What makes a healthy extended family?

You may have heard it said before that “missional communities are the training wheels that teach us how to ride the bike of oikos”. Missional communities are a really helpful vehicle to help us learn how to live as extended families on mission. The New Testament called these families “oikos”, and for most of us in the West this doesn’t come naturally.

As we try to learn how to be families on mission we’ll face obstacles. We have old habits that need to die; we need to put down nuclear-family thinking and pick up a new way of living as extended families. We need to let go of our desire to control our time and our resources and pick up shared rhythms, routines and resources. (we’ve written a whole series on some of the “practices of oikos” which you can find here.)

Families, by their very nature, grow their own cultures. Each one looks different. There are families who love sport and activity – you’ll often see them on their bikes together, or heading for a family swim. Then there are the families who love to learn. On a Saturday morning you’ll find them at the library or at a museum together, or having an afternoon reading at home.

.. …and a million other family “cultures”. Now, obviously families have a mix of different people and different passions, but families always have their own shared culture, whether or not that’s been built intentionally or not.

But in order for healthy culture and healthy families to grow there are foundations we need to put in place. We’ve found it helpful to think about it as follows:

Healthy families have:
Parents

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? We can’t imagine a nuclear family without parents so why would an extended family on mission be any different? An extended family – an oikos – needs parents. Those who take on a parental role in an oikos function under our heavenly father. Jesus, as a single man, was a representative of His father and functioned as a guardian parent overseeing a family that He was forming. So “parents” do not necessarily need to be a married couple. Parental figures can also be 2 or 3 single people who live together as a core community, or a household, at the heart of an extended family.

Good parents point their kids to their heavenly Dad. Good parents set the culture, they set the example. Good parents lead the way. Good parents create safe boundaries for their children. Good parents help the siblings when there’s rivalry or arguments. Good parents bring both invitation and challenge. We could go on. But without people functioning in his type of parenting role, extended families will crumble.

And here lies the challenge. We’re not always good spiritual parents. Many of us have had poor personal experiences of our earthly mothers and fathers, and/or no examples of spiritual parents. Recognising our inadequacy for this task is crucial so that we don’t lean on our own strength but on His. We pick up this role as spiritual parents under, and leaning on, our heavenly father.

If we don’t pick up these parental roles we leave another generation of people without good spiritual parents. And the cycle continues.

We may need prayer and time to process and recover from deep wounds from our parents. But our God is a God of redemption. So our ability to parent is never based on what we have, or haven’t experienced with our own parents.

One thing Rich and I have chosen to do is to intentionally look for the people who’ve modelled good parenting, including our own biological parents. One person, or one couple, can’t model everything but we look for the strengths in different people and learn from them. We ask, listen and learn from them.

Predictable patterns

People in families need security. Hugs are great. But security comes from predictability. Imagine a child not knowing what was going to happen from day to day: what the boundaries will be, what mood mum or dad will be in, whether or not they’ll get dinner, whether they’ll have to tuck themselves in at bedtime or if someone will be there to do it with them. Can you imagine how that child would feel? Highly insecure. If, as parental leaders we don’t live predictable lives we’ll create highly insecure kids.

Do we want the people we nurture to be successful? Do we want them to be fruitful?

If the answer is yes, then we need to offer a predictable life. Security is the basis of significance. And significance is the basis of success. So, if we want to raise “children” who will make a difference for the Kingdom, we need predictable patterns.

We don’t live in a predictable world, so we have to work even harder to create predictability.

Predictable patterns can be:

The things we do:

For example

– daily prayer (sun-Friday) at the same time and in the same place. Find a time that works and stick to it. Do it by skype/phone/conference call if people live too far away.

– A weekly meal at the same time

– A regular time where people can gather or “drop-in” to your home.

The things we say:

We regularly say to our biological kids “I love you always, whether or not you behave well, or not today. I love you whether or not you do great at school or not. All we ask is that you try your hardest.” And there’s predictability for them in that. They can almost say the lines off-by-heart.

And it’s the same with our oikos, our extended family. I asked a few people in our oikos what some of the things they regularly heard Rich and I say. They included: “You’re doing really well”, “We love you.” “Keep going”, “Good job”, “What you’ve got to remember is….”

We say things with consistency and predictability.

Purpose

For families on mission to succeed they need to have purpose, a “mission” -something, or someone, that they’re reaching out to that’s beyond themselves. We see a history of this throughout the bible – extended families who engage in both relationship and adventure. In the Old Testament we see Abraham and his family take over a land and father a nation. In the New Testament we see Jesus’ oikos becoming fishers of men and making disciples together, and we see the early church operating as households with a calling to fulfil the Great Commission.

We’re called to both relationship and adventure. Covenant and kingdom

Some of the best stories are about extended families going on an adventure such as Lord of the Rings and Narnia. In fact “family with purpose” is pretty much a formula for any great fantasy film. These films and stories resonate so strongly with us because we’re all wired for both relationship and adventure. Families are meant to have purpose outside of their own existence. Even little things like going on holiday together and having shared experiences tap in to this desire in us

Are we growing a sense of shared purpose in our extended families where people feel like they are on an adventure with us?

With our biological kids we are trying to teach them to pray for their friends, to talk about what they’re learning about God with their friends as we try to model in our own lives. And our biological kids are also part of our extended 3dm family as we gather to pray, eat, live and work together.

In our most recent missional community gathering we made play dough with the kids and took it, along with some food, to some people receiving support from Christians Against Poverty (CAP) We prayed together for those who would be receiving the gifts. Slowly, through extended family, they’re learning that there’s a world beyond themselves.

As we grow as parents under our heavenly father, as we create predictable patterns, and as we engage in common purpose we can create an environment for extended family to grow in covenant relationship and kingdom impact.

robinsonsAnna is married to Rich and together the Robinsons lead the 3dm UK team in Sheffield. They have 3 children; Josiah, Esther and Samuel. You can read lots of Anna’s thoughts, reflections and stories on family life by visiting here

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