This post is an edited manuscript of the breakout session I led at Together for Adoption‘s regional conference in Winston-Salem on April 28th, 2012.
“I remember the first time I walked into a church building and was struck by the number of families with adopted children. Even though I have multiple friends who were adopted, until that moment I had never seriously thought about adoption or the plight of the orphan. But there in the lobby were all these parents with children of different races. It was the first time adoption had been so visible to me. Clearly there was something different about this church. What was it?”
It may not be a stretch to assume that the picture presented in this paragraph is what you desire for your local church, a place where the beauty of adoption is on full display through your church family. It has been rightly said that “The church of Christ is the most powerful force in the world.” And when a church is engaged in orphan care the world is given a taste of the power of the gospel and a picture of the kingdom of God. Considering the power of the church and her call to provide a picture of God’s new society to a broken world, I believe it is important to develop a culture of orphan care “…where the spirit of God’s heart for the fatherless permeates the church with unmistakable power and clarity.”.
The Theological Motivation for Orphan Care
J.I. Packer once responded to the question “what is a Christian?” as follows: “…the richest answer I know is that a Christian is one who has God as Father.” In fact, Packer argues that adoption is “the highest privilege that the gospel offers.” What a powerful statement. This theological truth undergirds and empowers the whole enterprise of orphan care in the church.
First, we adopt and care for the orphan because God adopted us in Christ when we were spiritual orphans. As the people of God, we have been called and have received unmerited grace from God, who we now call Father. The good news of the gospel is that we, who were once spiritual orphans, have now been brought into the family of God as sons and daughters. Therefore, the gospel becomes our motivation to demonstrate what God has done for us vertically on a horizontal plain to the poor and neglected. “Apart from the gospel, the call for every church member to care for orphans makes no sense.” It is apparent all throughout redemptive history that “God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we . . . [He is] a God on the side of the powerless, and of justice for the poor.” Orphan care provides the church a unique opportunity to model God’s care to the world around us.
Second, God has a passion for his glory to fill the earth, to be seen and delighted in by people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. “The glory of God is made known most clearly through the church declaring and demonstrating the gospel.” “The heart of the gospel moves the church to mission and deeds of mercy which have always been part of the Christian mission.” This is clearly seen in the words of Jesus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself”. The love of our neighbor compels us to care for the orphan, for they are our weakest and most needy neighbors.
Lastly, our hope of the end transforms our vision of the present. In one of his last books before his death, pastor theologian John Stott argued this point so clearly: “The church is supposed to be God’s new society, the living embodiment of the gospel, a sign of the kingdom of God, a demonstration of what human community looks like when it comes under his gracious rule.” The church anticipates the day, in the new heavens and new earth, when the very word orphan will be wiped from the human vocabulary. There will be no orphans, no orphanages, only the family of God. If the church is to be a sign of that day, should she not provide a glimpse of kingdom values here and now? One of the most moving pictures of adoption I have read was by Oxford theologian Alister McGrath.
“Adoption is about being wanted. It is about belonging. These are deeply emotive themes, which resonate with the cares and concerns of many in our increasingly fractured society. To be adopted is to be invited into a loving and caring environment. Adoption celebrates the privilege of invitation, in which the outsider is welcomed into the fold of faith and love.”
Is this not also a picture of the local church as Christ envisioned it to be? The family of God should welcome with open arms people of every tribe and language and people and nation.” One of the most powerful ways to put the vision on display is by concrete example. Our teaching on orphan care should be clearly explained, yes, but it should also be demonstrated in life. We mirror this familial unity before a watching world. As God called the Israelites, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.”
The Call to the Local Church for Orphan Care
We tend to romanticize the early church, though a quick read through the New Testament letters will show us that they, like us, were a group of broken sinners dependent on God’s grace. With that caveat I will say that the early church did cause quite a fuss when they cared for the orphans in the Greco-Roman world. As one sociologist noted:
“. . . Christianity served as a revitalization movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear, and brutality of life in the urban Greco-Roman world . . . Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent problems . . . To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family.” The societal situation called for someone to take care of the orphans and the church responded. In that time; “It was common to expose an unwanted infant out-of-doors where it could, in principle, be taken up by someone who wished to rear it, but where it typically fell victim to the elements or to animals or birds. Not only was the exposure of infants a very common practice, it was justified by law and advocated by philosophers.” It was the church who tracked the voices of crying infants in the streets at night, pulled them from the community garbage yards, brought them in, nourished them, and raised them as their own.
John Piper once said of missions, but I believe it applies to orphan care as well, that the church has three possible responses: go [adopt, foster, care for the orphan], send [support spiritually, materially, and financially others who do it], or be disobedient. One must realize that some in your church family will adopt, some will foster. Some have been blessed monetarily and will be able to finance adoptions. There are some people in your congregation who will intentionally pray and provide other means of support to adoptive families. Some will go overseas and give their lives to orphans and the gospel. No matter what it looks like for each church, or even each member, the current orphan crisis calls for a response from the Church.
The Situation that the Church can Minister in
According to statistics there are roughly 163 million orphans globally. In the United States alone there are more than 500,000 children in the U.S. foster care system. About 130,000 of them have been legally deemed orphans and are thus available to be adopted. From numbers alone I would argue that American churches could clean out the foster care system. I would even argue that Christians should be the one’s leading the movement of orphan care. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. In a recent survey, 52% of couples indicated they would turn to their local church for advice on adoption. However, couples were twice as likely to turn to their local book store than to their church for help dealing with post-adoption issues. Why is it important the Church lead the orphan care movement?
