On Nov. 22, 2002, our son Sean was born to us—two stunned and amazed parents. Two days later, we dressed him in the tiny going-home outfit we’d so carefully chosen. The nurse wheeled me out the hospital doors as Bill pulled up in our ultra-sensible Volvo with multiple airbags.
We put Sean in the extensively researched-for-safety car seat, and away we went, hurtling into this foreign world of parenthood.
Waves of responsibility rushed over me. We had made a human being, I thought. I’d never even kept a plant alive. Now we had been charged with not only keeping this tiny human safe, but also making him a valuable member of society. How could 8 lbs., 7 oz. feel so heavy?
When Bill and I married 10 years earlier, it was almost an unspoken agreement that we’d go to church. He was a Presbyterian with grandparents who were Salvation Army ministers; I was a there-whenever-the-doors-were-open Southern Baptist.
But our church attendance was sporadic. We were busy, career-minded up-and-comers. We loved our Sunday morning bagels and newspaper time. We were both “good people,” but had grown away from our faith in our teenage and college years, and that absence of faith continued into our 20s.
That all changed in February 2002 when we discovered we were pregnant. Now, we were bringing a life into this world, and with it came a whole new set of responsibilities. Our values began to change, as well as our attitudes toward church.
We started attending the church where I grew up. It was automatic acceptance—we didn’t have to work too hard to get to know everyone. But we were in the door five minutes before service and on our way to brunch as the last chords of “Just As I Am” echoed on the organ. Still, we were in church, we told ourselves.
Then Sean arrived.
One Sunday morning as we buckled our new little guy into his car seat, Bill and I looked at each other and knew it was time to find “our” church. We knew we needed to get plugged into a church that would be a great place not only for our son to grow up, but for Bill and I to finally “grow up” spiritually, as well.
A Window of Opportunity
Our story is not unique. In his watershed title, Surprising Insights From the Unchurched (Zondervan), author and church researcher Thom Rainer says that one out of three formerly unchurched persons came or returned to the Church for the sake of their children. And in a 2000 Family Digest article, Wade Clark Roof, author of Spiritual Marketplace (Princeton University Press), notes that more than two out of every three Baby Boomers steeped in a religious tradition dropped out of their church during their teens or early 20s. Of those who leave the church, one in four returns; most come back because they are now parents, Roof says.
As president and CEO of MOPS International (Mothers of Preschoolers; MOPS.org), Elisa Morgan regularly sees the spiritual impact of parenthood.
“About 30 to 40% of the moms that come to MOPS don’t yet know Jesus, and are hungry to know Him,” Morgan says. “Some have known Him in the past and are returning very intentionally to rediscover and redefine and then invent for their new family what their beliefs will be. But others are first-time believers.”
The season of having a child and raising a family is when parents form their values, Morgan explains.
“We have values as individuals and as couples, but they start to change when there’s a child involved. Values like kindness, sharing, celebrating a tradition, believing the best about people and not being prejudiced are formed in this season. Young couples and new parents are searching for where they’ll go to form and verbalize these values.”
Young parenthood, she says, is an “identity transition”—a window of opportunity for evangelism when people are more open to spiritual truth. It’s also an opportunity for churches.
“Today’s parents are trying to be more preventative and are returning to institutions like the Church to involve their children in something outside themselves,” she explains. “A decade or two ago, parents looked at how the Church could fix their kids. I think we’ve moved from that. We’ve taken back more responsibility into our own home, through things like home-schooling. Now, parents think, ‘I’m going to be my child’s spiritual growth component—but I sure want the help of an institution.’”
New Families, New Challenges
But to attract these families to a church for the first time or after many years, ministry leaders need to understand the unique stage of life today’s young families are experiencing. They’re facing anxiety about their new roles and responsibilities. They’re career people making a huge life transition, juggling two jobs and a new baby. They’re looking for answers.
And today’s young parents don’t look like those of 30, 20, or even as little as 10 years ago. They’re single moms and dads, blended families, adoptive parents (many with international children) and unwed parents.
As an unwed mother-to-be, Molly Rawn saw her values and perspectives change dramatically when she learned she was pregnant. “Expecting a child changed the way I viewed everything,” says Rawn, now mom to 15-month-old Collier. “While I was already examining my relationship with God, it took becoming pregnant to really jumpstart that process. It was no longer just about me, my relationship with God, or my salvation—it was about my child’s relationship with God.”
