Imagine three friends come upon a raging river. They see children in the water rushing down the rapids towards a waterfall. 

One friend immediately jumps into the river and begins pulling as many children out as he can. Knowing there’s a waterfall downstream, the second friend runs down river and tries to catch as many children as he can before they fall to their deaths. The third friend, however, wonders why these children are in the river in the first place. He runs upstream to find out how these kids are getting thrown in and to stop whoever is doing it. All three friends are running in three different directions, but all of them are right and necessary places for them to engage in order to rescue as many kids as possible. Each address very different yet equally important points of the problem.


The response of these three friends is a powerful image with parallels to orphan care that are helpful for us to consider as we seek to establish a holisitic, comprehensive and strategic ministry approach in our churches.

Mid-Stream Intervention

Generally speaking, orphan care in the Church has been deduced to foster care and adoption - to jumping into the raging child welfare river mid-stream and pulling as many kids out as fast as we can. This is a right and necessary place for the Church to be. There's literally thousands of kids in our country caught in a system that is leading them towards demise - and we need to jump in and grab them. If not us, then who? But that's not the totality of what the Church can or should be doing. It's too narrow and siloed of a perspective. It fails to consider how these kids found themselves in the position they're in in the first place up-stream and what the trajectory of their lives looks like down-stream if no one intervenes on their behalf now.

Down-Stream Restoration

It's also often the case that churches are involved in various types of down-stream justice and mercy efforts - be it feeding the homeless, ministering to the incarcerated or engaging in ministries committed to rescuing victims of sex trafficking. However, they're often doing so without a clear understanding of how interconnected the plight of those cross sections of people are back to the larger continuum of child welfare. A significant percentage of incarcerated males, the homeless community and girls who are trafficked into the sex industry (down-stream) have at one point in their lives spent time in the foster care system (mid-stream). When viewed through a more holistic and comprehensive lens, we’ll find that if we really want to effectively engage some of these “down-stream” ministries we must also look back up-stream and consider how those in need of restoration found themselves in the positions they're in to begin with.

Up-Stream Prevention

As well, when we consider how these kids are getting thrown into the river in the first place we realize that before we have a foster care crisis in our country we have a families-in-crisis crisis in our country and before we have an orphan care crisis in our world we have a families-in-crisis crisis in our world. Orphan care is not just about caring for orphans, it’s also about caring for families in crisis up-stream in order to prevent their children from ever being thrown into the river mid-stream. The questions should both haunt us and drive us – Where are these kids coming from and how can we prevent them from ending up in the positions they are in? The only way to find out is to run upstream and do whatever is necessary to prevent them from being thrown in. This is a right and necessary – and albeit messy and difficult – place for the Church to be.

Not only is it essential for churches to establish a holistic message which communicates to their people that we're not all called to do the same thing but we're all certainly capable of doing something (read HERE), it's equally important for them to develop a holistic strategic approach to how they are engaging in the child and family welfare continuum – from Prevention to Intervention to Restoration – in a balanced and sustainable way.

The chart below suggests some examples of ministry activity that can occur at each stage along the continuum. By no means are these lists exhaustive, nor do they address the fact that some ministries can span the entirety of the spectrum in and of themselves. However, they are a snapshot of the types of opportunities your church has to more strategically and intentionally establish a holistic approach to child and family welfare at every point along the same continuum.


It's often the case that church ministries operate in silos – “That’s the missions ministry over there.”; “That’s the homeless ministry over there.”; “That’s the orphan care ministry over there.”; etc. In reality, however, many of these justice, mercy and hospitality oriented ministries are not mutually exclusive from one another. They are all on some level interconnected. They are part of the same child and family welfare continuum intersecting at different prevention, intervention and restoration points of the "river". This continuum of ministry helps church leaders establish a clear understanding of not only what they are doing but also why they are doing what they're doing - Why are we investing in the local crisis pregnancy center? Why are we engaging in foster care? Why are we serving the homeless community in our city? Because as a church we want to engage missionaly in such a way that it brings about comprehensive, holistic renewal in our city and around the world. We not only want to empty the foster care system, we also want to prevent the foster care system from being filled again! We don't just want to bring restoration into the lives of sex-trafficking victims, we want to jump into the river and grab others before they ever make it that far down-stream! That's a pretty compelling WHY


The river continuum can also help a church be more strategic by helping them identify what things to say no to and what things to say yes to. If it doesn’t fit on the river continuum then the answer is no - we simply don’t do it. It can also hold them accountable to having a balanced approach in their ministry – ensuring they're not narrowly focusing their efforts on just one part of the “river” but instead are providing a balance of ministry initiatives along the whole continuum. This means at times they will have to say no to good things simply because too many good things in one place can create an imbalance in other places. When it comes to orphan care the goal is to see churches engaged at every point of the “river” in a balanced, effective and sustainable way.


This holistic, strategic approach also expands the space people have to get involved. Some people may say they don’t have the margin to do foster care or adoption – but now a church can engage them in a different space that’s on the same continuum, perhaps through child sponsorship with an organization like Compassion International, mentoring, volunteering at the local crisis pregnancy center, etc. This model helps people embrace the opportunity they have to engage in an area of ministry they are passionate about and provides the context to help them see how what they are doing in one place is actually intricately intertwined with other places along the same ministry continuum. If our message is too narrow - foster care or adoption - we effectively cut off the possibility for others in our church to engage at different yet equally important, interconnected places along the spectrum. 

The objective now is to lay all your ministry activities out on the table and identify where, if and how they fall along the "river" of child and family welfare. If you're not able to easily identify where something fits then perhaps it's time to make the hard yet worthwhile call to get rid of it. Find where you're strong, be honest about where you're weak and be brave enough to make the decisions you need to make in order to more effectively and strategically engage orphan care in a broader, more holistic way - from prevention to intervention to restoration. No longer will your people just know what your church does and how they do it, they'll now be tapped into the deeper why behind it all - an invaluable gift for them to carry, infusing within them a vision to collectively engage in unique ways that are all serving the same purpose, together. That's the Church - better together for the good of families and children then we could ever be alone and siloed. 




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