Parenting in the UK is in crisis. So just how effective are the plethora of church courses which Christians are using to try and reach their communities?
Mark Minashi became a Christian on an Alpha course, but when he first started going to church it wasn’t to attend an enquirer’s course or evangelistic service. As a new father he had come with his wife Carolanne to attend a parenting course. Carolanne had already become a Christian on Alpha but hadn’t been able to persuade Mark along. In the event, Mark found the parenting sessions were a friendly and fun way of sharing wisdom and practical advice on how to be a good dad. He also found that the Christians running and attending the course were quite “normal”. With a mental barrier removed, going on the Alpha Course became a natural step along the journey to a fully fledged Christian faith of his own. Mark and Carolanne are now fully involved in church life, and help to run parenting courses themselves.
Outreach to young families has been in the DNA of many churches for a long time. The toddler group is a staple part of midweek activity for those that want to engage with parents, but now an even more purposeful approach to coming alongside parents is being practised. According to the Family Matters Institute, more churches than ever are providing targeted parenting courses. Their recent research survey More Than Sundays showed that an estimated 24 per cent of churches in England (around 9,000) are involved in programmes aimed at parent and family support.
Offering a parenting course is evidently becoming a popular and fruitful part of Christian outreach. Ken Shorey is the director of Positive Parenting, an organisation that provides materials and training for churches who wish to run a course. “The needs of parents and the pressure they are under are different from when I was growing up,” he says. “We’re not going to solve the ills of society unless we tackle relationships in the family. If we want to see God’s values and kingdom extended, then supporting and loving parents is probably one of the most important ways that will happen.”
The Time Out courses run by Positive Parenting are not designed to be overtly Christian, although Shorey believes any church will recognise the values underpinning them. Jane Carey runs the programme at Jubilee Church in Croydon. “We wouldn’t dream of preaching at anyone,” she says. “It’s about meeting families where they are and giving them the strategies to change what they want to change. We don’t judge the particulars of how families are organised, but give thanks for when we see positive changes to the situation they are in.
“I remember one single mum whose relationship with her son had almost entirely broken down,” she continues. “They were living in the same house but had separate lives. To improve the warmth of that relationship they started to eat together and wash up – simple things that totally changed their relationship. Before, there was anger and aggression, but now there’s friendship. We thank God that their family situation is much improved.”
Nicky and Sila Lee run the Parenting and Parenting Teenagers courses at Holy Trinity Brompton. Again, the courses are not overtly Christian in content, but the values espoused are drawn directly from their Christian experience.
“If Christians don’t know the ways of love, I don’t know who does,” says Sila. “Parents are no longer certain about exercising authority – it’s become a negative word. But as Christians we know that God shows love while also exercising authority. That is a biblical principle with a very practical application for family relationships.”
THE LOST ART OF PARENTING
Nicky and Sila Lee recently published The Parenting Book, a hefty but practical guide to bringing up children. The advice in the book, and that used on the courses, is the result of years of experience distilled from the highs and lows of their own parenting journey. They say the book was a long time in the making, because they couldn’t write it until they had seen their own four children safely into adulthood. Nicky Lee believes that such resources are needed for a new generation of mums and dads who are struggling to learn the art of parenting.
“In the past, parenting skills have been passed down from generation to generation, whereas today’s families live further apart,” he says. “I think that’s one reason why people are actively looking for help, advice and practical wisdom on bringing up children.”
Having developed The Marriage Course, which is now run by many churches in the UK, the Lees have a similar vision for The Parenting Course. Like the Alpha Course, the teaching will be delivered via DVD followed by group discussion. A pilot of the course in a select number of churches has delivered positive results. “What we see happening is so encouraging,” says Nicky. “It’s not what we say but what the parents say when they start to discuss among themselves that is so important. One mum might start talking about the problems of restricting a child’s time on the Internet, and then another will say, ‘Well this is what we’ve done’ and before you know it they’ve solved the problem.”
Rowan Miller is dad to three young children and found that hearing other parents being interviewed on the course was especially useful. “How to juggle life with three very young children was mymain concern, so it was really useful to hear how others had managed,” he says. “Talking it through in the group afterwards meant we could then translate what we had heard into our own contexts.”
Developing a healthy parenting style is a key component to all the courses. According to Ken Shorey, most people’s parenting styles are either inherited from, or conversely, are a negative reaction to the example set by their own parents. Developing a healthier form of parenting may mean reshaping the boundaries laid down between parents and child.
“We represent parenting styles by using the image of a sheep,” he says. “We show one image of a sheep very tightly penned in and ask, ‘How might that sheep feel?’ and then another where there are no boundaries and the sheep is running free, and ask the same question. We aim to lead parents towards an assertive parenting style that gives children the boundaries they need without being too restrictive.”
THE CHURCH FACTOR
But why have churches in particular become the primary venue for parents to learn the skills for family life? Mark and Lindsay Melluish developed the Family Time – Parenting Children course that is popular among churches in the New Wine network. The course has been running in their own church, St Paul’s Ealing, for over ten years and Lindsay believes that churches are ideally placed to run these types of programmes. “The church is a community of shared values that people can then join and find ongoing support and encouragement in their parenting,” she says. “It’s also a place where we are able to discuss not just what would help us to be better parents but also what would help us to be better Christian parents and raise children who know and love the Lord.”
