By Daniel Darling
Father’s Day is one of my favorite days of the year.
I get the chance to honor my dad, who is one of the godliest men I know and who first showed me what it looks like to be faithful to the church, to walk with God, and provide financially for his family.
I also love Father’s Day because, as the father of four wonderful kids, I get to thank God for the grace of allowing me to be a dad. Parenting is tough and not every day is a banner day, but being a dad is a wonderful gift.
But I realize that both the experience of having a great father and being a dad is something many others in the church and in the community don’t share.
In fact, for many, Father’s Day doesn’t evoke warm feelings of playing catch, going fishing, or crucial life advice. Instead, even the word “father” evokes images of abandonment or cruelty, abuse or neglect.
This means churches have an opportunity on Father’s Day to honor and uphold the good gift of fatherhood and to walk alongside those for whom fatherhood is an idea that brings deep emotional pain. Here are five ways churches can stand in the gap for the fatherless:
1. We must welcome fatherless children in our congregations.
In the last several decades, the children’s ministry paradigm has shifted from a church-centric approach to a parent-centric approach. I’m grateful to see churches begin to equip parents to do the necessary work of teaching their children the Bible rather than create environments where parents feel like discipleship means being a taxi driver to church functions. This is a good trend.
But as we work to empower families, we must not forget those children in our community who do not have the benefit of healthy, committed parents to raise them in the faith.
If we aren’t careful, our assumptions about our audience will leave behind those who desperately need to hear about Jesus and whose only opportunity is a church-sponsored discipleship activity like Wednesday night kids club, VBS, or Sunday School.
I’ve even heard some ministry leaders say perhaps the church shouldn’t have any programming at all for kids. And yet, hardly a week goes by that I don’t interact with a brother or sister in Christ who became a Christian because an aunt or grandmother or friend dragged them to church and for whom church programming was the only spiritual instruction they received.
2. We must welcome fatherless children into our hearts.
It’s important to not only welcome fatherless children into our congregations, but into our hearts.
There is a difference between having programming that children attend and coming alongside fatherless children. Quite often children with unstable family situations will act out and misbehave, bringing challenges to kids’ ministry (though pastors’ kids can bring the disobedience with just as much energy!) in ways that breed resentment.
In churches I’ve served, I’ve heard uncomfortable senior saints grumble at scuffed carpeting and rowdy behavior and “those kinds of kids.” But the kingdom of God is made up of “those kinds of kids.”
The Bible reminds us that none of us, in sight of God, have righteousness of our own. All of us were outsiders until Christ’s death made us insiders. We have to ask ourselves if we truly want to reach our neighborhood with the gospel or if we want to be comfortable and unbothered.
The church could be, for many kids who walk through our doors, the only warm and welcoming place they’ll find in their lives.
3. We must help mentor and guide fatherless children.
For kids who haven’t had an experience with a good father, there are often deep feelings of insecurity and loneliness.
Some experts call this a “father wound,” a hollow space that keeps them from fully understanding the love of the Heavenly Father. This is where mentors and other father figures in the church can step in and play a vital role.
This looks different in every context, but it could be that godly families come alongside and show, by their family life, a small picture of what life in God’s new family can be.
One of the most haunting conversations I ever had was with a young teen who once admitted to me and my wife that she wished “somebody had told her the rules, the way life is supposed to be” so she didn’t have to figure it out on her won. Her father had left her at a very young age.
How sad and tragic. Imagine if your church help fill those gaps.
4. We must ensure that church is a safe environment for fatherless children.
The Bible tells us Satan is an enemy who seeks to devour and quite often he uses sexual predators to go after vulnerable children. Often it is children from unstable families who are prime targets for abusers, who prey upon the trust of Christians in churches.
Churches must rigorously vet those who work in our children’s ministries and provide training and important guardrails to prevent abuse of children. And we must be unflinching in reporting abuse to authorities.
I’ve read too many stories of children who escaped terrible home environments only to be the target of abuse by leaders they trusted. The church should be prepared to care well for anyone who has been abused.
5. We must always point fatherless children to their Heavenly Father.
For many, the father language in Scripture is difficult to hear, due to a terrible experience with their own father. Many see God as father and wonder if God will abandon or abuse them.
We can point fatherless children to a Heavenly Father who is unlike their earthly dad, who will not leave them or forsake them and who was willing to sacrifice his son, Jesus, in order to save them from sin.
God is a good father who walks them through the valleys, who enters into their pain and who understands in Jesus, what it is like to be rejected and alone. What’s more, God is fathering them in the gaps where their earthly father failed.
So as we gear up to celebrate Father’s Day in our churches, let’s rightly honor our dads and honor dads who are working hard to lead their families. But let’s not forget those kids for whom this day is a painful one.
DANIEL DARLING (@dandarling) is vice president of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and teaching and discipleship pastor at Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including The Dignity Revolution.