A few months after their baby’s birth, Rawn and Collier’s father began attending St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Little Rock, Ark. (st-marks.com).
“I was really nervous about how we’d be viewed,” she recalls. “But everyone we met there was very supportive of us trying to figure out our relationship with God, each other, and our desire to raise our son in the Church, regardless of what happened with us. When we married, our priest truly celebrated with us because he knew how far we’d come.”
MOPS’s Morgan has a firsthand understanding of the needs of non-traditional parents. Her own family is somewhat of a test kitchen. Married for 26 years, Morgan has two children, both adopted. Morgan is sandwiched between single moms—her mother was single and raised her, and her daughter is a single mom.
She encourages churches to under-stand the needs of non-traditional parents before trying to reach them.
For example, single parents can’t leave their child with a spouse and go out. Most single moms are usually working full-time to make ends meet, and most are economically and socially strapped. They feel left out because they can’t participate, or don’t have a partner to participate with. They’re carrying a lot of responsibility on their shoulders.
“When a single mom checks out your church, don’t ostracize her into a group by herself. Integrate her into a family—her children need to see examples of two-parent households,” Morgan says. “Think about services to her that other partners would normally provide to each other, like oil changes, gas and grocery gift certificates, or even help out her kids at Christmas to shop for gifts for her.”
What all new parents, traditional or not, don’t want to face is a room of unwelcoming faces or platitudes without action. What they do want and need is practical fulfillment, an emotional connection and a spiritual foundation.
When Sean was born, we longed for something we had no idea we’d need quite so much of—help! We needed advice on what to do when he didn’t want to sleep, we needed time for our own rest, and maybe even someone to do a little laundry. The sheer effort it required to keep someone less than 10 pounds fed, changed and rested was exhausting and overwhelming.
One friend brought us dinner a few weeks after that nerve-racking drive home from the hospital. Sitting bleary-eyed in last night’s pajamas at the dinner table, my husband just home from work, and Sean asleep in his crib, I ate the best spaghetti ever.
It was a very practical answer to our new challenges and one of the best ministries to a new parent. While extended families in other cultures may live close together and offer support when a baby arrives, new parents in America are often on their own. Families live hundreds or thousands of miles apart. If they do live close by, grandma and grandpa, busy with their own jobs and activities, may not be readily available to help.
Tired and stretched thin, new parents, such as Casey and Autumn Cornett, are usually very grateful for any kind of practical ministry offered in those first months. The young couple with no family nearby saw the church they’d attended for only a short time rally around them when baby No. 1 arrived.
“We had a lot of meals brought to us and a lot of offers of help if we ever had any questions—anything,” Autumn says. “We don’t have any family here, but we didn’t feel that way. We felt like we had so many people that we knew, and so many people that we were close to and could count on for anything—our age, 40 years old, 50 years old, it didn’t matter. We knew we would be taken care of if we needed it. We felt so loved by this church.”
Looking to Connect
After getting “spiritually burned” at church, Lenny and Jamie Franklin were content for their “church” to be nature walks, watching inspirational movies and finding God in the world around them. But when their son, Cam, was born, nature walks and movies no longer cut it.
“We felt it was important to find a church that emphasized children’s ministry,” Lenny recalls. “The most important thing for us was to find other parents who shared our values—not our theology. We go to church for the encouragement from other parents and for our children’s social lives.”
Like the Franklins, new parents are looking for ways to connect and create friendships with families like their own. They also want to establish foundations with people who have “been there” and can be parenting mentors, as well as role models for their families.
The need for community offers an opportunity for churches that hope to reach young families. In fact, a September 2004 Gallup/Group Publishing survey of 1,000 adult church members shows that almost half (49%) of the respondents—both married and unmarried—said they had developed friendships with others in their churches through their children’s activities.
Based on research of this nature, weekday ministries like AWANA parenting classes, MOPS and weekly small groups (with childcare) can be extremely effective.
“As our girls get older and have their own friends, spending time with other parents and children who share our same values has become so important,” says Tifany Borgelt, mom of two in Nashville, Tenn. “For me, one of the best outreaches a church can do is a ‘moms’ day,’ where stay-at-home moms can fellowship with other mothers, while their children are cared for in a godly setting.”