Christine Perkins is responsible for the Family Time – Parenting Teenagers course. Having found a great demand for the course at her home church of St Mark’s Battersea Rise, she believes that there is gap in the provision of these services by local authorities. “We have found that many local authorities haven’t the means, the money or the resources to offer these courses,” she says. “A number of our local social services have expressed enormous interest. On our last course a social worker brought along a single mum who’d been really struggling, and they both loved it. The mum was initially very wary that it was going to be rather religious and intellectual, but she loved the discussion groups where she found real help and support, and made some good friends.”
Positive Parenting runs its Time Out sessions in a variety of settings including schools, health authorities and social services. However, Jane Carey still believes that the courses are at their most effective when offered by Christians in a church context. “The beauty of the church setting is that you are free to respond pastorally to the needs that emerge from the parents,” she says. “Very often there is a penny-dropping moment when parents realise that, while they are being shown how to respond with care and love to their own children, they have never had their own emotional needs met in that way. Churches are places where there is always someone around to offer a cup of tea and sympathetic ear when it’s needed, whereas in the secular setting there isn’t that kind of built-in support.”
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
A church in New Addington recently ran a lunchtime parenting programme alongside its toddler group through which the parents on the course developed closer friendships. When the parenting course was over they were keen to continue meeting and went on to run a lunchtime Alpha Course. The story is just one example of how church-run family courses can be a ‘doorway’ to sharing not just parenting skills but also the message of the gospel. Shorey believes that offering parenting courses is a natural way for churches to open the doors to the unchurched in their community.
“For some parents it will be the first time they have stepped across a church threshold,” he says. “That’s a major step towards involving non-Christians in the life of a church. There are innumerable stories of individuals who are now committed to Godwhere their first step was attending a parenting course put on by a church which wanted to serve its community.”
Nicky and Sila Lee have found that family life courses such as The Marriage Course and The Parenting Course are often the ideal way to introduce people to the variety of ways in which the church can meet the needs of families. “People often have a perception that the church is irrelevant, but when they come on a parenting course that is both practical and relevant then their experience overrides the preconception,” says Sila Lee. “We then often see those people start coming to church – they find there are things for their kids to do, that Christians are normal people, and they start to listen with new ears. So the courses are a huge bridge from the community into the church.”
It’s generally acknowledged that having a child is the kind of significant life event that brings a sense of immense responsibility to a parent. Those who may not have been in church since their own childhood may find themselves considering returning again. “Having a child starts you thinking about what sort of world that child will be raised in and so the values of the Christian faith become very attractive,” says Lindsay Melluish. “It gives the church a fantastic opportunity to share faith in a context where people are thinking about the bigger questions of life. Parenting courses are a great way of passing on parenting skills to parents and carers as well as drawing people to the church by offering something that lots of parents are looking for. We rarely come to the end of a course without somebody joining the church and coming to faith as a result.”
MODELLING GOD’S LOVE
“I’m always amazed at how simple strategies can quickly change a family situation,” says Jane Carey of Positive Parenting. “I remember a woman with a ten-year-old boy whose behaviour was out of control. She was quite indignant when we suggested that she should praise his good behaviour and reward him with tokens. Why would he behave well just for a token? But within a week her son’s behaviour had changed dramatically.” In the process of bringing meaningful change to family situations churches are modelling the love of God in practical ways. Sila Lee sees the task of parenting itself as a picture of the loving relationship that God offers to everyone.
“The combination of unconditional love along with boundaries is crucial. When children are loved they feel confident, when they have boundaries they feel secure. God has unconditional love for us and puts in boundaries for our own good. When it comes to parenting it’s as if God has put us in his place – “In loco Dei” – to our kids. Everything we model is a picture of how God loves us. It’s an awesome responsibility.”
As more churches take up the opportunity to make a difference in family life by helping mums and dads in the art of parenting, so we can expect to see more and more of those parents recognising that the church has more to offer than they realised. And who knows – it may even be the first step in realising that family love is most effective when it’s been experienced first hand from the ultimate parent.
Books The Parenting Book by Nicky and Sila Lee (Alpha) Parenting Children Handbook by Mark and Lindsay Melluish (Kingsway) The Parentalk guide to… by various authors (Hodder Stoughton) The Five Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman (Moody Press) Time Out for Parents Handbook (Positive Parenting) The Sixty Minute Father and The Sixty Minute Mother by Rob Parsons (Hodder Stoughton) Teenagers! What every parent has to know by Rob Parsons (Hodder Stoughton) Websites I courses Positive Parenting – Resources and information for running a variety of Positive Parenting courses www.parenting.org.uk Family Time – Mark and Lindsay Melluish’s Family Time – Parenting Children and Family Time – Parenting Teenagers courses www.discoverfamilytime.com The Parenting Course – www.htb.org.uk The Parenting Teenagers Course – Nicky and Sila Lee’s Holy Trinity Brompton based courses will be made available nationwide from next year www.htb.org.uk The Family Matters Institute – Parenting courses and information from a well-respected Christian organisation www.familymatters.org.uk Care for the Family – A wide variety of Christian resources for families and parenting www.careforthefamily.org.uk