Our church is going through some rather interesting times right now. We are an empty-nester church that knows the clock is ticking in reaching young couples in our area. Despite the fact that we are just a couple of miles away from two big, program-driven churches who have seemingly sucked up all the young Christian families that had yet to commit to a church, our leadership is asking some serious questions about what it means to reach out to families.
Our church is one of the only churches I have ever heard of that has a family-integrated (FI if you will) Sunday School class as well as traditional age-specific classes. And all of the families in the FI class have been a huge blessing to Amy and I and are models of Godliness in so many ways.
The biggest question we are trying to answer as a church is: Should we stay the same way, with both seemingly competing models of family ministry co-existing or should we pick one model over the other as the main structure for ministering to Christian families and reaching out to new non-Christian families?
The way I will attempt to answer this question is by dealing with one model first and then the other. I will not use statistics, because both sides use them (and in some cases abuse them) to support their particular model. Furthermore, I refuse to use names. In reading some of the blogs on the subject of the FI model, writers have no problem with pointing fingers and calling into question the salvation of their brothers in Christ who happen to disagree with them. I find their attitude to be largely destructive and unbiblical.
The first “model” I want to critique is the FI model. Don’t worry, the program-driven model will get its turn. This blog post is pretty much a reaction to the different aspects of the FI movement that I find spiritually unhealthy. I am not necessarily positing my own model of family ministry, just critiquing some of the ones that are already out there.
Objection #1: The FI Model lacks universal definition.
To even call the FI model “the” model is to be misleading. When one asks, “What does the family-intergrated model look like?” one will get a variety of different answers.* Just do a google search of that phrase and you will see that there are even those within the FI movement that disagree with each other as to what exactly the FI model entails. But, there are too many people within the movement that think that their version of family intergration is the only one out there. Even program-driven, age-segregated traditional churches think their model of ministry intergrates the family. So, is there a Bible-based definition of family ministry that can fit into any local church context? I believe there is. In fact, I believe that one could look at the majority of great FI leaders such as Voddie Baucham and Eric Wallace and distill down their convictions to some universally applicable priniciples. Principles like:
1. Family is one of the two God-ordained structures for Christians to operate in. The other being the Church.
2. Churches should do ministry through families as much as possible.
3. Families need to spend more time together, not less.
4. Fathers and mothers need to be taught their Biblically-mandated roles as primary disciplers of their children.
5. We do not need to take our cues from the world and pop psychology. We need to take our cues from scripture alone.
I don’t think I do any of the FI believers damage by saying these are generally what they believe. And you know what? I agree with all of it. So, why am I hesitant to throw my lot in with the rest of the FI believers?
Objection #2 Promoters of the FI model tend to make the doctrine of the family a 1st tier doctrine.
What do I mean by 1st tier doctrine? I mean those doctrines that are necessary to be identified as a born-again Christian. Doctrines like heaven and hell, the inerrancy and authority of scripture, the humanity and divinity of Christ, the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, atonement, justification by faith alone through grace alone, andso on. I don’t know of a single FI theologian that would come out and say that you must have a Biblical view of the family in order to be called a Christian. In fact, at best, the doctrine of the family is a 2nd tier doctrine. Necessary for the spritual health of the church, but certainly not necessary for salvation.
Yet, the attitude that I find in many of these circles is one of placing the doctrine of the family in the 1st tier. And when they say ‘doctrine of the family’ they mean their particular model of family intergration. Why is this troubling? Because it leads to my third objection…
Objection #3: FI churches tend to be exclusivistic in their relationship with other churches.
Follow the logical progression here and see if this is what you think FI churches are doing:
1. Parents are the primary disciplers of their children.
2. The parents of several families in a FI church study both models and decide that the age-segregated model of small group Bible studies is the best way to disciple their children.
3. The elders and other parents in the church respect the parents’ decision (since they are the primary disciplers) and allow for those families to disciple their kids in that manner.
Is that what you see happening in FI churches? I think it’s more like this:
3. The elders and other parents in the church tell those families that there are plenty of other churches in that area that do those kinds of Bible studies and so they should probably move on to one of those churches.
You see, that is what I LOVE about my church. We made room for both! Whether or not it is the most practical way has yet to be determined, but at least we didn’t make otherwise honest, hard working, Godly Christian families choose between ministry structures.
Objection #4 Much of what makes up the FI movement is a knee-jerk reaction to the traditional, program-driven church.
I have met some people in the FI movement that seem to have joined the movement because it was the opposite of the traditional model they grew up in. Maybe they had a bad experience in a traditional church and it’s caused them to go to the other extreme. Instead of exercising self control over their emotions, they let those emotions color their judgment and so accept the first ministry model that comes along that sounds better than what they grew up in.
Never buy into a model as a reaction to the previous model. Let me repeat that: Never buy into a model as a reaction to the previous model. Each model has to stand up under its own scrutiny.
Besides, not all program-driven churches are anti-family. I grew up at First Baptist Church, Jacksonville (membership at about 18,000) and it was program-driven. However, most folks in the FI movement are surprised to learn that FBC Jax didn’t have a children’s church. Dr. Homer Lindsey, pastor of FBC in the 70′s, 80′s, and 90′s did away with it so that families would sit together on Sunday morning.
He also did away with the children’s bus ministry in the 70′s. Remember when those were popular? What Lindsey discovered was that the parents of those children were not being reached and they were treating Sunday morning church as a babysitter. So, when Dr. Linsdey ended the bus ministry, he taught the congregation that if you want to reach those children with the gospel, the best way to do it is reach the fathers first and this is the responsibility of the families in the church, not some bus captain.
So, you see, it is a matter of to what degree any particular church is family integrated. For those who have given a knee-jerk reaction to the program-driven church, you need to accept the fact that the anicdotal evidence that you’ve gathered doesn’t tell the story for every program-driven church.
