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When we reimagine spiritual practices for today, it causes us to really think about the ways in which our churches are structured and the way ministry is often structured. We structure ministry around the family unit, and we divide by children’s ministry. Often, you show up to church, and the kids go one direction, while the adults go the other direction. That’s typical for a lot of churches, though not all. Some churches intentionally have kids worship together with their parents, and then they go to kids’ church. As ministry has become more specialized, there are valid reasons for doing that. But one of the unintended consequences is that it’s robbed us of the ability to spend time together as a whole church body. It starts to minimize some of those intergenerational ways that we can relate to each other and learn from each other.

This material was originally recorded as part of the Renovations Project. It has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

DO prioritize time as families

Churches should consider uncoupling some of their structure as it relates to families for the purpose of then putting it back together in a way that families actually can spend time together. That bleeds into what life looks like throughout the week. If it’s not oriented around work, it is often oriented around family. 

How do we create space for people to spend time together? I think one of the challenges that pastors and ministry leaders face is time with people who are part of their congregations. If you’re going to work full-time, if you’re raising kids, the amount of time that you have free in a week is very, very compressed. Where does that leave us as the church? Where does that leave us as church leaders? Though people have great intentions and want to be part of our churches, want to be more engaged, want to be knit into our church life, want to be able to help in ministries in the community—the huge challenge is often time. 

Until we begin to aggressively work toward drawing back from certain things in order to prioritize things like being part of a church community and thinking about mission in community, it’s just not going to happen.

Life milestones and the church

There are so many complexities that go into structuring ministry. What I would be mindful of and encourage pastors to think about is essentially anybody that looks different from the “norm.” Some sociologists track these life milestones: Do you leave high school and get a college degree? Do you then go on and get married within a certain period of time? Once you’re married, do you start to have children? Do you buy your first home? So there’s all of these life markers that we use socially to indicate progress that we use as a proxy for, “Hey, I’m doing really great because I got a college degree on time, I got married when I was supposed to, I started to have kids, I started my career,” and so on.

I think our churches are actually built to model that exact same pattern. You go through youth group, you may or may not go to college, but somewhere in your early to mid 20s, a lot of people are thinking about getting married, starting to get married, having kids. And church really mirrors that. Church ministry structures can help you really think, “Hey, this is exactly what everybody should do.”

When those milestones don’t happen

For many people those milestones get checked off as people grow, and as people do find their spouse, and they start to have families, etc., but there’s a lot of people who don’t follow that “normal” pattern. There are people who don’t go to college, people who don’t find a spouse and get married, people who are single past age 30, 35, 40. There are people who get married and don’t have kids. These are all people who, for whatever reason, find themselves off that main trajectory that a lot of people are either on or one that is often very highly encouraged. This often happens in very unspoken ways. It’s side conversations at church like, “Oh. Are you looking to get married?” Or, “Have you guys thought about having kids?” A lot of those conversations can really make people feel totally on the outside of not just society, but also what the church is all about. That’s a pattern that happens very unintentionally because people are often very well-meaning.

If you are single, if you’ve never been married, if you’re widowed, if you are married but you don’t have kids, if you are always moving from place to place and you don’t really have a fixed home, if you don’t hold a career-type job, but you’re always moving from job to job to job—all of these can be very subtle cues of, “You’re not quite where the norm is, and this church is built for people who are on track and in the ‘normal’ progression of life.”

Again, these happen often in very subtle ways. But I know that this is real for a lot of people. We know so many people who haven’t gotten married when they were “supposed” to or had kids when they were “supposed” to, and it’s very easy, then, for them to feel like, “This church is not for me. They want to be for me, but they just aren’t for me.”

I think for pastors and ministry leaders, it’s important to be observant and really pay attention to people who are single in the church, past whatever you see as a typical age in your local context for getting married, or people who are married but they haven’t had kids. That’s a really delicate conversation and stage of life. I remember for many years my wife and I couldn’t have kids, and people didn’t know whether to talk to us about that or not talk to us about that. It really affected the way that we saw our local church.

People who are struggling to understand what their purpose is, to really find purpose in their work and in their church—that’s such a huge part of who we are.

The church as an inviting, inclusive family

Pastors don’t have to solve all of these problems or concerns that people have on their lives, but they—we—can simply acknowledging that not everybody is on this “normal” path in life, that there are people who are in all different stages of life, and try to make the church a really inviting community where people can say, “I truly belong.” That can look like people who are married, or have families, opening their homes up and saying, “If you’re single, and you just want a house to come and just have dinner one night a week, the kids will be running all over the place, it’ll be crazy and chaotic, but if you just want to be part of a family, come on over.” Or people who are really struggling and just need somewhere to be. I think oftentimes our home life gets very protected, or we’re not quite sure if we should say something to someone. 

I think as pastors and church leaders we need to consider how we use language and how we position ourselves so that we are actually acknowledging what people go through and making a place for them that says, “It is okay for you to be in this church. In fact, we want you to be part of this church, and not everything we do is oriented around married couples who are bringing their kids to church every week. You have a place here. You have something you can contribute.”

Renew your church’s imagination for ministry

The Renovations Project helps leaders learn, together. 

  • Thought-provoking masterclasses
  • Personalized coaching
  • Immersive visit to a ministry innovation hub
  • Ministry innovation grants up to $5,000
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Dr. Graham McKeague

Dr. Graham McKeague is dean of professional and graduate studies at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He equips ministry leaders to serve in increasingly diverse cultural contexts. He participated in listening sessions about innovation hosted by the Reformed Church in America.