Wesley Hill: The church as father to the fatherless

The social entrepreneur behind The Mentoring Project shows how the church can stand in for a generation without dads.

The hope that the nuclear family might bring human flourishing is not a new one. As far back as the Protestant Reformation, Luther was already speaking of the family as one of the “three estates” God intended for the benefit of human health and community (the others were the church and the state). If you care about societal wellbeing, then families matter.

Articulating this insight today, however, is tricky business. Mindful of the dangers of patriarchalism and the myriad ways in which powerful structural forces hinder many from achieving ideal models of the nuclear family, many mainline Christians leave the “family values” stuff to fundamentalists and reach for other institutions and practices to hold up as models.

John Sowers, director of The Mentoring Project and author of the new book “ Fatherless Generation: Redeeming the Story,” has something to say about this. I recently met John at a conference and heard him describe his experience of growing up without a dad. On the rare occasions when his father was able to come for a visit, he’d take his boys to a hotel for the weekend. When their time was up, John remembers grabbing his dad’s ankles as he walked out the door. “Don’t go, Dad!” was always the plea.

Out of that alienation, John found a vocation. The organization he heads, The Mentoring Project (TMP), “seeks to respond to the American crisis of fatherlessness by inspiring and equipping faith communities to mentor fatherless boys.” (As evidence of the urgency of TMP’s priorities, John has been tapped to serve on the White House Task Force conversation on Fatherhood and Healthy Families.) Across denominational lines, as well as evangelical/mainline divides, TMP is helping churches and other like-minded institutions to fill the gap left in homes and relationships when dads disappear.

The costs of this fatherlessness are alarmingly steep. 63% of youth who take their lives grew up without a dad. Nearly all (90%) of homeless and runaway children are in the same boat, as are 71% of high school dropouts and 85% of incarcerated young people. And though TMP’s website says they focus their efforts on fatherless boys, the crisis doesn’t know a gender distinction. In “Fatherless Generation,” John quotes Beth, a commenter on his blog: “We all handled [Dad’s being gone] differently. My older brother chased Dad’s car. My mother cried and basically stopped functioning for months . . . And I just kind of held it in. Seven years later, I still, to this day, hold it in. I have issues with my self-esteem. And find it hard to trust people. I hope that one day, the wounds I have inside will heal.”

John sees the crisis in one of Luther’s “three estates”—the nuclear family—as finding its healing in another of Luther’s institutions, another “family”: “God is calling his body, the church, to step up and . . . represent his fathering love to a fatherless generation of children and youth. And he is giving us opportunities to answer the call. This is the heart of mentoring. Mentoring is about answering God’s call, joining with him as he rewrites the broken story of a generation. Mentoring mirrors God’s heart . . . God is taking the initiative and choosing to invest our time and energy into the life of a child or young person.”

The church is God’s way of redeeming the story of fatherlessness. When the family fails, Christian leaders and institutions may hear God’s call to become a family themselves. In response to the crisis of absentee dads, stories of alienation may be rewritten, as faith communities find ways of becoming fathers to the fatherless. A different kind of “family values”? Maybe. But if so, I feel certain it’s one with an ancient pedigree, and crying out for re-embodiment today.

Wesley Hill is a PhD student in the Department of Theology & Religion at Durham University, UK.