Twenty-four years of pastoral ministry have taught me that moms—especially mothers of young children—often come to church feeling tired, then return from church feeling guilty. While at church, they hear sermons and announcements about doing evangelism and serving in the church, and they often sense that they are failures at both. There never seems to be enough time for their maternal responsibilities of cooking, cleaning, changing diapers, wiping noses, and teaching their children, much less for reaching out to a lost world with the gospel of Jesus in fulfillment of his Great Commission or for building up the body of Christ in their local fellowship. Even finding a few minutes for Bible reading and prayer occasionally is difficult.
Thus the pulpit proclamations of the biblical mandate to reach the nations for Christ, and the earnest pleas of the pastor about the need for workers in the church do not sound like spiritually-galvanizing challenges that inspire greater faithfulness, rather they often fall as crushing condemnations upon the weary hearts of many moms.
Seasons change in everyone’s lives, and perhaps there is no more radical change that occurs in the life of a woman than the one that happens the day her first child arrives. It’s a season that changes with dramatic suddenness and lasts as long as there are young children around the dinner table and until she has watched her final soccer practice and piano recital. And among the parts of life that seem forced into hibernation during this season are private devotions, personal evangelism, and consistent ministry in the local church.
My wife and I have a friend named Jean who was one of the countless Christian women who felt as though her options as a believer were either family or spirituality; children or church. Discipled well after her conversion in her late teens, Jean thrived on a spiritual diet meaty with disciplines like the reading, studying, and meditating on God’s Word, prayer, fellowship, service, evangelism, worship, solitude, journal-keeping, and Scripture memory. She felt herself making spiritual progress almost daily. All this continued after she mar- ried her equally-dedicated husband, Roger.
Then, in rapid succession, Jean had three children in diapers. Caring for their most basic needs eliminated almost every moment of the time she used to devote to caring for her soul and ministering to others. Her long- ings for the things of God reached as high as ever, but her time and energy for them had new and severe limits.
On at least three occasions I’ve eavesdropped as Jean conversed with young moms in similar situations. In effect she’s told them, “At this season of your life, you can’t do what you’re used to doing. You don’t have time for all your heart desires to experience in your spiritual life. Nevertheless, do what you can do, even though it’s precious little. Just don’t deceive yourself by thinking that you can put off a devotional life or ministry in the local church until you have more time. Because when the years roll around and you finally do have more time, your spiritual habits will be so ingrained that you won’t give more attention to the things of God at all.”
Then I heard Jean tell her own story. She would keep Bibles open in several rooms—in the kitchen, nursery, bathroom—and look at them when she could. While preparing a meal or changing a diaper, she’d glance over and perhaps read only one verse. But this intentionality helped her keep the Word in her heart and the presence of God in her awareness. And as the children’s needs grew less demanding, her disciplines were already in place to receive any additional time she could give them. Even though Jean felt almost spiritually dormant during those years in comparison to her early growth as a Christian, she kept alive the spiritual disciplines through which her soul would thrive in years to come.
Jean also realized that her opportunities for evangelism and ministry were not eliminated; they merely changed. She had the best opportunity of anyone in the world to share the gospel with the three little souls whom God had entrusted to the care of her and Roger—all three now Christian adults. Additionally, she learned more about cultivating the heart of a humble servant by ministering to her children—who seldom adequately appreciated her serving them—than she likely would have otherwise. She also learned some creative methods of evangelizing and ministering to other moms and children she invited for coffee and play. Like Jean, with three in diapers, you may be in a situation that curtails many of your spiritual activities. You may be looking at many years of such limitations. Do what you can for Christ and his kingdom, with joy and without guilt. God does not love us more when we serve more, nor less when we serve less. He accepts us, not because of what we do for him, but because of what he’s done for us in Christ. As Ephesians 1:6 puts it, God accepts us, not on the basis of our work, but “in the Beloved [that is, Jesus.]” And nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). Love God, and within the limitations he has sovereignly placed in your life at this time, do what you can for his glory. Realize that just your mere presence at church—even without a recognized ministry there and as weary as you are—can be a ministry to your pastor and teachers who prefer listeners to empty seats. In fact, talking to your pastor or an older sister in Christ about your feelings in this season will probably encourage you.
Be careful, though, that you do not excuse yourself from all effort in the pursuit of God and the extension of his kingdom outside the walls of your home. In every season there will be temptations to coast spiritually, a condition that can decline into a cold-hearted, spiritual inertia. Also, resolve that once this season of life changes into the next that you will never think of serving the bride of Christ as simply a nice idea for people who have spare time. Yes, the mom at home can be doing real ministry and evangelism there, and with the result that both she and the body of Christ become stronger for it. But she should anticipate the day when she returns to her place in her local church’s ministry “when each part is working properly,” and through her Christ “makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:16).
[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in The Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry 2.2. You can access a PDF version of this article here.]
About the Author: Dr. Whitney is Associate Professor of Biblical Spirituality and Senior Associate Dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has authored six books, including Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life and is a popular conference speaker, especially on personal and congregational spirituality. He served in pastoral ministry for twenty-four years.