I was speaking to a large group of middle schoolers. Knowing that few of them came from what my generation would consider the “traditional” family, I was trying to get them to discuss what it was like when their parents got divorced and how they could move beyond the pain of that experience. Clearly, I was not connecting well to the group. One young man, Kyle*, was sitting on the front row. He spoke up, saying, “Terry, my parents are not divorced. They were never married. I’ve only met my father once when I was little, and I don’t really remember him.”
As he spoke, I saw a lot of heads nodding around the room. So I asked who else was in that situation at home. More than half of the hands went up around the room, indicating they, too, were from homes in which their fathers had never been present. So we switched the discussion from “divorce” to “never had a dad,” and the room became alive with the discussion of voices eager to talk about the pain and heartache that not having a dad brought into the lives of those young teens. I did what I could to let them know that there is a Father in Heaven who would never leave them or abandon them. Many seemed comforted by that thought. Others simply couldn’t imagine having a Father like that.
That experience reinforced a powerful truth to me, that the “traditional” family, at least as my generation understood the term, is no longer the norm. We are no longer dealing with families that became “broken” at some point along the way, we are dealing with situations in which the family was never complete to begin with. How the church deals with that kind of family is very different. For example, having a father/son event, common in my younger years, might not be a great idea in an era when so many young people do not have a meaningful relationship with their father. What a challenging issue for the church to face, yet face it we must!
Michael Kismet, who grew up fatherless and describes himself as a “self-taught expert in human behavior” wrote a powerful essay on the 8 challenges facing young people who grow up without a father. He makes two conclusions at the end: “Through his absence, my father taught me that life isn't fair. There are no guarantees that we will attain anything, achieve anything, or be loved by anyone.” While that sounds terrible, Kismet goes on to say “No matter … what psychological effects may be associated with our childhood experiences, we are the ultimate forgers of our destiny. I have to believe I can overcome the disadvantages of growing up without a father.”1 While statistics do show that children growing up in fatherless homes face real challenges, the church offers a sense of hope, structure, purpose and security that can help young people like Kismet achieve the potential God has for them, regardless of their family of origin.
Andrew Galasotti, an entrepreneur who, like Kismet, also grew up in a fatherless home, thinks young men can beat the odds if someone will be a role model for them. He says “If you have a father who’s incarcerated, or who left you, or who didn’t have much success in life, look for a father figure in someone else. Every man needs a father figure, even far into adulthood.” 2 This is definitely something the church can do! Mature Christian men being willing to mentor young men is important. And not just when they are kids! Even a teenager or college student needs a mentor. A recent college graduate needs a mentor. Even a young man who just got married but has no example of how to be a good husband needs a mentor. If Christian men are willing to lead the way on this, we can help an entire generation come to value a Father who will never leave them or forsake them.
Dr. Terry Dorsett is the executive director of the Baptist Convention of New England.