Doing family 21st century style

Nicky Lock

At my local gift shop they have a “family values word cloud” picture for sale.  Words like love, respect, warmth, safety, mum, dad and kids. Another one I found on the net included genealogy, bloodlines, life. It set me to thinking about how we talk about and model family in church. At my church the “models” of family that are presented from “the front” are the smiling pictures of the missionary families we support with their 3,4 or 5 children that are usually being home schooled by the not-working-outside-the-home-mother. Our two ministers have wives working in demanding roles outside the home, but rarely do we hear much about the struggle of juggling ministry, parenting, work and family life. Well, sometimes at morning tea there are snipes from stressed congregation members about how one of the ministers was unable to attend a certain meeting because they were taking their son to swimming lessons early afternoon* like “what normal working parent has the luxury to do that?”

Family life has changed out of all recognition from my growing up years in the 60’s and early 70’s when most families were intact, working mothers were rather frowned on in some circles, and after school activities were limited to playing in the street or the bush (depending on where you lived) or cubs or brownies if you were lucky. Wind the clock forward 30 years to when I was raising my own children: working mothers were much more the norm though not universal and most children were involved in a number of out of school sports and activities. Even then though there was a subtle (or not so subtle) message from Christian/church teaching that a mother’s role was in the home being the lynch pin of the Christian family.

I don’t want to argue here the rationale for working mothers, rather to accept that this is the social environment we live in, related to a mix of change in social values linked with the increasing unaffordability of housing in Australian cities (according to a recent Government report, median house prices in 84% of Sydney’s local government areas are unaffordable for workers like police and nurses).

So how do we set about thinking/speaking/preaching about individual family values as Christians? Even turning to scripture has its hermeneutical challenges as we seek to glean ideas and principles from documents written thousands of years ago when “doing life and family” was set in a completely different social milieu.

Firstly we need to recognise that just as we live in a multi-cultural society related to ethnic and social background, so too there is a wide variety of ways of doing family that are all valid and need to be accepted and affirmed. But conversely, there are ways that cannot be supported: for example the family where the parent fails to care adequately for their children or spouse because of their self-focused interest in work/sport/alcohol/friends/family of origin etc.

Some family focused websites suggest that each family draws up its own set of family values – what does this family, at this stage of its life, want to be prioritised by its members. This has the benefit of recognising that family lasts long beyond the intensely close years of child raising, and similar conversations could be had with the extended family. Having a clear set of values is useful as they can then be applied to a range of ways of “doing” family and are less prescriptive than a rule that says “we must all sit down to a meal each night”.

In my experience, some key family values are respect, cohesiveness, communication and flexibility. Balancing respect and cohesiveness allows for difference, but recognises that there is value in the family unit which needs to be tended and nurtured to allow it to continue well. Flexibility acknowledges the need for some structure in a family, but ensures that the unit can cope with change and negotiate new ways of being when there are external and internal stressors. How many families have adapted family patterns during the HSC period! It goes without saying that good communication is a pre requisite for fostering a climate of respect and cohesion, but equally, it is the time spent together and the respect and love that family members have for each other that underpin good communication.

The next challenge then is to think and work through a set of values for your church family…..


* details changed to protect identities!