Introducing the Word "Sustainability" into Conversations about Family Spirituality

Sustainability is a word coined for use in discussions about the environment, especially in terms of recycling, preserving natural resources, and anything pertaining to green living. It is a helpful term insofar as it expresses clearly the notion of long-term planning and outcomes for ecological and biological concerns. Unfortunately, it also has become a warning sign for some that politically correct and/or environmentally extreme perspectives are about to be discussed. For my part, I have a deep concern about ecology. Yet, I include humans as a positive integral part of the conversation, rather than a necessary evil. I suppose you could call me an ecological moderate. I am interested in maintaining a healthy environment for generations to come, but I am also interested in harnessing its resources in responsible ways for human use. Sustainability, as much maligned as the word has become in certain political circles, allows for both, in my view. The normal rhythms of ecological life ought to be able to flow hand-in-hand with the fulfillment of human needs for resources, if it is done responsibly under the stewardship of wise leaders.

So now I wish to lift the word sustainability out of the environmental discussion and carefully introduce it into the ongoing conversation about family spirituality in the Christian context, specifically as it pertains to the everyday rhythms of family life. I am interested in pursuing a practical theology of children’s and family ministry which has in mind the realities of family living. Let’s face it. Most family devotional programs which are intended for in-home use fall short of their goals. Eventually–most likely sooner rather than later–the family (not all families, but a large majority, in my experience) drifts from the goals of the program. There are exceptions, to be sure. But in general, most families do not seem to have time or energy to maintain a discipline of organized family devotions or scheduled spiritual practices. Life happens and the latest program gets set aside. I saw it happen as a child in my own family, despite our best intentions. In essence, many of the things we suggest for our families simply are not sustainable over the long term. Families become distracted by other considerations. Leaders often become frustrated at the minimal success of otherwise logical and strong programs.

What can we do? Do we lecture the parents about the importance of spiritual nurture of their own children? Do we lecture fathers about being spiritual leaders in their own homes? Do we lecture pastors about not emphasizing in-home spiritual disciplines enough? Do we hire a family pastor (I have no problem with family pastors or ministries. In fact I am inspired and challenged by them. I include them as part of this point because many churches do seem to hire toward their weakness, but do not always adequately address the fundamental issues underlying the problem of family spiritual formation, other than to hire a professional to set matters to rights.) whose job it is to see that fathers, mothers, children and pastors are properly lectured? Who do we lecture? Or is that even the point? Indeed, are we missing the point altogether, those of us who have long sought to help families strengthen their family lives through devotional exercises and organized Bible studies?

I would like to call a brief moratorium on lecturing anybody, especially moms, dads and pastors. Let’s take a step back. Breath deeply. And observe.

What are the normal routines of family life? Dishes. Cleaning. Waking, eating, family meals (almost extinct, but making a comeback), preparing for bed, traveling, play time, simple and mundane conversations throughout the day, and so on. Of course there are the seredipitous inconveniences and heart aches which are fertile ground for spiritual formation. Illness, a child who fills a diaper to the brim, a pet who dies, an argument between siblings, the loss of the primary provider’s job, the breakdown of the family automobile, the death of a loved one, and so on. These, and so much more, are the stuff of everyday life, not to mention the commuting and plural meetings required of most over-scheduled families. No wonder there is scant time for one more thing. But what can be done?

I haven’t found the definitive answer to that yet. Indeed it may prove illusive for a good long while. But I do have a suggestion for us to consider, whether we are parents and/or leaders of family and children’s ministries. In close cooperation with parents and families, let’s develop and model practices and routines which are realistic and sustainable for families. Part of this relates to the recognition that the fertile ground for spiritual formation mentioned above is the soil in which our normative practices must be placed so that families will recognize their validity and not view them as one extra thing to tack on to already busy schedules.

In time, some families will make conscious choices about how they prioritize their time. Randy Frazee offers excellent practical insight to this end in his two books, “Making Room for Life” and “The Connecting Church.” While his approach is radical in its full application, he has proven it is also sustainable. In fact, he is now the point person for implementing aspects of his vision at the notable Willow Creek Church in Illinois.

Yet, wherever we might be in our journey as persons of faith, parents or leaders of children’s ministries, let’s remember that spiritual formation is most fruitful in the gritty realities of everyday living, rather than in programs which may or may not be workable in the family’s immediate situation. It seems to me that family spiritual formation practices which embrace the mundane rhythms of daily living are most likely to become sustainable for the long-term, possibly even from generation to generation.

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