This is the second of a three-part series for the State of the Family 2020. Through this series, we hope to raise awareness about our modern-day societal issue of relational poverty, and explore some of the possible implications this has for the Church, families, and marriages. For clarity of discussion, we will define relational poverty as “a lack of deep, genuine and healthy connectedness with others”.
This article highlights the issue of relational poverty in the Family. It will explore how God’s original design for family has been marred, and what we can do as the Church to strengthen family relationships. We will also be sharing insights from the following church and marketplace leaders who work with families:
- Monica Wong – Working mother, and a civil servant in the legal industry
- Pastor Ian Toh – Senior Pastor at 3:16 Church, married with four children
- Timothy Weerasekera – Full-time ministry staff at Cornerstone Community Church, single young adult
Seeing a loving father and supportive mother shapes the spiritual temperature at home and gives the child confidence that God’s design for family does work.
The perfect design
God, in His sovereign love and wisdom, has provided a blueprint for family. Throughout the Bible, He lays out clear relational principles. One such set of instructions is found in Ephesians 5:22-6:4, where wives, husbands, parents and children are given a clear mandate on how to relate to one another. There is no denying that God’s design is perfect and beautiful, and when we live out these principles, we reap its benefits, and more importantly, we glorify Him by reflecting His image.
When children grow up in a stable, secure and loving family with one father and one mother, they internalise the fact that family is a safe and pleasant place to be in. They also come to recognise that starting their own family is a desirable goal to aspire towards.
In the words of Pastor Ian, “Seeing a loving father and supportive mother shapes the spiritual temperature at home and gives the child confidence that God’s design for family does work.”
Perhaps of even greater significance is how God places each person in a family to teach us a profound spiritual truth, that we are all part of His Kingdom family. Through Ephesians 5:22-6:4, we marvel at the intentionality of God’s design in how the earthly family reflects eternal relationships.
The role of a father is especially important in this regard. Timothy explains from his work with young people: “The ability for a person, whether child or adult, to approach God as Father is directly correlated with the quality of paternal proximity and involvement. This is especially true for children. To feel and understand that God is Father, a child will need their earthly father as an experiential anchor point. Otherwise, the invisible, unfelt God as a Heavenly Father will simply remain a theoretical idea.”
The flawed reality
We do not need to look far to see that God’s original design has been marred by the fallenness of man. Relational poverty, the lack of deep connectedness with family members, is a reality. Couples divorce, parents abandon their children, and children rebel against their parents. Even the strongest of family relationships are not perfect. Sin has tainted the heart of us relational creatures, and this has its consequences.
Timothy shares, “I have seen several women and men so damaged by their own parents' failings, that the fear of being with a partner who reminds them of their parents causes them to sabotage their own relationships.”
For example, one might struggle with trust after seeing a parent walk away, leading them to constantly doubt their own spouse. When we do not live out God’s principles for relationship, we may pose a stumbling block through our actions to those forming their idea of family.
Even the strongest of family relationships are not perfect.
With fathers playing such a crucial role in their children’s lives and spiritual formation, it is perhaps concerning to hear of the following statistics: The Whole Life Inventory – a multi-dimensional instrument designed for churches to assess and understand the health and needs of their congregation, revealed that only 47% of youth with Christian fathers report that their fathers have a high or very high impact on their spiritual development. Though it is encouraging that 61% of respondents see their father’s relationship with God as a role model for their own relationship with God, this number can afford to be higher.
The role of the church
Support married couples and parents
Is there anything the Church can do? Most certainly. Of foremost importance is the need to be open in sharing about marriage and family, the good, the bad and the ugly. Oftentimes we unknowingly present only the positive aspects of our family, unwilling to discuss or share our real struggles for fear of being judged.
Timothy observes, “The biggest impediment to strong family bonds in the Church is the modern preoccupation with privacy in our honour-vs-shame culture. Inhibited from telling the truth – the whole truth about family life, each family is left to their own devices and to figure out life’s common challenges, alone.”
Can we start by being the first to vulnerably share our struggles at home and to humbly seek out prayer? Are we willing to ask the tough questions of how another’s parenting journey or marriage is really going, and to walk with them where necessary?
“In an attempt to paint a ‘realistic’ picture of relationships, churches often insufficiently articulate the beauty of marriage and family.”
On the other hand, Timothy cautions, “In an attempt to paint a ‘realistic’ picture of relationships, churches often insufficiently articulate the beauty of marriage and family.” Striking a right balance can be tricky, but rewarding when achieved.
Perhaps other than “formal” family life talks and workshops, marriage mentoring and parent communities can provide the ongoing support and life sharing of the joys and pains of our imperfect family life. Bible study and devotional materials that delve into application in all facets of life, should also include marriage, parenting and work-life.
Can we challenge men to rise up as spiritual fathers for those hungry for a father figure in their lives?
Indeed, parents surveyed in the Whole Life Inventory indicated that the top three areas for which they need help from the church are discipline and boundaries (45%), helping their child manage stress and emotions (41%), and teaching their child about sex and relationships (36%). On the topic of fathers, much more can be done to inform them of their deep spiritual impact as well as guide them in the journey of fatherhood. Thanks to the men’s ministry network and national father’s movement, some churches have even stepped up to raise spiritual fathers where physical fathers may be absent.
Monica explains, “A spiritual father can have the same effect, provided the relationship is full of trust and long-standing (as opposed to temporary). I have seen many cases of children from broken homes who should have turned out badly, make a 180 degree turn because of a loving foster father, uncle or grandfather.” Can we challenge men to rise up as spiritual fathers for those hungry for a father figure in their lives?
Finally, it is befitting to address an oft-neglected demographic in the church – singles. Some singles may have grown up with an unappealing idea of family and need to first have their misconceptions and misgivings addressed before they are ready to start their own family. This would prevent them from bringing over any maladaptive behaviours or thinking patterns and perpetuate what was undesirable in their family of origin. After all, healthy singles are more likely to become healthy spouses and parents.
Singles are sometimes left wondering about their worth, that if they do not achieve spouse or parent status, they are less desirable or incomplete.
Pastor Ian suggests, “The Church can learn to integrate singles as meaningful and important members of another biological family unit.” In other words, married couples and parents can invite singles into their everyday lives. The benefits of this are twofold – giving singles a genuine look into the ups and downs of family life, and creating a sense of belonging.
However, this has to first start from the way churches speak about family. Singles are sometimes left wondering about their worth, that if they do not achieve spouse or parent status, they are less desirable or incomplete. Monica reminds us, “Every single already has a family, and we can encourage everyone to treasure all our relationships, not just marriage relationships”. Singles need to also be encouraged to love their parents and siblings, and to form healthy spiritual friendships with the rest of the Church body.
Though imperfect, families are an integral part of the Church and contribute to the health of the congregation. Similarly, the Church-family plays a key role in strengthening the institution of family. This symbiotic relationship between family and the Church is a key reason to continually address the issue of relational poverty in not just one but both spheres. May we build deeper and more authentic relationships within our biological and Church families to reflect God’s image and wondrous design for family!
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