Loving others starts with our families.
Throughout 2020, Exponential will continue the mobilization conversation as we focus on the critical importance of collaboration. We are better together! Previously Dave Ferguson, who leads Exponential’s annual conference, reminded us that the most important “together” is an intimate relationship with God. It is foundational to the Great Collaboration. Today he unpacks how family is the first priority of ministry, not a distraction from difference-making or ancillary to life-change ministry. We’re glad you’re joining us in the conversation.
What if she had grown up in my family?
I first met Talia when she was waiting tables at a restaurant where I and a few friends ate breakfast every Wednesday morning. Talia had a great smile (really more of a smirk like she had just gotten away with something) and always a quick-witted comeback. She had a lifetime ahead of her.
Many Wednesdays, I would stick around a few extra minutes to talk to her and over time got to hear her story. Talia’s father died in a train accident when she was just six months old. Her family told the story two different ways: in one version, it was an accident; in the other, he walked in front of the train on purpose. Either way, it was sad. Talia grew up without a father, leaving a huge hole in her life.
The void was obvious. The big landscape photo on her Facebook page was of Talia and her son kneeling beside her father’s gravestone. In her search for affection and love, she only found abuse from one man after another. Over the next 15 years, she would bounce from one guy to the next. The only good thing she got from these relationships was a son.
When the hurt and pain were too much, she tried to make it all go away with alcohol. It didn’t go away. So she drank more. The pain still didn’t go away. After a week in the hospital from almost drinking herself to death, she sent me a text and asked if we could get together.
We met at Starbucks. I’ll never forget her first question: “Dave, can you help me believe in God?” I nodded my head “yes,” and we started meeting for a white mocha frappuccino every week where we talked about life, living one day at a time and God. I saw her come to believe. It was beautiful. But Talia’s hurt never went away … and neither did the drinking.
I was working on this book when I got a voicemail from Talia’s mom:
“Dave, they have taken Talia to the hospital, and I’m not sure she’s going to make it. Call me as soon as you can.”
Talia didn’t make it. At the young age of 36, she had a seizure in the middle of the night and died in bed.
Five days after getting the call from Talia’s mom, I was at the funeral with other friends and family. Having spent so much time with Talia, I knew her family, immediate and extended. I got to know her friends, current and old, and some of their friends. I liked them all, but as I thought about each of their stories, they were like an ocean of people who were all drowning in their own hurt—pulling each other under while trying to grasp for life. I couldn’t help thinking to myself, What if she had grown up in my family? How would her life have been different?
My family? I’m almost embarrassed at how good God has been to me. My parents love God and have faithfully loved each other for almost 60 years. They were church planters and have served in churches that loved them and our family for six decades. My siblings love God, and we love each other. My wife Sue is loyal and loving to God, me and our three amazing kids, Amy, Josh and Caleb. They all three love God, love each other and have been the greatest joy of my life. It feels somewhat embarrassing and unfair when I think about people like Talia. What do you think? If Talia had grown up in my family, how would her life have been different?
I think it would have been totally different. That’s what makes this chapter so important.
LOVE GOD, LOVE OTHERS
God knows we are better together. Jesus knew we are better together. When Jesus was asked to prioritize and summarize all the commands of the prophets, he said:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ The second [commandment] is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” —Mark. 12:31–33
The first command to “love God” is the vertical dimension of togetherness. We touched on this in the last post. The second command to “love others” (more often translated “love your neighbor”) is the horizontal dimension of togetherness. This is what we’re unpacking today.
This love of others is meant to include family, friends and others that God brings into our world. For our conversation, we won’t spend time talking about the “others” who fall into the categories of the “least, the lost and the lonely”—but they’re included. And we won’t spend time talking about the community of togetherness known as church and the people we call friends. I fully acknowledge that God’s vision for community is much, much broader than the traditional nuclear family. I also fully acknowledge that to be single is not to be incomplete. There are also a variety of forms of family (single-parent family, blended family, etc.) that God brings together. I hope this inspires conversations about being together specific to those relationships; it is needed.
However, to start this conversation, I want us to focus on family and go into more depth on what it means to be together as a nuclear family.
FAMILY IS MISSION CRITICAL
Please listen to me—if we get family right, the whole world works right. The best way to have exponential and generational impact for Jesus is through the legacy of a whole family. If we get this right in our homes, we give the following generations the best opportunity to experience and share the love of Jesus. But if we don’t get family right, everything else is a failed strategy. Simply put, family is mission critical.
