Resourcing the domestic church: equipping families for evangelisation

Elizabeth Davies
Co-Director, Bethany Family Institute

In our last issue we reviewed the Report on Evangelisation, which had just been published on behalf of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales. The findings of the report fully supported our understanding of the family's foundational role in bringing individuals to relationship with God. Whilst the report stated explicitly that equipping and resourcing families to fulfil this responsibility was a particularly vital and pressing task, it made no specific recommendations of how to do this. Clearly this challenge deserves both a widespread and broad-based conversation. We would like to begin it with some thoughts of our own and invite you, our readers, to respond with your own ideas and perspectives.

I'll begin with one of those serendipitous coincidences that sometimes happen. In October I just happened to be browsing the stacks of Catholic University Library in Washington DC, when what should I find but the original study guide developed for the World Synod of Bishops on the role of the Family in the Modern World. Yes, this was the 'agenda' that sparked the bishops' reflections and discussions and eventually resulted in the publication of Familiaris Consortio. I read it with fascination, seeing some, but by no means all, of the final structure. Then, one paragraph caught my eye:

"It could be said that the Christian family has a single function or role, that of evangelising, as evangelising has been described in the previous Synods, namely as 'bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new'…. …The action of the family is, like evangelisation, a complex, rich and dynamic matter, which cannot easily be defined, but whose factors must be investigated and distinguished in a fixed order, in order to reach practical propositions."

Family evangelisation has no boundaries

Now this was one of the statements that did not get into Familiaris Consortio in exactly those words. But it does make a very important point that we must remember when talking about the evangelising (or prophetic) role of the family. Which is, that all that a family is, and does, has potential for evangelisation, whether within the home or outside. So when we seek to "equip and resource" a family for evangelisation, it means that we must necessarily expect to do this in terms of the 'all' that a family does. In other words, we cannot compartmentalise the prophetic role. Quite frankly, it simply can't be boxed in. It is spirit and therefore life: God's Spirit and God's Life.

The universality of this view of family evangelisation naturally finds its origin in Christ. In Evangelii Nuntiandi (§6) Paul VI reminds us that all the aspects of his mystery were components of his evangelising activity: his incarnation, miracles, and teaching; his gathering of the disciples and discharging them into the community, his cross and resurrection, and the permanence of his presence amongst his own. Each of these components finds its resonance in family life and if space permitted right now, we might explore the connections a little more deeply.

God is Love

St Augustine's definition of the Trinity as the Lover, the Beloved and the Love between them is another very helpful way of understanding why the relational aspect of our personal lives has been shown to be so important in effective evangelisation. We are drawn closer to an encounter with God through our love relationships, indubitably since God is the love that animates those relationships. Yet, we may well ask, when are any of us aware of God's presence in our inter-personal encounters? The obvious answer might be: when there is love, kindness, sharing, forgiveness, healing, mutuality, equality, respect, laughter, joy, delight, fun…etc. But God is also there when it's both painful and scary to love and well nigh impossible not to count the cost. So how do we increase the frequency and efficacy of life-giving encounters? By offering opportunities for individuals, and therefore families, to improve their practical relationship skills. How do we increase the likelihood of God-giving encounters? By increasing individuals, and therefore families’, awareness and reflection at the soul or spirit level. Not forgetting that the context of an environment that listens to, understands, and seeks to alleviate, the external pressures on family life, is also an important focus for our work.

Relationship education is vital

Many of us who have worked with the Family Caring Trust materials have seen at first hand the power they have to transform lives. In very practical ways, these materials enable couples, parents, teens and others to learn and practise techniques for managing the intricacies of daily community life: listening, non-anxious assertiveness, conflict resolution, decision making and much, much more. In other words, they enable people to grow in maturity, confidence, and mutual respect, and therefore love. These are the courses that should be at the heart of any parish or school initiative to support and strengthen family life. They should also be mandatory for any team that needs to work collaboratively, since the skills, though framed in the context of family, are infinitely transferable.

