reflect on the ways that their theological tradition connects with the assets. Furthermore, congregations can offer intergenerational settings for reflection on members’ experiences, beliefs, and values as they relate to Family Assets. The assets can also be practiced as family ministry through support for families in trouble and by linking families for mutual support.

Families—Blessed by God

A theological foundation stone for Christians as they consider the role they can play in building strong families is the idea of blessing. Biblical scholar Claus Westermann says, “A theology of blessing . . . refers to the generative power of life, fertility, and well-being that God has ordained within the normal flow and mystery of life.” Such an idea underlines the learnings of Family Assets. As families live together within that “normal flow and mystery,” their lives can be strengthened by positive behavior and by the blessing of a loving God.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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