FACTORS OF A FAMILY THAT HAS IT TOGETHER
So how do you do it? How do you live in a community of togetherness with your family? How do you look back after 25 or 50 years of ministry, marriage and family and say, “I did my best to lead my family and my church the way God meant for me to do it.” That’s what I want. I’m sure you do, too.
It starts by knowing that when you get to heaven, you will never hear God say: “Great job planting and growing that church. You did it at the expense of your family, but your church made an impact. Well done!” Let me be clear. I’m not one to predict what God will or won’t do or say, but I can tell you with full confidence that God will never say that.
It won’t happen.
God meant for us to do life and lead our church in a way that’s best for our family. Your family is the first expression of your local church. If you love and care for them first, then others will follow your example. They, too, will love and care for their family first.
Let me give you some clear next steps. Even better, I’m going to give you some of the best content that comes from my wife Sue. We teach a workshop together called “How to Have a Close-Knit Family That Lasts.” Much of the following comes from that workshop where she did the vast majority of the homework. I’ve added some of my own thoughts to her insights.
The title of this section is a bit misleading. I’m not trying to describe a family that has it all together. None of our families have it all together—mine included. But after 30 years of ministry experience, being blessed to grow up in a family that loves God, and having a wife who is an expert on this stuff, I can look at the “together families.” In my book, Together: The Great Collaboration, I draw out four factors—God, Marriage, Identity and Time. We’ll dive deeper into the first factor here.
GOD—FAMILIES ARE BUILT ON A SPIRITUAL FOUNDATION.
A Fuller Youth Institute study of relational dynamics analyzed the warmth of families. The study looked at more than 300 families over a span of 35 years. The findings revealed that the No. 1 value correlated to creating a family of warmth and togetherness is faith. Researchers wrote: Families in which children and parents felt close were more likely to be families in which children adopted the faith of their parents.
As I mentioned above, you’ll find three more factors in the book (and they are helpful), but decades of experience have shown me that building and standing together on a strong spiritual foundation is the most important. To that end, my wife Sue and I did our best to create a family culture that valued faith in God and faith in one another.
Valuing Faith in God
Valuing faith in God meant that we expected our kids to attend church, be in a small group and find a place to serve (once they were middle-school age). I know it’s a struggle for many parents. But we figured school attendance is not an option; so why should church attendance be any different?
If you have kids in sports—which we did—I want you to think about this seriously. When you let your kids choose sports over church activities, it speaks volumes and sets a precedent for how they’ll make decisions when they get into college and beyond.
Valuing Faith in One Another
Valuing faith in one another meant that doubt was normative, and everyone has their own journey with God. I share more stories about faith in one another in Chapter 4 of the book.
But in the spirit of keeping it real, let me confess three things I wish I had done differently with our family:
1. I wish I had talked about Jesus more and the church less.
In retrospect, I loved starting and leading a local church so much that I think sometimes I talked more about Community Christian Church and NewThing than I did Jesus. Jesus is at the center of it all—but I should have made the implicit more explicit.
2. I wish I had encouraged serving more and leadership less.
I love leadership, and everyone in my family has leadership gifts. In my effort to encourage and equip them, I focused too much on how they could influence others and not enough on how they could serve others. Both are good, but I think I tipped the scale toward leadership too much.
3. I wish my family had seen me reading the Bible more.
Bible reading and journaling have been a regular part of my daily routine for years, but I wish my family had seen me doing it. I remember seeing my dad sitting in the family room chair (and my grandfather too, now that I think of it) reading the Bible. It made an impression. When my kids were growing up, I was usually off too early in the morning and went to a local coffee shop or breakfast restaurant to read and study. And they never saw it.
I go into great detail about the other three factors in Together: The Great Collaboration and I invite you to download the book and read them here. Get this first factor right, and the other three will follow.
Back to my question about my friend, Talia: If she had grown up in my family (or yours), I wonder how different her life might have been. I think I know the answer. I’m grateful she is in heaven now, but her life was far less and far different than what God ever intended. She could have had so much more and have been so much more.
Families are better together—it’s mission critical.
God wants whole and healthy families, but the Great Collaboration doesn’t begin and end at the front door of our homes. It extends to the people that God has intentionally brought into your life. You know who that is for you. We weren’t meant to go it alone. I believe this next discussion will help us better accomplish the mission of Jesus—but it will also help save us from ourselves.
Throughout 2020, Exponential will unpack the biblical truth that we are better together in our pursuit of Christ’s mission. This post is based on the new book, Together: The Great Collaboration, by Dave Ferguson. To download your copy, visit exponential.org/ebooks. Together: Pursuing the Great Collaboration is Exponential’s 2020 theme. To learn more, visit exponential.org/events.