The spiritually differentiated family, in contrast to the spiritually fused or cutoff family, allows members to share their spiritual lives in a way that expands and connects. In other words, this type of differentiated spirituality is transformative (Shults and Sandage 2006). Family relationships become the means for growth because spiritual differences become a catalyst for spiritual differentiation. In a spiritually differentiated family, the personal faith of each family member can remain firm regardless of what is happening
in the life of another member. At the same time, the doubts, struggles, and questioning experienced by one family member can serve as a catalyst for dialogue and personal self-examination before God for the others. Interest, concern, and support are given for the others’ spiritual lives. Bringing resources to bear creates a beneficial balanced perspective.
This type of transformative spirituality (Shuts and Sandage 2006) reflects two of the main types of spiritual development. Shuts and Sandage focus on the two-step process of dwelling (togetherness) and seeking (individuality). Times of spiritual dwelling emphasize relationship-oriented activities like fellowship, worship, and connection. In the family, these practices are supportive and reinforce how the family identifies with the Christian story. Times of spiritual seeking are characterized by individuals increasing their knowledge of and relationship with Christ. This intensification aids the individual in making spirituality more personally meaningful. Often times, seeking facilitates isolation and “desert” experiences. Research suggests that individuals with higher levels of DifC tend to have more relational forms of spirituality (Frederick et al. 2016).
Family Spirituality and Sanctification We believe that healthy spiritual differentiation within the family and
among family members offers the greatest potential for a transforming experience. Because of the sheer magnitude of shared life experiences, no other human arena is as potentially powerful to form the inner spiritual life. In a parallel sense, there is no other human arena in which living a Christlike life is more difficult. In the family, we are more exposed than anywhere else, and it is nearly impossible to wear a mask in front of other family members or to fake a spiritual life. Individual spiritual growth is an ongoing and sometimes painful journey that takes place in the demands of actually living together as family. The family becomes a resilient vessel in which a spiritual metamorphosis occurs. Family relationships can become the catalyst for members to grow and to change in response to one another.
It should be noted that family tensions and conflicts can also be the catalysts for healthier forms of spiritual differentiation. Although not pleasant, family tensions and trials allow one to understand oneself more clearly and take responsibility for one’s own growth. The family is a safe place where we can encounter others honestly and deal openly with spiritual
differences and disappointments. However, if the family is an unsafe arena, spiritual stagnation will result.
Family members become acutely aware of their human frailties in the context of relating to one another. However, living out the biblical components of unconditional love, grace, empowerment, and intimacy offer the deepest possibility of being transformed into the image of Christ.
Dealing with Differences in Faith In this section, we address the issue of diversity of faith commitments within a family. Although one should not assume that the lack of a common faith automatically negates the possibility of family spirituality, it certainly makes it more challenging. Differences in faith commitments can seriously limit family spirituality or place a family at a distinct disadvantage in this area. Under the conditions of diverse faith commitments, spiritual differentiation within a family becomes even more important. Since the adolescent is typically at a development stage in which she or he is trying to develop a personal faith, we use the family with an adolescent child to illustrate this point.
In a spiritually fused family, the teenage child must either conform to the family ideal or risk the dire consequence of fracturing the family’s spiritual unity. Since spirituality is foundational to both the individual’s identity and the family’s, there is intense pressure to maintain this family identity, sometimes at the expense of individual identity. Spiritually fused families have lower thresholds for allowing members to think differently about issues of faith and spirituality, as thinking differently reflects divergent values and consequently a divergent identity. The unfortunate cost for such “spiritual unity” is that the adolescent does not form a personal faith and may be especially vulnerable when he or she leaves home.