Finding God in ordinary family life

The second part of the equation is less easy to solve. Few resources for family spirituality are as stand-alone and oven-ready as the Family Caring Trust relationship kits. The exceptions are our own Seeing God in Love With Your Family, the FCT's I Have a Million Things to Do and the Moments That Matter series, published by Matthew James. Each of these resources works from the premise that the family can do much for themselves given the right encouragement. But they do need help in uncovering a spirituality of their daily life that will make full use of their familyhood. Which leads us to another very important point about subsidiarity.

Walking the talk as a church community

As a church we agree that family enjoys a foundational role in teaching, evangelising, praying and serving. The principle of subsidiarity teaches that no larger organisation should usurp the authority of a smaller one. In our church we are rarely attuned to empowering families to get on with what God created them to do. We train catechists for parishes and schools but not parents for the home. We devise service programmes that focus on individuals rather than groups. We work hard to create cell-church and new communities, overlooking the needs of natural inter-generational communities that already exist. We expect offerings, attendance, involvement, conformity and commitment from our families, and blame them when our numbers drop. Until we walk the talk on the central role of the family in our church, we have no excuse for bemoaning society's own failures on family. A family-centred approach to ministry will undoubtedly call for a great change of heart aswell as a major leap of faith. But it makes sense.

Further evidence in support of this strategy

It's appropriate at this juncture to revisit the recommendations of Merton Strommen and Richard Hardel, expressed in their highly recommended book, Passing on the Faith. They too reached the conclusion that only a family centred strategy would prevent the haemorrhaging of congregations and enable a true passing on of faith. The strategies they describe include assisting parents in the baptismal journey, working for long-lasting marriages, encouraging parents to be spiritual leaders, and providing help in parenting, all the while considering the high cost of neglect. They acknowledge the importance of parental harmony, effective communication, wise parental control and parental nurturing. The spiritual essentials include Gospel-orientated parenting, communication of moral values, involvement in service activities, and the sharing of faith at home. None of these components are plucked out of the air, but are based on years of research in Protestant congregations in several continents, to find out what actually makes a difference. It is this difference that must inform our plans for supporting families.

Practical Suggestions

Whilst this challenge can sometimes seem overwhelming one can relatively easily identify some basic strategies:

§ Incorporating programmes for the preventive care of relationships at every sacramental stage of life. Investing in people in such a basic way would be a major sign that the church really cares about its flock.

§ Preaching a concrete, earthy version of family spirituality that assists families to make sense of good and bad times, and to see God in all of it. Offering an alternative to the traditions surrounding holiness that suggest a quiet, clean order is closest to God.

§ Creating liturgies that reflect more closely the daily lives, hopes, dreams, and cares of ordinary families of every kind.

§ Practical resources for parishes on becoming more family-centred, including ways to minimise negative impact and maximise positive impact.

§ Materials for an annual, national celebration of family.

§ Including a family component into every course of study leading to church ministry.

No doubt you will have your own ideas and so we invite you to add to this discussion. Please write or email us.

References and Further reading

Synod of Bishops: the role of the Christian family in the modern world (for the use of Episcopal Conferences). Study Guide. Vatican: Polyglot Press, May 7, 1979

Passing on the faith: A radical new model for youth and family ministry. Merton Strommen & Richard Hardel. Saint Mary’s Press, 2000. ISBN: 0884896064

Family-centered Church: a new parish model. Gerald Foley. Sheed & Ward, 1995 ISBN: 1556127677

Evangelisation in England and Wales: a report to the Catholic bishops. Philip Knights & Andrea Murray. Catholic Bishops Conference of England & Wales, 2002. ISBN: 90524124X

Paul VI: Evangelii Nuntiandi (Proclaiming the Gospel). Apostolic Exhortation 1975. Catholic Truth Society, 2002. ISBN: 0851831583

Moments That Matter: a series of four booklets for parental reflection on starting school, first Eucharist, first reconciliation, and moving on. Contact Matthew James Publications, Chelmsford, Essex.

Family Caring Trust materials: 8 Ashtree Enterprise Park, NEWRY, Co. Down BT34 1BY Tel: 01693 64174 Fax; 01693 6977. Website: www.familycaring.co.uk

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