Op-Ed: Families Count: Ministering To Parents Of Children In Foster Care
Pure and undefiled religion, as defined by James 1:27, is to look after vulnerable children and widows while maintaining our gospel message. If our churches will embrace care for vulnerable children through US foster care, we must do more than supply new foster homes. We need churches committed to mentor broken families, children with special needs, drug addicts, and those with lives marred by sin.
Being holistic in caring for vulnerable children and families means that our nurseries, small groups, and children’s ministries will become very different. I hope and pray that churches will increasingly look as diverse as Heaven will look one day. As church members, we must give to support work that reflects Kingdom diversity. Instead of giving to support a Church that looks and acts just like us. We must give and work toward a Church that includes all whom Jesus shed His blood to redeem. Only a Church like that will make a considerable dent in curbing the US foster care crisis and demonstrating the fruit of the gospel to a world dying to know Christ.
As an example of this holistic gospel-driven care, in November 2013, Lifeline’s Domestic Education Manager, Traci Newell, bounded into my office with her usual energy and pizzazz. She saw a serious gap in foster care: to help birth families seeking to be reunified with their children. She wanted Lifeline to begin offering a parenting class to families who had lost their children to the foster care system. The idea was to train 10 to 15 birth families a year from the Birmingham Metro area in our office. We would use the state training core but infuse it with the gospel and biblical parenting principles. These classes’ goal was to see dozens of families a year reunified with their children. Which, after all, is the ultimate goal of the US foster care system.
The Lord took this idea and did infinitely more than we could have ever imagined. Instead of our staff offering the training, they began training and equipping local churches to provide the classes across Alabama. Then the Lord multiplied the program through these local churches. This program, called “Families Count,” spread to over seven states in its first four years of existence. With more than 40 church partners holding classes. The Lord has used this simple, gospel-saturated class in such profound ways that churches across the country from several denominations seek to offer Families Count.
The program involves parenting classes offered one night a week for six weeks. Local churches host the classes, and are taught by a couple in that church. Believers from these local churches comprise the core of the class. Additionally, they provide the participants with weekly meals, transportation, and relationships. The Families Count program is designed to create long-lasting mentoring and discipleship relationships between these broken families and a local church. Families who were broken, hurting, lost, and devoid of relationships are being reconciled, restored, and re-engaged by local churches through the gospel’s power.
Families Count significantly outperforms similar programs. I am convinced it is because the Church is bringing the gospel to bear. We have seen story after story of life transformation. We have seen moms and dads thriving as they are reunified with their kids. Of utmost importance, these families are being introduced to their Lord and Savior.
Cal and Trish
I think about one family in particular. We will call them “Cal” and “Trish”. As a result of an unplanned pregnancy and limited finances, they married right out of high school. As they continued having children, job opportunities to support their growing family became fewer and fewer. Finally, they gave in to mounting pressure and succumbed to addiction.
As Cal and Trish’s addictions grew, their relationship crumbled, their parenting fell into ruins and gave way to neglect. After multiple reports of gross neglect and cruelty, the State of Alabama did what it is chartered to do and took Cal and Trish’s children into State custody. Throughout this downward spiral, the goal of being reunified with their children captured this couple’s attention. They first learned about Families Count through the court’s efforts to help them seek reunification with their children.
Trish told me that they hatched a plan. Cal was sleeping on the couch, and they had no intention of becoming a family again. Instead, they thought they would do just enough to be reunited with their kids. Once reunified, they planned to get a divorce because they hated one another.
The First Class
The time came for them to attend the first class at a local church in their town. The county office for Child Protective Services added an unexpected wrinkle to the plan. Child welfare officials decided to combine Cal and Trish’s visitation with their children and their attendance at Families Count. What happened next is simply a move of the Spirit through His people humbly serving Cal and Trish and their family.
God Was Using the Church
The church served this family by treating them with dignity. They did this by providing a family meal together through the church’s regular Wednesday night meal. A simple act of kindness meant a great deal to this hurting family. But God was using the church in even more profound ways. As Cal and Trish attended the class, their four kids joined the church’s programs for children. After the first night, the oldest child told her parents, “I met Jesus tonight and surrendered my life to Him.”
Trish told me that she thought that was sweet, but she just wanted to finish the class. However, as her kids were taken back to their foster parents, their daughter told her mom and dad that they needed Jesus.
Additionally, the church was ministering to this family by providing mentors to meet and pray with them weekly. Trish asked the mentors what Jesus had to do with their shattered family. Trish felt disappointed and let down by God. The mentor couple felt led by the Holy Spirit to challenge Cal and Trish to go home and read the book of James. Through His sovereignty, God spoke to this broken couple through James’ words under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration millennia ago.
After class on week two of Families Count, Cal and Trish surrendered their lives to Christ with their mentor couple. Fast forward three years, Cal and Trish are reunified with their kids. They are members of this church and in a small group. Also, they help with the leadership team of Families Count within their congregation. Through the bold witness of Cal and Trish, more than ten members of their extended family have come to saving faith in Christ. Members of their church even helped Cal and Trish secure jobs to provide for their family.
Brothers and sisters, this is an example of being truly, holistically pro-life. As the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, we have been given the mission to reclaim the broken in the name of our Savior. This mission we have received is costly and dangerous. We will raise questions and make truth claims that sinful men do not want to hear. Nevertheless, we must persevere.
We need Christians to help fund the movement. To be those who are committed to extending support to what is sure to be a long, arduous battle. Until our Lord comes back, we will have some form of abortion, brokenness, disease, famine, sword, and sin. As a result, we will continue to wrestle against a devaluation of life, children in foster care, orphans, widows, and struggling families. As a church, if we are going to stand in the gap, we must have resources for the fight, including our funds, our time, our comfort, and our voice.
What Would Happen?
Church, what would happen if we got to know the family next door? What would happen if we stopped running our kids to endless activities and freed our schedules to become involved in the lives of pregnant women, children in foster care and their families, and orphans and their families?
We are called, as God’s chosen and holy people, to speak up and speak out for the poor, the stranger, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised. Our churches should be a hospice for sinners, allowing them to die to their sin. But our churches should also be an aggressive operating room, looking to confront our deadly sin through the lens of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. May we, as the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, began to boldly practice gospel-centered justice for the poor, the vulnerable, the widow, and the fatherless.
Original article was written for Focus On The Family