Inside Out Families: Living the Faith Together
Diana Garland, Dean of the School of Social Work at Baylor University, is well known for her contributions to family ministry, having engaged in numerous important research projects and having accumulated a bevy of valuable publications on family, faith, and ministry. In Inside Out Families: Living the Faith Together, Garland examines faith as it is demonstrated through service in the lives of families. Put succinctly, Garland’s goal is to help “families together to pour themselves out in service, and in so doing, find a new life together in Christ” (xi).
Inside Out Families is primarily centered around findings from Garland’s Families and Faith Research Project, a study of Christian families who engage in voluntary service through their congregations. Data was collected from two congregations from each of four denominations in four cities across the United States. Garland interviewed a total of 110 families about “faith within the context of family life” (16). Interviews were approximately two hours in length, audio taped, and transcribed. Two years later, focus groups were conducted in two of the locations, affording participants the opportunity to critique themes she saw emerging from the data. Three years after that, Garland again interviewed 12 of the families to ensure that what she had learned was still accurate. This qualitative data collection process affords much rich description of the variables that Garland is examining. Garland discovers that families of faith are compelled to serve others, and in that serving, family members enrich their relationships with one another and Christ.
Garland also references her previous research projects and related findings throughout the text as well. For instance, the Church Census project surveyed more than 100 Protestant congregations over a 15-year period. It was designed to inform church leaders about strengths and challenges of the families within their church, how they live their lives of faith, and ways in which the church could assist them. A particularly relevant finding from this project for the present book was that even though the majority of families surveyed were already engaged in service to their communities, congregants overwhelmingly desired that their religious leaders lend them “help in serving others” (24). Thus, the project underscored the importance of service to others as an expression of a family’s shared faith, establishing a foundation for the current publication.
Garland sprinkles portraits of families involved in the study throughout the book. The reader learns about the catalysts that propel families into serving within their communities, the various types of “gifts” that families can bring to their service, how families discover a niche in which to begin serving, the challenges and risks families face, and the changes families experience as a result of their engagement, both spiritually and relationally. Garland’s reminder is ever-present: Christian families are compelled to serve because Jesus commands us to care for others.
Several important findings emerge from this book, which are particularly valuable to church leaders and to parents who wish to promote faith development in their children and strengthen family bonds. First, service to others is “the most significant and powerful contributor to faith for teen and adult Christians” (42). Second, service to people who are different from ourselves (for example, in ways that are socioeconomic, cultural) is more powerfulthan service to others like us. Third, while brief or one-time service opportunities (such as helping to build a house for a poor family) are helpful, longer-term service commitments which foster relationship development with those being served are most beneficial. Fourth, individuals and families are changed as a result of service. Those participating in service are more likely than those who are not involved to “engage significantly more in the practices of Christian faith” (87). For instance, volunteers were more likely to attend weekly church services, pray, give financial support to their church, and practice being tolerant of others more than those who do not volunteer. Finally, it is important to afford opportunity for family members to reflect on their service experiences together. While motivated to help others, many Christians discover that their own lives are changed and their faith expanded as a result of their service to others.
Some of the most instructive insights are available in the final chapter, Becoming an Inside Out Congregation. Garland outlines numerous strategies to create a culture of service in congregations: 1) Identify a catalyst in the congregation who is able to identify a community need and has connections to that community; 2) When selecting a service program, be sure that it is amenable to cross-generational service; 3) Consider the best way to resource the service program, being certain that it does not come at the expense of another vital church priority; and 4) Process the service opportunity through the normal decision-making channels of the congregation in gaining support for the idea. Garland notes that 10 factors seem to contribute to a sustainable and effective volunteer program:
direct involvement of the congregational leader, volunteer affirmation, financial support; social networking; volunteer training; sharing stories; reflecting on the relationship of service and faith; congregational prayer; a welcoming culture; and ongoing planning (116).
Recognizing that reflection is clearly a critical component of service, Garland suggests four possible points for initiating conversation: Have congregants share narratives about what they are learning from the experience and the people with whom they are working, how their volunteer assignments are affecting their relationship with God, the impact that the service experience is having on their families and larger congregation, and what defines success in this context. Congregations would do well to assess the work they are doing regularly to determine if it is achieving the desired impact.
My only criticism of the book has to do with the lack of clear audience or central focus. At times, Garland interjects biblical references, Christian mandates, and stories of early church examples, as if the audience were Bible or Christian ministry students. On other occasions, Garland tries to differentiate between social work and Christian voluntary service, as if the book were written for social work students who need to understand the field’s relationship to the biblical mandate of service. During each of these instances, the content becomes some-what muddled and discombobulating. In my opinion, the primary audience for this book should be pastors and church leaders who truly wish to help their congregations live their faith via a life of service. The major contribution of this book is in the data that it has to report, the portraits that it paints of families involved in service together, and the outcomes of that service—for the community, the church, and individual families. Garland should have devoted the entire book to what was gleaned from families involved in this project and how that information can be utilized by church leaders.
Overall, Inside Out Families is an inspiring book, one that makes the reader consider ways in which to get one’s own church and nuclear families involved in helping others. I plan to share it with my own minister, for Garland has convinced me that in order for churches to grow today, they must involve their congregants in their communities. As she asserts, we can no longer measure success by what happens within the church, but by the impact that the church has on its broader community.