Is your family close? Do you tolerate each other? Or do you actually enjoy each other? Do you love spending time together? Can you laugh with each other?
Every family has its “moments”—but I’m surprised at how many Christian families really don’t cultivate family health. Many have long seasons of distance, anger, division, or fracture. Perhaps we’re too busy. Perhaps we fall into cultural norms, accepting less than God’s best. Perhaps we just fail to assign the right biblical priority or value to family.
I hope this post will compel you to work at, and intentionally cultivate family health.
One of God’s greatest gifts to you is your family. Your family is absolutely your greatest ministry, your highest call, and your most valuable stewardship—next to Jesus Himself!
So what do healthy families get right? As I’ve studied and learned from healthy families over the years, here’s some qualities I see and desire to emulate:
Play Together—As I reflect on my own childhood, and then our family and many others, this is the first thing that comes to mind. Not many days pass before a healthy family calls “time out” to life and plays together on purpose. Whether it’s a picnic, a hike, a day in the city, or a week or more of vacation—nothing can replace the value of this un-rushed, laughter-filled time of fun memories.
I often thank my own parents for their focus on family fun! Whether or not we could “afford it,” my parents always made sure that we played—a lot—together. In many ways my Dad and Mom never fully grew up, and that kept our family close through many exceptional memories.
Forgive Each Other—Reconciliation is big in healthy families. “Ugly stuff” isn’t left unresolved for days and days. They refuse to go days “not talking” or “holding grudges.” They force themselves to sit down, work through, and have the hard, long conversations required to understand, forgive, and reconcile with each other.
This requires courage and leadership. It requires humility and the ability to forgive when offended, or to accept responsibility when you’ve been wrong. Forgiveness is big in healthy families!
Celebrate Growth Together—Healthy families cheer each other on! They celebrate each others’ victories. When one makes the team, one’s grade improves, one gets selected for a promotion—all rejoice. When one makes a high-value decision, everyone celebrates.
One way to say this is that healthy families are not competitive. Children learn at relatively young ages that they aren’t competing with each other, and they can be free to celebrate each other.
In these families, every one is applauded! Everyone’s strengths and gifts are valued. Everyone’s personality type and uniqueness is cherished. And each family member is willing to celebrate the growth of the others.
Extend Grace to Each Other—Similar to forgiveness, in healthy families, the internal culture doesn’t expect perfection. The expectation is that “we’re all growing, we’re all under construction by God, and we’re all being developed by His grace.” These families are taking the Christian journey together, and they learn early that the family unit itself is, in part, God’s laboratory of growth and development.
Last week I was privileged to spend a week with my youngest brother, Mark, who serves as a missionary in an impoverished village in the mountains of Guatemala. One of my greatest take-aways was how God used Mark’s spirit in my own heart. His grace and kindness towards me and his whole family provided me with a vivid picture of the heart of a godly leader and a loving shepherd-father.
Pray Together—Healthy families come to God together. They break through the early awkwardness of family prayer, and they cherish times when they pray together. This can start at the dinner table, but it should expand. It should be consistent, spontaneous, and inclusive of the whole family.
For our family, growing up, this was on the way to school each morning, then again before bed in the evening. Periodically, in light of a particular need, I would often say, “Hey guys, every one come in here, we’re going to pray together.” Over time, this became natural and normal. More importantly, it was powerful to knit our hearts and cement our faith as a family. God used those times to help us navigate a lot of tough things together.
Attend Church Together—Casual, occasional Christians raise even more casual kids. Don’t be surprised if your “periodic church attendance” produces children who rarely (if ever) attend church. There are a lot of reasons kids drop away from church, but one of them is simply that their parents never placed them in a healthy, biblical environment in which they were fully engaged.
I realize there are unhealthy churches, but I refuse to reject God’s model because of some bad examples. Most of my life, God allowed me to grow in healthy, thriving, Bible-centered churches; and I owe every good thing in my life to the truth I learned in those communities. Thank you, Dad and Mom for going “all in” and keeping us faithful in healthy church environments!
Grow in God’s Word Together—This goes with the previous point, but expands on it. Have you ever read a book together? Have you ever attended a family conference together? I’m thankful that my parents engaged me at a young age in opportunities to grow in my faith. We attended apologetic seminars, Christian growth classes, family camps, and many other environments where we learned God’s word together.
Some of our friends thought it was odd that we chose to sit with our parents in church. They thought that perhaps our parents required it. That was not the case. We sat with our parents in church because we liked them!
Spend Time Together—None of the above points are possible without time. A healthy family is built through extended time together. Today, our culture is built on busyness. We fill every free moment with sports practices, karate lessons, music recitals, and more. Every extra curricular activity takes precedence over family time.
May I strongly challenge you to swim upstream and resist this trend? Twenty years from now, most of these extra curricular things will not be important to your adult child. But your family’s culture and the time you spent together will prove to be invaluable—to your grown child, and to your grandchildren!
It’s time to make your family decisions in light of your future grandkids—like twenty-five years before they are born! Do now what will produce the healthiest family value system for them then!
Celebrate Traditions—These last two points seem contradictory, but they both work. First, build some things you enjoy doing and do them predictably. Our family traditions were things like: family vacation annually, school shopping together for supplies, taking one last “summer get-away” before school started, going to breakfast on the first day of school, having cinnamon roles on Christmas morning, opening one gift on Christmas Eve, visiting family on Thanksgiving, movie nights, game nights, Easter egg treasure hunts, trips to Disneyland, days off school with Dad. This list could go on and on!
Build into your family relationships some repeated memories to which you return over and over again. And take a lot of pictures, so one day you can prove to your kids what a good parent you were.
Hang Together and Enjoy Spontaneity—Spontaneous fun can be just as valuable as traditions. There’s something awesome about calling an audible and surprising everybody. “No school today, we’re going on a day trip!” The surprise sort of burns the memory into a permanent place. So, periodically be random, on purpose!
One of my favorite things to do is to surprise my daughter with an unexpected train ride to New York City, where we spend the evening walking, eating, shopping, and enjoying the city. It’s become one of her favorite things to do, in part because of the surprise factor.
It is good for your family to periodically go “off script” and do something unexpected and out of the norm, and then to just hang together.
In closing, may I simply implore you to hit the reset button on family health? May I bemoan how quickly our children grow up? At forty-seven years of age, I’m not looking back wishing I had worked longer hours. I’m looking back, amazed at how quickly all those years flew past.
Our children are now adults. We are grateful for the many memories God gave us growing up together, and we marvel at how brief their childhood really was—lots of hard work, lots of great memories; and all of it just blows by like a high-speed train!
Please be intentional and purposeful about family health. Please give your family your best, while you can. Everything else can come second… keep Jesus first, and love your family best!
I promise, you will be very glad you did!