Objection #5 The FI church’s exclusivistic nature tends to attract legalistic Christians.
The emotional reaction to the program-driven church combined with the FI church’s tendency to be exclusivistic can make for some odd company. Again, I promised not to name names, but a quick google search will show that the FI movement has attracted many in the old fundamentalist crowd- those folks who believe that dancing, smoking, alcohol in any form (Jesus turned water into grape juice), playing cards, and listening to rock music are all evil and of the devil.
The FI model is very attractive to fundies because it sets up the father as one of only two teachers (the other being the main pastor of the church) of their children. Thus, it eliminates most of the competition as to what the child learns and gives parents greater control. There is also the problem of placing certain social convictions on the same top tier that should be reserved for doctrines having to do with salvation.
There is another odd aspect of the FI movement. It seems to me that the FI model and post-millenialism (or theonomy) go hand-in-hand. FI theologians talk a lot about the role of the family in the Old Testament. They want to make sure we aren’t ignoring the OT mandates concerning parents. I agree with them that we shouldn’t ignore the OT mandates. Indeed, Deuteronomy 6 is a great motivating and inspirational passage for parents. I have used it often. The problem though is when the post-millenialist takes over and says we need to usher in the millenial reign of Christ and the way we do that is by reinstating ALL of the Old Testament mandates. I can’t go into it here, but I have big problems with post-millenialist theology. I’m not saying all FI churches believe in it, but it can lend itself all too easily to that kind of destructive theology.
Objection #6 The FI model is not THE answer to evangelism. Personal responsibility is.
I submit that the program-driven model is also not the answer to evangelism. The gospel can and should be shared within any ministry context. Although there are issues in introducing a seeker or new Christian to the program-driven church, there are also issues in introducing them to an FI church. (see objection #7)
Ministry structures do not lead people to Christ. Gospel-toting people win people to Christ. I know some FI churches personally who are fairly evangelistic and have stirred the baptismal waters regularly. However, I also know some FI churches that do nothing evangelistically. I guess they think that people will magically want to accept Christ by seeing how perfectly their family follows the commands of Christ. Sorry, but they actually need to be told the gospel, not just shown it.
Here is a rhetorical question to ask a family in a FI church: What is your family more likely to get involved with: a church softball league or a city softball league? Which do you think will net better relationships with unbelievers and more of a chance to share the gospel?
Furthermore, there seems to be the mentality within the FI movement that if you raise your kid in the ways of the Lord, that they will be included in the elect. Nobody will ever admit they believe this, but the way they live it out may be entirely different. God is sovereign and therefore not obligated to save anybody because of the effort of the parents. A different way to say it is the Holy Spirit’s regenerative work comes solely from the will of the Father and not the efforts of any man. So, Junior may grow up in a great Christian family and attend an FI church, but leave home at the age of 18 an unregenerage unbelieving pagan. I do believe that God tends to bless those parents who honor him in all they do by bringing salvation to their children, but those parents need to be honest with themselves and admit that A) It doesn’t always happen and B) Their kid’s salvation is based solely on the grace of God, not their parenting skills.
Objection #7 What do you do with singles, divorcees, and parents who send their kids to public schools?
In theory the FI model is better suited than any traditional ministry model in dealing with singles and divorcees. In practice, however this is not always the case. Two things to keep in mind:
1. Singles and divorcees NEVER start out feeling comfortable in a FI setting. So, it will always take a lot of hard work from the families to welcome them in. Also, singles and divorcees need time with each other. They need to know there are others who share the same struggles (not to mention the fact that they may want to meet potential marriage partners).
2. If an FI church shows the characteristics that I have objected to thusfar, then there’s a good chance they’ll look their noses down on anyone who is not married. This attitude is a consequence of placing the doctrine of the family on the 1st tier of doctrines.
As for parents who send their kids to public school: The FI movement is best friends with the homeschool movement. Although I think that homeschooling is a better choice than public schooling (but private schooling better than both if one can afford it), by choosing not to do any activity that segregates the family into age groups, it is an implicit condemnation to anyone who sends their kids to public or private schools. I want to see how a parent of a public schooled kid fits in to a FI church without feeling pressured to homeschool their kids. Again, if it is true that the parent is the primary discipler of their own children and they decide against homeschooling for their children, then the FI church should respect that decision. This isn’t always the case- in fact, there are some FI churches that have written in their covenant that sending your children to public schools is worthy of church discipline!
Objection #8 Lack of any statistical data to help showcase their effectiveness.
I said I wouldn’t quote stats and I’m sticking to it. I did want to point out, however, that many of the family integrated books and articles I have read don’t hesitate to use statistics to show how bad off most traditional churches are, but I have YET to read any serious statistical work done on FI churches. If anybody knows of such a beast, please tell me. It’s the same problem with homeschooling- lack of statistics to back up their claim. Stats don’t tell the whole story, but if done thoroughly and with scientific accuracy, they can be very useful.
In conclusion, I think it is about time we stop thinking of taking sides in this debate and start thinking about where we can come together. We need to stop treating this debate as if their are only two camps (the family-integrated camp and the program-driven, age-segregated camp) and start thinking in terms of degrees. To what degree does your church bring families together? To what degree are you meeting the needs of those that do not fit into your model? Answering this question will cause you to tailor-make a ministry model that fits in the context of your church and could avoid some of these fringe elements within this movement (or any movement).
Now you can read my critique of the Traditional, Program Driven Church.
* I recognize that I am critiquing a “model” that I argue is slippery in its definition. My critique is, admittedly, of the stereotypical characteristics of the FI model in general. Not all FI churches have all the problems that I discuss in this blog entry.