For Lenny and Jamie Franklin, social nights at the church where they met other couples were key when they joined New Hope Baptist (newhopeforyou.com) in Hermitage, Tenn.
“Our houses of worship need to be the places where we bring people together—and not just to preach at them,” Lenny says. “There’s no social connection in that.”
Adds Molly Rawn: “So many of us [parents] have the same concerns, and it’s important to communicate with others of the same faith. I think it would be wonderful for churches to have monthly dinners or get-togethers for parents where kids are allowed. Everyone could chip in for one babysitter.”
Moral Building Blocks
Not only are parents looking for social connection, they’re also searching for ways to teach their children strong values. Churches today are seeing non-Christian parents come with the mindset that it’s “the right thing to do” for their children.
“We get a lot of information about vitamins, diapers, checkups, immunizations and getting an infant to sleep through the night,” relates MOPS’s Elisa Morgan. “But to raise a child to be an adult who is a person of compassion and character—we know in our gut that Big Bird from ‘Sesame Street’ might not be enough for that.”
In his 1993 book, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary (Zondervan), Lee Strobel observes, “Even if Harry’s not spiritually sensitive, he wants his children to get quality moral training”—one of 15 insights his research revealed about the unchurched at that time. Yet, the same insights of 12 years ago hold true for today, he says.
“During two recent panel discussions, I interviewed non-Christians about their spiritual attitudes, and received the same kind of answers that seekers used to give me in the early 1990s,” Strobel writes in Outreach (January/February ’06). “When I look at the lives of my own friends who are distant from God, I still see many of the same patterns as before.”
Strobel’s observations aren’t surprising to Tim, an engineer in Torrance, Calif. Recently, Ray, a co-worker, asked Tim about the children’s ministries at his church. “I had no idea this guy was inter-ested in anything Christian,” Tim recalls.
As it turns out, Ray and his wife aren’t interested in Christianity, but they are interested in raising their two children in church.
“Ray told me that while he and his wife don’t really think they need God or church, they had been talking a lot about the idea that their children need to be in church to ‘learn how to live right,’ ” Tim explains. “The cool thing is that Ray and his wife will take their kids to church and they’ll hear about God at the same time. Hopefully, they’ll meet other parents and get connected. This is a great opportunity to introduce them and their kids to our church, and ultimately, to Christ.”
The hope of providing moral and spiritual building blocks for their children ultimately brought Leigh and John Feld to one church. Early in their marriage, they went their separate ways on Sundays to churches of different denominations, but united when they began trying to have children.
“John and I believed the community of the church would be crucial for our children’s moral development,” Leigh says. “We want them to have that basic foundation of understanding about who God is and how He works in their lives.”
A New Church Family
Today, it’s hard to imagine that Bill and I dragged our feet so hard finding our way back to God. After accepting the invitation of long-time friends—the same ones who brought the life-saving spaghetti—we found our home at Harpeth Community Church in Franklin, Tenn. (harpethcc.com), a non-denominational congregation of about 500. Now, Bill and I are small group leaders. He organizes the men’s church basketball team. I’m the com-munity outreach director and have coordinated nearly a half-dozen events for our growing Nashville suburb in the past year. Sean is now 3 years old and loves seeing his buddies at church.
The church reached out to us in our time of need—the men’s and women’s ministries, the nursery ministry, the pastor. They called, e-mailed and sent notes, and very quickly pulled us in. We were part of the family, and weren’t just bystanders anymore.
The responsibility is still there—to raise a valuable, moral, “good” member of society. But it’s eased when we look around at the friends we’ve made by getting involved in a church, parents who are raising their kids the same way, with the same morals and values that we have. We have a support group—not just of other Christians, but other Christian families like ours.
I know firsthand that new families’ needs are simple, but infinitely important. Meeting those needs—practical help, community and spiritual nourishment—is crucial. They are the next generation at your church—future elders and deacons, volunteers and prayer warriors. They are ready to serve and be served, love and be loved.
And sometimes, all it takes is just a little spaghetti.
By Melissa Hambrick. Copyright © by Outreach magazine. All rights reserved. Used by permission.