We (Jack and Judy) remember when our fourteen-year-old daughter, Jacque, announced at the dinner table that she no longer believed in God. We gulped, tried to remain calm, and listened with interest to what she was saying. We asked questions to help her sort out her ideas. Instead of giving pat answers, we responded to her questions by sharing our beliefs. A few weeks later from our living room, we overheard a conversation Jacque was having with two of her high school–age friends on the front-porch swing. To our amazement, Jacque was reiterating some of our beliefs as well as
expressing more clearly her personal belief in God. We realized others were challenging her faith, and she was searching for answers. Much of her questioning about religion during her teenage years was an attempt to make personal a faith she had learned from her parents and church. We were not always cool parents when our teens expressed doubts. Because it is difficult for us to tolerate our own anxiety, we can’t help but bombard our children with what we think is correct theology. However, with Jacque we learned to trust in God to be at work in her and to be at work through others as well. We will always be thankful to the youth pastor and a sixty-year-old mentor from our church who allowed our son, Joel, to grapple with faith and ask honest questions without fear. This is how he finally came to a personal faith in Christ.
As we are working on this latest revision, there is intense angst as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge our faith in God. Questions abound regarding the meaning and purpose of God allowing the pandemic to continue. My (Tom’s) son Nathaniel is entering his senior year of high school and has felt this angst acutely. Our family has encouraged Nathaniel to develop his faith personally, and we have had many conversations about God’s nature and purpose. For Nathaniel, like so many seniors in 2020 and 2021, missing one’s friends and many important senior-year activities (especially graduation) looms large. We have adopted a listening approach; it is important for Nathaniel to have space to ask and process the questions, frustration, anger, and grief (anticipated and actual) caused by the pandemic. We are hoping that our relationship with Nathaniel, as well as his connection with God, will sustain him—and all of us—during this uncertain time.
Spiritual insecurity is likely to be at the heart of family spiritual fusion. Insecurity about spiritual differences tends to set up defiant and hostile attitudes toward other family members. Parents may be tempted to ridicule or put down their child’s tender beliefs in their attempts to cajole or coerce their child to believe a certain way. Parents may even have a need to punish their wayward child for not conforming to what they need him or her to believe. Having a child who holds to a religious belief different from their own may cause them to feel defeated as Christian parents or to be apprehensive about their status in the church community when their children are not following the faith. These self-focused concerns diminish a genuine concern about their child’s spiritual well-being.
At the opposite extreme, spiritually disengaged families take a “hands-off” approach in the name of respecting faith differences. Although such evasive tactics succeed in eliminating religious conflict (each family member can go his or her own independent way), they do little to enhance family spirituality. Consciously ignoring the spiritual differences, doubts, questioning, and struggles of other family members renders them “ships passing in the night.” Compartmentalizing spiritual dimensions may prevent spiritual conflicts, but it also stifles sharing spiritual joy and meaning as a family unit.
When there is a high level of family spiritual differentiation, children can share spiritual and faith questions with their parents, free of the fear of being rejected. Of course, it is always disheartening when your child seems to reject God. Yet knowing that your children can honestly come to you with doubts and questions means that they are secure in your love. This gives you the best of all possibilities to be with them in their journey of faith.
Family Spirituality Embedded in Supportive Community Although a family may be able to survive on its own spiritually, we believe it will never thrive without a supportive community. Stanley Hauerwas (1981, 283) describes the church as the first family of every Christian by pointing out that we learn “fidelity and love in a community that is sustained by a faithful God.” When the family stands alone, it is difficult for it to withstand the onslaught of spiritual distortions from a secular society.
The relationality exemplified in the Holy Trinity is a model for congregational life as well as the family. Identity in Christ, or differentiation in Christ, at the congregational level means there is a healthy degree of connectedness as well as a healthy degree of separation. Permeable boundaries show respect for individual, couple, and family needs as all people participate in the life of the church. All voices are respected and decisions are made in the best interest of the whole body. This community lives out themes of reconciliation, transformation, restoration, and spreading peace and justice. In other words, the church that is differentiated in Christ embodies the kingdom or reign of God.
A faith community must be invested in the spiritual maturity of all believers (1 Cor. 12:7–12). Baptized by one Spirit into one body, members acknowledge their interdependency and mutual submissiveness (Eph. 5:21). When one stumbles, everyone is affected, just as the healing of one brings