Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. –James 1:27
The words of James are clear. Pure and faultless religion, by God’s definition, includes caring for vulnerable children – orphans – in their distress. As a denomination with a rich pro-life ethic, an ethic that values the sanctity of all of human life from conception to death, caring for orphans should certainly come naturally to us, right? After all, as Psalm 68 tells us, God is father to the fatherless. We are God’s children. Therefore, orphan care is in our DNA. So, yes, it should come naturally to us.
But does it? Are our churches and families routinely welcoming orphans, inviting them in, sharing God’s love with them, helping them find safety and permanency and a place to heal from whatever pain and loss they’ve experienced?
If yes, praise God for what He is doing through your church on behalf of orphans. Perhaps God wants you to share your passion and expertise with other churches, who might share your concern for orphans but are not yet serving them actively.
If your church is not actively engaged in caring for orphans, would you prayerfully consider how God might want you to get involved? God’s love for orphans is abundantly clear in Scripture, as is His expectation of His people to provide for them, speak up for them, and seek justice for them.
Most often, we think of orphans as children who’ve lost both parents to death, but in today’s world, death is not the only separator of children from their parents. Abandonment separates children from their parents. Addictions, abuse, and neglect often separate children from their parents when the government intervenes in its protective role and removes them from unsafe situations. Those children removed from their parents by government agents are often placed into the foster care system. Many children in foster care will go back to their biological families. Many are legally freed from their biological families, though, and are in need of new, healthy, and permanent families.
There are currently more than 440,000 children in our nation’s foster care system, and that number is growing each year. Of those, more than 120,000 are currently waiting for adoptive families. That number is also on the rise. Though not necessarily seen as orphans in the traditional sense, those children in the foster care system who have been separated from their parents because of abandonment, addiction, abuse, and/or neglect are often left just as vulnerable as children who have lost their parents to death. Why is this?
God designed children to be raised in a certain way. In His perfect plan, a child is born to a mother and father, who are joined together in the covenant of marriage. The child is loved by Mom and Dad as an image bearer of God. She is comforted, nurtured, held, cared for, provided for, and loved by her parents. When she receives proper parental care, as God designed, her brain develops in a way that allows her to develop into a thriving adult, whose relationships are marked by mutual love and trust.
Sin, of course, has marred God’s good design (temporarily!), and so many children have been deprived of the proper parental care they need to develop into thriving adults. When children are traumatized by neglect, abuse, or abandonment, their brains often fail to develop as God intended. Trauma can manifest itself in many ways, but it often wreaks havoc on children, as it prevents them from being able to trust or to give or receive love. Their relationships are often marked by dysfunction, even into adulthood and parenthood, where the trauma then touches and harms the next generation, and so the cycle continues.
This is where the Church comes in. Though government is charged with protecting children from further harm, it is woefully inadequate in its ability to help children heal from trauma. Churches have what these children need. We have families who can take them into our homes, and we have the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who alone can heal them. Moreover, we have a calling from God to be His hands and feet to hurting children.
In spite of the Church’s call and capacity to make a difference, however, we have more than 120,000 languishing in foster care without an adoptive family. We have nearly 20,000 youth aging out of foster care each year with no permanent family. These emancipated youth often live lives after foster care marked by homelessness, incarceration, lack of education, unwed pregnancies, addiction, trafficking, and more.
Why does this happen? In a nation of more than 300,000 Christian churches, how do so many children continue to wait for a family to love them? How do so many enter adulthood without a family to love and support them? Perhaps the answer is found in the second half of James 1:27, which tells us that included in the practice of pure and faultless religion is the necessity of keeping oneself from being polluted by the world. Is it possible that we, even in the Church, have become so polluted by the world that practicing pure and faultless religion by caring for orphans in their distress is pushed to the back burner, even forgotten?
Our culture presents certain narratives to us. Many (most?) of us allow these narratives to shape our lives to a degree, whether we readily admit it or not. Some of our culture’s messages include the idea that we are autonomous beings who deserve the best life has to offer. We’re free to define who we see ourselves to be, and we are free to pursue whatever we believe will make us happy. We deserve a stress-free life. We deserve to meet our own perceived needs before we even think about the needs of others. We deserve to create a world for ourselves where we sit on the throne and make ourselves and our lives as comfortable as possible.
