Why the Church Doesn't Talk About Orphans

I was beyond thrilled to read the article written by Jack Dodgen regarding the need for the church to focus on adoption. I was thrilled because someone (who isn’t an adoptive parent or representing an organization directly helping orphans) among my family of believers was actually talking about orphans and adoption. As a body, we don’t talk about adoption a whole lot. We don’t even really say the word “orphan” out loud. We give reports about mission trips to visit orphanages. We talk about volunteering at children’s homes from time to time, but we don’t really talk about adoption or foster care. I’m aware there are pockets among our brotherhood who are the exception to this, however, it doesn’t seem to be among the mainstream discussion from what I can see, which was the point of Jack’s article.

Here are some possible reasons why this isn’t a main topic of discussion.

We are unaware of the magnitude of the problem.

As I have spoken at different ladies events over the years I will occasionally ask the question, “How many of you know an orphan?” Out of hundreds of women, only a handful have said they do. We need to be aware of the enormity of this problem on our planet. It’s actually called an “orphan crisis.” But too many times, this “crisis” doesn’t have a face so we don’t get it. A quick google search will reveal that the statistics and the facts are staggering. According to UNICEF, 17.8 million children worldwide have lost both parents. Mind you, these are only the orphans living in stable enough situations to get statistics on. This doesn’t count the millions residing in institutions, on the streets, or living in various forms of slavery. It didn’t count my two adopted children and those millions don’t include the dozens of children and young adults I work with in Haiti. If the “crisis” never has a face, if we don’t know these children, we are less likely to feel compelled to alleviate their suffering. We need to be aware.

It’s messy and uncomfortable.

I hear it, I feel it when I talk with church leaders, speak at ladies events, or in regular conversations with brethren. The tension that surrounds the topic of orphanages, at-risk homeless teens, or sex trafficking hangs there awkwardly and we don’t quite know what to do with it. I get it. It’s not easy to think about, and it leaves us feeling overwhelmed and helpless. And, to be honest, it is messy. When you are working to heal the hearts of the most fundamentally broken and vulnerable humans among us, it’s like diving right into a big mud puddle of heart break. Where do we even begin trying to alleviate a crisis like this? It’s overwhelming, so sometimes it’s easier to not think about it than to do something. But the truth is, if we ALL just began talking about it, I think we would see that the solution isn’t as daunting as it feels. If it becomes the problem of everyone and not the problem of a few, the work is manageable. If we all have the perspective that we just need to do something instead of we need to do everything (or nothing), the impact we could have as a whole could be massive.

We don’t see these young people as unsaved because they are children.

These children are the future of our world whether we choose to love and invest in them or not. According to CAFO (Christian Alliance for Orphans) in 2015 there were 111,820 children in foster care in the U.S. waiting to be adopted. Their average age was 7.6 years old. Each year, at age 18, more than 20,000 of those children age out of the foster care system without being adopted into a family. The future for many of these young people is grim. Studies show that one in four will be incarcerated within two years of leaving the system, and over 20% will become homeless when they age out at 18. By the age of 18, if these young people haven’t experienced true love and connection through God’s people, they could be truly lost. What a difference we could make if we step into the life of that little 7-year old who is available for adoption. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The main focus of the church should be teaching the gospel, not social programs.

The solution is Jesus. The gospel. It always has been and always will be. Nothing makes my heart sing more than teaching someone the gospel, I am an evangelist at heart. However, if one believes caring for orphans should not be a main focus the church should have, I would beg to differ. God has taken this seriously from the beginning. In Exodus 22:22-23 God warns that harsh judgement is in store for those who afflict the widow or orphan. Over and over we see God’s heart for the vulnerable as He condemns Israel and Judah not only for their maltreatment of, but their lack of care for widows, aliens, and orphans. We read about God’s anger, pain, and judgement through His prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Malachi because His people have neglected the most vulnerable among them. It hurts God deeply and what hurts God should hurt us.

In the New Testament, James 1:27 tells us that pure and undefiled religion is to visit the widows and orphans in their distress.The word translated as “visit” in this verse doesn’t quite do justice to what James is saying here. The word implies more than just a visit to say “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled” without meeting the need (as we are warned not to do in James 1:16). The Greek word James uses here implies that our objective should be to look after, provide for or care for this person. The intent is to step in and alleviate their suffering.

If we, the church, don’t get this right our religion, our worship, is the opposite of pure and undefiled. In other words, our religion is impure and defiled. In Isaiah 1:10-17, God speaks to His people at length of how weary He is of their “religion.” Among the short list of what God truly wants from His people in verse 17 is to “defend the orphan.” What is the point of our religion if we are neglecting the needs of the most vulnerable among us? Caring for the orphan has always been a big deal to God and it should be to His people as well.

My husband and I adopted our two sons from Haiti almost 6 years ago and the journey has been anything but easy. We found ourselves vulnerable and struggling and we sought support and understanding among churches of Christ. Overall, it just wasn’t there. I hear from foster and adoptive families in the church on a regular basis who are not finding support, resources, or even understanding within their congregations. Many times these families feel isolated, misunderstood, and unsupported in the heat of their battle to care for vulnerable children. They need the strength and support of their congregations. We soon discovered that among the evangelical movement as a whole, discussion about and support for the topic of orphan care is prolific, so we were drawn toward their resources. Many families in the churches of Christ, including myself, have turned elsewhere not only for support and understanding, but to find a camaraderie and a fellowship with others who are passionate to intervene on behalf of orphans domestically and internationally.

It hurts my heart deeply to even type those words. I desperately want those I fellowship with to be the foremost in the discussion on orphan care. So I’m doing something about it. In the fall of 2019, I am teaming with some of my brothers and sisters in Tennessee to hold a conference to join together and discuss this critical topic. We would love for you to join us on this journey. The goal of this conference is to begin a problem-solving discussion about how to fulfill James 1:27 by having meaningful discussion regarding how to approach orphan care, provide education regarding the issues adoptive and foster families face, and to equip congregations with practical tools to provide much needed understanding and support for these families.

If this is something you or your congregation would be interested in, please email me at tanyarpirtle@gmail.com. Let’s start really talking about orphan care!

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