MichelleRichardsDuring this back-to-school season, parents often go searching for a church home.  Since we’re all looking for a way to attract new families to our congregation, then its important to be intentional about attracting and welcoming new families.  The question is: do we have a culture and atmosphere which is multigenerational in nature and family-friendly in order to meet the complex needs of today's families with children and youth in the home?  Since church attendance is no longer considered mandatory and with so many stresses and competing events drawing families in different directions, we need to consider just what our congregation offers to make families want to give up their precious time together and spend it at church.

In the book, The Family Friendly Church by Ben Freudenburg and Rick Lawrence, the authors stress that to reach the needs of Generation X and their families, we need to make a shift from thinking of our churches as a congregation-centered family to a family-centered congregation. They contend that the paradigm has already occured in society and in order to stay relevant, we need to shift our focus, too.

Families are crying out for help, and so many of our churches are not meeting the challenge.  While they may bring their children to church for religious education programs or worship services, what parents are really searching for is a supportive community which will nurture them while they serve as the primary religious educators of their children and youth.  However, many of our churches are still structured and programmed the way they were when the culture generally valued children and families. For today's families which spend so much time apart, they may not necessarily want to go their own separate ways once they make it through the church doors.  Many parents with young children are expressing the desire to worship and learn with their children as opposed to away from them. If the church is serious about nurturing the faith of children and youth through families, it must be responsive as needs such as this arise among the families already present in the congregation as well as those they hope to attract.

When we actively help parents redefine their role in their children's faith development, we empower them to nurture their own children's spirituality. We need to help them move out of their roles as chauffers, cooks and dish washers into their role as primary faith nurturers. The church can have a significant role in the life and faith of the family, and that impact can be bad or good, depending upon the church’s structure and programming. For example, scheduling meetings or events which are age segregated on weeknights or Saturday afternoons seperates the family during a time when they might otherwise be together.

It's time to start considering how what we do affects the lives of families and parents in the active parenting years and exploring whether or not the very nature of the activities we do communicate that home life and family interaction is important.  It's also time to discover ways our congregations can assure that the relatively few hours families with children and youth spend in church are more dynamic and fulfilling so that they will make it a priority in their lives.  With this in mind, some reflection on the following questions can go a long way toward making our congregations more family-friendly:

  • How can our church empower families to share and live their Unitarian Universalist faith at home and help them grow together as a family?

  • How can our church help families connect with other families in family groupings or intergenerational groupings to share and celebrate their UU faith?

  • How can our church help families connect with other families in family groupings or intergenerational groupings to serve others in the congregation or community?

  • How can our church help families understand and address the family developmental issues appropriate to their family life cycle stages?

Congregational leaders can also do an assessment of just how family-friendly their congregation is currently by using this online survey or one based upon it.  Sometimes even small gestures or changes can make a big difference by overtly expressing that children are not only welcome, they are expected to be at the church; simple things like having high chairs available and accessible, serving juice or soft drinks along with coffee during hospitality hour and having child size coat hangars available in the coat room -- all of these things require little effort or expense but go along way to making a congregation family-friendly.