First, First, Christian families enable orphans to become a part of a unique family environment. According to early childhood development expert Karyn Purvis, one third of post institutionalized children transition seamlessly into their new families. Another third bring moderate concerns, while the latter third come into the family with such trauma histories that they carry potential damage to the family unit and it requires a strong intact marriage and family to maintain stability. The church has a wonderful opportunity to transform the lives of orphans by providing them with what they need most – “a family, temporary or permanent, that will be committed to their welfare in every way possible, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.” Orphan care advocates must acknowledge that orphan care is a lifelong process and a commitment to families should be consistent regardless of what may come. While orphan care is beautiful, it is also difficult. While engaging in ministering to the orphans and their forever families, “. . . honestly consider the needs, realities, and dynamics of these families as they expand. As the ministries grow the need for various support systems also increases because the culture of the church is evolving.”
Second, our culture needs to see the unity of the family of God. Robert Peterson argues that “at a time when many predicted that bigotry would be a thing of the past, sadly, it is still very much alive. This does not bode well for an America that will be marked by even greater racial, economic, and age diversity in the years ahead.” Furthermore, “because our age is characterized by bigotry, loneliness, and insecurity, we who live in it need the unity of the family of God, the fellowship of a heavenly Father, and the security that comes from knowing the Son of God.” Even greater, “Our common family tie explains the wonderful phenomenon that every Christian experiences . . . language, culture and education may all be different, but a common bond . . . unites us as members of the same family. We have the same Father, the same Elder Brother.”
Practical Steps to being a church that Cares for the Orphan
“Just as each church develops its own distinctive identity in terms of worship and fellowship, churches need to facilitate and support an environment of both adoption and caring for the orphans that is uniquely their own.” Many people rely on the pastors or the more visible leaders to champion the orphan care ministry to the extent that it either rises or falls based on their leadership. I submit these words to you for consideration: “If you cannot move the culture of your church from the top down, be encouraged that many churches have had their cultures transformed by one couple or one person stepping out in radical, patient, and persistent faith.” The ideal situation is that a church would have both pastors and congregants who are committed to orphan care ministry. Here are a few suggestions that may or may not apply to your context. As the church gathered and scattered:
- Pray about orphan care in public and in private.
- Develop study groups and fellowship gatherings to discuss orphan care.
- Host and support events that bring awareness to orphan care.
- Celebrate stories from within your church related to orphan care.
- Simply support orphan care ministries with passion.
- Ask your church to set aside Orphan Sunday once a year.
- When teaching call people’s attention to the need for orphan care, specifically as one speaks on general subjects such as: loving ones neighbors, missions, caring for the poor, hospitality, or the family. 
- Consider contacting an international orphanage that is not open to adoptions, you may be able to support them by sending teams to love and care for the kids, perhaps even build a facility.
- Gather with other churches and leaders in your community and start a conversation about orphan care.
- Connect with churches and organizations already engaged in orphan care in your area.
- Talk with your local department of social services and ask how you and your church family can help relieve the orphan crisis in your area.
- Consider doing something to fight child trafficking.
What I have learned most through orphan care, especially in the adoption of our son, is that God’s grace in adopting me as his son is so beautifully moving. Many times you will find that one of the side effects of engaging in orphan care is that your sensitivity to the theology of adoption becomes heightened, especially in prayerfully reading God’s word. I agree with Puritan minister Thomas Manton who once proclaimed “all of God’s children have the spirit of adoption in the effects, though not in the sense of feeling it. He adds, but “the mature child of God . . . grows in the consciousness of his adoption and assurance through Word and Spirit”. Every time I look at my own son, I am overcome with love for him and reminded of God’s love for me. As I read Scripture now and come across the words – orphan, son, father, adoption – I am stirred deep within my soul. My prayer is that so many others would experience this joy.
-  Jason Kovacs, Reclaiming Adoption, ed. Dan Cruver, 83.
-  Tony Merida and Rick Morton, Orphanology, 79.
-  Merida and Morton, 79.
-  J.I. Packer, Knowing God, 200.
-  Packer, 206.
-  Jeremy Haskins, Adoption & Orphan Care, ed. Russell D. Moore, 61.
-  Tim Keller, Generous Justice, 5.
-  Habakkuk 2:14.
-  Revelation 5:9ff.
-  Kovacs, 92.
-  Edmund P. Clowney, The Church, 161.
-  Luke 10:27.
-  John Stott, The Living Church, 66.
-  Alister McGrath, Knowing Christ, 144-145.
-  Revelation 5:9.
-  Jeremiah 29:7.
-  Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 161.
-  Stark, 118.
-  John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad.
-  There are more than 2.7 billion unreached people in the world.
-  See Kimber Graves, Adoption & Orphan Care, ed. Russell D. Moore, 67.
-  Graves, 67.
-  Graves, 66-67.
-  Kovacs, 90.
-  Graves,, 68.
-  Robert A. Peterson, Adopted by God, 3.
-  Peterson, 5.
-  Sinclair B. Ferguson, Children of the Living God, 54.
-  Graves, 65.
-  Kovacs, 88.
-  See Merida and Morton, 80.
-  Quoted in Joel R. Beeke, Heirs with Christ, 51.
-  Beeke, 60.