young families and the church

I received an email today from a colleague of mine in the Diocese. She posed the following question:

“I’m beginning to accumulate a nice group of young families – parents with 1-2 children (sometimes 3) under the age of 7. I’m trying to imagine what might meet their needs formation-wise. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts?”

I emailed her back and responded, “You don’t even want to know how many thoughts I have on this one. I have lots of thoughts. What I don’t have are solutions.”

It’s a sad but true story.  I spend a LOT of time thinking about how the church can minister to young families, probably because I watch so many of my dear friends and family members who are in that stage of life: diapers, bottles, nap time, runny noses, interrupting toddlers, laundry, work, cooking, diapers, bottles, nap time….

I call it the tunnel.

Once those beautiful babies come out and into the world we ooh and ahh at the magic of it all and we breathe in their wonderful baby scent and we baptize them in beautiful ceremonies at the church.  The pictures on Facebook are GORGEOUS.  But let me tell you – I’ve swayed colicky babies back and forth for hours on end to no avail.  I’ve watched my friends sink into the couch at the end of a long day when the littles have finally gone to sleep only to see their face fall when no sooner have they sat down that the cry starts up again from the bedroom.  I’ve spoon fed those babies, and then desperately tried to pick another task to help a friend out because it is so boring (I don’t care how cute the baby is) trying to keep their attention long enough to get the mashed banana into their bellies.

Don’t get me wrong, those first years are incredible and transformative and joyful and magical.  But they are also hard.  And the days just keep coming.  Changing diapers until they are ripping the diapers off until you are fighting with a three year old who refuses to use the potty.  Nursing until you cave and use a bottle until you spoon feed until they can feed themselves and the spaghetti sauce is just everywhere. Rocking and holding those babies until they can crawl and suddenly it matters that your outlets are covered and there’s nothing dangerous on the floor until they can walk themselves and OH WHAT A HOLY MESS THE HOUSE IS.

Parents in the tunnel have a kind of glazed look on their faces and they are tired all the time.  They don’t remember what life was like before babies, or who they were before they were tending to another human’s every need.  A day in the tunnel is a success if they can both keep the children fed and take a shower.  The parents I love who stay at home feel lonely and isolated and wonder if they are missing something, and the parents I love who work are maxed out and feel like there’s never enough time with their kids and wonder if they are missing something.

Near as I can figure these parents emerge from the tunnel around the time their children are in the early years of elementary school – maybe 3rd grade.  When you can look at a kid and say “pour yourself a bowl of cereal” or “run up and take a shower and put your jammies on” then you are starting to see the light.

Obviously after the tunnel everyone is just in another stage with different challenges.  But today I want to talk about how to minister to people in the tunnel.

Here’s the thing: I think when young families are in the tunnel we might just have to crawl into the tunnel and meet them there.  I don’t think we can ask them to crawl out of the tunnel, put their church clothes on, and commit to two hours on a Sunday morning. I don’t think it’s fair to put them on committees. I don’t think we should ask them to teach Sunday School.  Yes, some parents want to do all that, and of course clergy have to be discerning and encouraging for those who fit well into those roles.  We just can’t forget about the parents that want a connection to God and community, but can’t make those other commitments happen.

And yes, I know somehow young families figured out how to do this in the 1950s.  Here’s the thing – it’s 2013.  I’m not going to get into why things are so different now (though it might have something to do with the fact that you could put your kid in a laundry basket in the backseat of your car when you went somewhere – car seats alone are a reason not to go to church). I’m just going to say that we can’t keep wishing for how things used to be.

That said, I was chatting with a friend the other day and she was lamenting that she had to take her toddler to the doctor’s office.  “It’s such a risk,” she told me, “I want him to see the doctor but he feels terrible and he’s cranky and there’s all these other sick kids in the doctor’s office!  I wish doctors still made house calls!”

Ok, I know I just said that we can’t keep wishing for how things used to be. I stand by that. But it would be totally awesome if doctors still made house calls.  It would be great to keep that kiddo curled up on the couch in his pjs and still get the care that you need.

That’s pretty much where I am with the question of how to minister to families in this stage of life.  How do we give them the care that they need?  I know there’s all kinds of merit to committing to a church community, sacrificing to be part of the larger whole, giving of your time and talents, etc, etc.  But what if – while these parents are in the darkness of the tunnel – instead of asking them to give more of themselves to the church, we bring them a little candle from the church to light the way?  What if we let them know that they aren’t alone and that we just want to care for them without any expectation of return on our investment?

This summer at ECC we had a Family Camp.  We welcomed 15 families, most of whom had very young children.  We kept the cost of camp low, and we paired our counselors with the families so that they had personal assistants.  I’ve heard my friends say countless times that they never have a real vacation because they are caring for their children wherever they go, and so we tried to meet that need – offering them the chance to be with their children without having to care for them every minute of the day.  In the mornings the counselors rallied the children and played games, made crafts, visited the animals, and sang and danced.  The parents poured an extra cup of coffee and settled in the lounge to talk and reflect about how God was working in their lives.  Then they had some free time. There was a beautiful balance of free time and family time, and the help of our incredible counselors made it so that parents could enjoy their time with their kids without being overwhelmed by them.  Side note, the counselors were beside themselves with joy having little hands to hold and sweet hugs from toddlers.

We are blessed to be able to provide that kind of ministry to young families for a few days at camp, and I realize we can’t use that model for churches.  But perhaps it’s time for us to start thinking about how to reach the people in the tunnel and bring them just a little bit of light.  Maybe our clergy and some members of our congregations who don’t have young children need to be making house calls.  Maybe we need to bring a Bible and a bottle of wine to stay-at-home moms after bedtime so they can have some fellowship and formation after the kids are asleep.  Maybe we should be bringing communion to shut-ins and to young parents.

I’m still confused about all of this. There’s part of me that wants to say that being part of Christian community means committing and showing up, even when it’s hard – because that’s how we grow. There’s part of me that thinks our culture is too much about having things the way we want them instead of realizing the blessing of being part of a larger institution. There’s part of me that thinks too many of us are just unwilling to do the work of being spiritual and religious.

Then I talk to my younger sister, who’s raising the two most beautiful babies I have ever seen.  She’s in North Carolina because her husband is in the military so she’s not near family and friends. She’s isolated because when one child is asleep the other is awake and even when she tries to commit to being in the church choir her husband’s schedule changes and he has duty so she has to stay home with the kids. And I just think, man I wish someone from her church would just go over to her house and bring her a dang casserole so she doesn’t have to cook dinner again.  She’s tired, and she’s doing such hard work raising those babies.

So for today I’m sticking with my sister and my soapbox.  I think we should just crawl into the tunnel and meet our young families there until they crawl out the other side. We might just find God there together.

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