Ministry to the Childfree And Those With Nontraditional Families

I mentioned recently that a woman I know lost her husband in a freak accident.

She has two sons, one in college and one graduated from college, and a common refrain from friends and family has been: “Well, at least she has the boys.”  They help with the practical details; they share the weight of the grief.  The thinking is that even though she’s suffered a tremendous loss, she still has something.

I think about that a lot.  I think, too, about the fact that my husband and I have chosen not to have children.  The two of us are a bit of an island; we live five hours away from my parents, a couple hours from his, and farther than that from all the rest of our extended family and friends.  I am painfully aware that if an emergency ever happens, the two of us – perhaps just one of us – will be on our own, at least for a little while.

It’s easy to assume the church will fill in the gap, should that ever happen.  But I wonder.

As I grow older, I become more and more aware that I’m part of an odd, niche demographic.  Church events advertised for families often mean “families with children,” and church ministries often focus on those perceived to be the most vulnerable or most lonely: the children, the elderly, the bereaved, and those in material need.  Graduated out of the newlywed crew and on our way into too old for the “young professionals” – we’re 33 and 34, respectively – my husband and I often exist on the periphery of the congregations we attend.

As a result, we don’t seem like candidates for targeted ministry.  Many child-free couples don’t.  Able-bodied and financially stable, we’re often perceived as doing and being just fine.  To tell the truth, we are doing and being just fine.   And we’re long-time Christians, too.  You may know a couple like that.  If and when a crisis hits, the thinking goes, they’ll be okay.  Maybe they will be, materially.  But what about emotionally?

Several years ago, my husband and I were confronted with a major life decision: a potential move, the consequences of which could conceivably change our lives.  Desperate, far from family and friends who could come over and pray with us or simply talk it out in the comfort of our home, we reached out to the five closest friends we had in our church: fellow small group and study members, people who had said to us, “I’m always here for you if you need anything.”

Two days later, I received an email from one of them that said, “Praying!”  And that’s it.  My desperate, three-paragraph email request for help and advice and support received nothing more.

We ended up getting through that period with the help of our faraway friends and family, but it was hard not to feel bereft and alone – and it was hard not to wonder how it will play out when it happens again.  I found myself thinking about it again during the recent catastrophic leak we found in our new house, which has required me to be home an inordinate amount as a parade of plumbers and drywallers and floor guys march in and out of my house.  Fortunately, my work schedule permits my presence here.  But what if it didn’t?  What if neither of us could be here?  What if I was a single mother with a job and a child and no options?

Could I depend on my church to step in?

There are single parents in your congregation who find themselves facing small crises every day when winter weather cancels classes and child care plans go out of whack.  There are child-free couples far from family and close friends who fret over facing medical crises or emergencies with no one nearby to rely on.  There are singles of all ages who might need a lift or an encouraging word, or even some help with problems that are too big for anyone to face alone.

Be on the lookout for these people in your congregation: the single mothers and fathers, the single childfree folks who live alone, the single couples.  They might seem fine.  They might even be fine.  But one day they won’t be fine.  And they will need their church family to behave like a family: not by offering a tossed-off comment of support or a breezily promised prayer, but by giving warmth and company and help and hope.

In our desire to minister to the vulnerable, don’t forget the families it’s easy to miss.


6 thoughts on “Ministry to the Childfree And Those With Nontraditional Families

  1. Well, of course, I totally relate to this post. : ) Thanks for sharing your heart and being honest. So many need to hear your words. In some ways, things get a bit better – We are mid 40’s (10 years ahead of you) and find ourselves fitting in some with the “empty nest” crowd. But note “some.” We continue to exist mostly on the periphery of church life – plugged in but not truly plugged in. (Nothing new, and how it has mostly been.) Sometimes I am truly thankful I am an introvert, and don’t “need” people in quite the same way as non-introverts.

    We have experienced the similar lack of response – rare times in our life of reaching out for help – and either being ignored or empty words only. I don’t get it. I’ve observed a great mobilization of assistance to help out traditional family people. I guess if you are single or married with kids, you are perceived as an independent island that needs no one or nothing?? But it could actually be perceived as the exact opposite – without a spouse and/or kids you will be MORE likely to need a hand in life!!! But no, the assumption is the opposite…


    1. It’s comforting to know it gets a bit better on down the road! We are introverts too, so we don’t mind being on the periphery in the general sense; it suits us, and now that we’re not trying to “extrovert” ourselves we’re a lot happier in general and happier in our church, too.

      But those moments of reaching out and getting nearly nothing are really tough. Especially since – and I am guessing because we have so much in common! – that sort of “reaching-out” is not something you do for no reason, or very often at all. And probably it takes some effort and deliberation to do so. For us, the situation is pretty dire if we’re sending out an SOS…which makes it all the more painful when no help comes in.

      It really is a strange assumption, no? I’ve seen churches mobilize ministries for the sick, for the newly-pregnant, for the just-delivered and just-married, for the bereaved, for caretakers, for all sorts of groups, but for some reason people w/out spouses and children really are viewed as self-sufficient anomalies.

      It’s such an untapped ministry area!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, you described it – how/when we reach out for help – which does make it more painful when no help comes.

    What is worse about all this is that singles and married with no kids (and others out side the sociological norm) are a growing percent of the population – yet the church continues to focus almost exclusively on traditional families ignoring all these others…It is an untapped ministry area.


    1. You know, it makes me wonder about attendance loss too in churches generally. I know many denominations are experiencing a drain and members who just sort of drift away and never come back… It’s easier for that to happen when there are no ministries, no support, no “family” to anchor people to a church. You just go on feeling like a guest, and leaving seems like not such a big deal. So with a growing percent of the population ending up in that group, it makes sense they’d “give up” faster, too.


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