Most of us yearn to be part of a strong and healthy family, but what exactly does that look like? Perhaps we imagine a warmly lit room with family members sitting together. In our modern, urbanized society, the family home has become a place of retreat from the world. During the day, individuals scatter to their separate places of work and study; in the evening, they regroup at home to relax. “Family time,” to most of us, means leisure time.
But this vision of family life is relatively new. Before the industrial revolution, the family was a productive unit: the home was a place of work. What bound families together was not simply being together, sitting face to face, but doing together, working side by side.
What’s more, as Christians, our families have a mission from God—to point others to their Creator by stewarding his creation, passing on his covenant promises, and carrying out his Great Commission. When husbands and wives work together in love and unity, it tells the world something about Jesus and his bride. When parents bring their children up to work and worship alongside them, it tells the world something about the Father and his spiritual children.
While family movie or game nights have value, our families also need a shared mission. Working and worshiping together not only strengthens our family, but also strengthens our witness in the world.
Modern Families Are Often Missing Something
In pre-industrial times, a family mission was an economic necessity. Families ran farms, businesses, and shops from their home base; home was also where they educated children and cared for the elderly. Nancy Pearcey explains how this practice strengthened family relationships:
For husband and wife, it meant they inhabited the same universe, working side by side in a common enterprise (though not necessarily in identical tasks). For the mother, the location of work within the home meant she was able to raise children while still participating in the family sustenance. . . . With productive endeavor centered on the family hearth, fathers . . . trained their children to work alongside them.
All of this changed with the industrial revolution, which brought separation of the home and the marketplace. Beginning at the turn of the 19th century, many fathers went out to work, leaving mothers at home with the kids.
Over the course of just a few generations, modern families have outsourced many of their productive functions to factories, corporations, supermarkets, schools, and nursing homes. Families no longer depend on working together for the basic necessities of life.
And when husbands and wives, parents and children aren’t working together toward a common mission, they can more easily drift apart. As Alastair Roberts observes, “The family is something that is strengthened through pressure. . . . When there is little weight placed upon it and it is just a matter of private affiliation, it becomes a lot easier to break down.”
Modern Families Were Made for Something
Turning to the Bible, we see that from the beginning God has commissioned not just individuals, but whole families. He gave his creation mandate—to fill and subdue the earth—to male and female together (Gen. 1:28).
Working and taking care of the Garden of Eden wasn’t something Adam could do alone. So God created Eve as his coworker and companion. Later on, their marriage produced children to “fill the earth” and share in the task of subduing it.
When families aren’t working together toward a common mission, they can more easily drift apart.
God’s covenant with Abraham also had Abraham’s whole household in view: “For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen. 18:18–19).
In ancient Israel, God held parents responsible for apprenticing the next generation into his creation mandate and covenant requirements. He commanded whole households to rest on the Sabbath, because whole households worked and worshiped together (Ex. 20:9–10).
In the early church we see that evangelism also became a family concern. People like Cornelius, Lydia, and the Philippian jailer welcomed the apostles and their message into their homes. Their households were then baptized into Christ and his mission. Luke writes about the believers in Tyre: “All of them, including wives and children, accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray” (Acts 21:5).
Families have a God-given purpose: They fill and subdue the earth, rehearse God’s covenant promises, and pass on the gospel of Jesus in word and deed. A strong family isn’t an end in itself; godly families do something together for the good of the world and the glory of God.
Our shared mission strengthens relationships within the family, yes, but it spreads out from there to bless the world around us.
Where to from Here?
One approach is for modern families to become productive households through enterprises like farms, trades, and small businesses. But even if we can’t change the basic shape of our work life, we can take steps to become a family with a shared mission in the world.
First, we can see the times when our family sits down to eat, talk, read the Bible, and pray as preparation for getting up and doing mission together. To quote N. D. Wilson, face-to-face family time is simply the “huddle” before our team runs out onto the field.
When we rise, we can work together in the world by:
- Growing something in the garden
- Making something useful by hand
- Cooking a meal
- Doing housework: wash the car, weed the garden
- Inviting someone over and showing hospitality
- Visiting an elderly relative or neighbor
- Cleaning up litter from your street or community park
- Volunteering at a shelter or mission
- Committing to worship together every Sunday
- Serving at church: put your whole family on a roster
Let’s make every effort to build strong families not just by being together, but by doing something together for the glory of God, the good of his world, and the spread of his gospel. When people see our families living out their God-given mission, may they catch a glimpse of “the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (Eph. 3:15).