The Gospel, however, presents us with a different narrative altogether. The Gospel narrative tells us we are not autonomous beings who deserve the best life has to offer. Rather, we are sinners who have turned from God and therefore deserve death but have been rescued from death, because this same God whom we rejected is a loving, merciful, and gracious God. We are created by Him and for Him. He alone sits on the throne. He defines who we are. We respond by receiving what He freely gives us, and we respond by daily taking up our crosses and following Him in obedience to what He calls us to do, which includes loving our neighbor as ourselves.
A life shaped and even polluted by our cultural narratives will rarely lead us to orphans and other vulnerable people, and if it does our motives may be suspect at best. A life shaped by the Gospel narrative, however, will not only lead us to orphans and other vulnerable people but will allow us to partner with our Father in His redemptive work in the world.
There are millions of orphans in the world, and there are many ways we can love and serve them. As mentioned before, there are more than 440,000 children in the United States foster care system. If you believe God is calling your family and church to better love and care for orphans and vulnerable children in your community, there are steps you can take.
First, pray. Pray that God will reveal His heart for these children and pray that He will give you that same heart. Pray that He will help you to see these children with His eyes and to show you how He wants you to love and serve them. Ask God to show you, through His Word, and through the wise counsel of others who’ve walked the road before you, how your church can become an orphan-friendly church that embraces foster care, adoption, and family preservation.
Second, become educated and equipped. Children who have experienced trauma often bring that trauma into their relationships. If you engage these children (and their families), you will likely experience behaviors that confuse and confound you. Learn as much as you can about trauma and its effects, as well as how you might respond to that trauma in such a way that helps a child heal. Encourage your childcare workers to become trauma-informed as well. One of the best ways to become a orphan-friendly church is to have a children’s ministry that responds well to children who have experienced trauma. Stories abound of foster/adoptive families who’ve left churches, because their churches were not equipped to respond to the needs of their children in ways that brought healing.
Third, connect. There are organizations all over the United States that serve to bridge the gap between churches and social services. If there is a bridge ministry in your community, connect with it. Connect with others in your area to learn what God is doing through other churches and how your church might join this work in a way that is collaborative and not unintentionally competitive. Connect with local child welfare agencies to find out about specific needs that your church might be able to meet. Connect with churches, advocates, and ministries from other places through the Christian Alliance for Orphans to learn how God is using churches all over the world to meet the needs of kids and families.
Fourth, share with your church God’s heart for these children and how He expects His people to meet their needs. Children are waiting, and they cannot be met with ignorance or apathy from the Church. There are many ways to bring awareness to your church. Plan an Orphan or Stand Sunday event. Preach a sermon series. Do a small group study on a book related to this issue. The goal is to educate people on what God’s Word says and then connect Scripture to the needs of children in your community. As you raise awareness, continually pray that the Holy Spirit will open people’s hearts to these children.
Fifth, recognize that not everyone needs to foster or adopt children, but everyone can do something. Give your church family tangible ways to get involved in addressing the needs of orphans and vulnerable children in your community. Yes, children need families, but they also need mentors. They need tutors. They need Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), if CASA is active in your community. Their foster and adoptive families need others to wrap around them and support them with meals, respite care, babysitting, and more. Their biological families need support as well, as they attempt to reunify with their children, and they need help to heal, so they can better care for their children moving forward.
Sixth, be prepared. As your church steps up and answers God’s call to love and care for orphans and vulnerable children, recognize that you are engaging in spiritual warfare and can therefore expect attacks. Satan does not want God’s people to bring His healing love into the lives of these children. He will oppose you, and he will use any means possible. Remain prayerful and vigilant. As you do, expect God to work miracles – in the lives of children and families, and in the lives of your church family as well.
Lastly, give God the glory. Without Him, we will have little impact on these children’s lives. With Him, children’s lives will be transformed by the Gospel, as will the lives of generations to come. Our city will be transformed as children grow up whole, instead of aging out to homelessness, incarceration, addiction, and more. And our churches will be transformed, as we are able, by God’s grace, to shed the polluting narratives of our culture and instead live lives shaped by the Gospel.
Written by Johnston Moore. John is a nationally-recognized advocate, writer, and speaker on issues related to foster care and adoption in the Church
Editor’s Note: Anglicans for Life recognizes the Lord’s call to care for the orphans, both for the children’s sake and as an alternative to abortion. As members of the Anglican Church, we are pleased to partner with Johnston, so that we can offer his expertise in developing orphan, adoption, and foster care ministry support to all the churches AFL serves. You can seek his counsel by email. Also this article originally featured in AFL’s September 2019 edition of the quarterly Carpe Diem newsletter.