And in the very place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” there they will be called “sons of the living God.” – Romans 9:26 (quoting Hosea 1:10), ESV

God places the lonely in families. – Psalm 68:6, NLT

UNICEF estimates that there are approximately 150 million children in the developing world who have lost at least one parent. Of these, nearly 18 million — or almost as many people as live in the entire New York City metropolitan area — are “double orphans,” meaning that both parents have died or are otherwise absent. Abandonment, anger, fear, and hopelessness are just some of the emotions these children feel, and most of them are too young even to understand these feelings. By the tens of millions, these children need God’s gift of family.

God’s special care for orphans (including the “fatherless”) is visible throughout the Bible: Isaiah 1:17, Psalm 68:5-6, and James 1:27 all speak of His heart for these vulnerable ones and His subsequent call on His people to share this concern. Adoption is a beautiful way to answer this call, as well as a clear picture of God’s choice to invite people into a family relationship with Him as their Heavenly Father. Romans 9 describes this with respect to the nation of Israel, while the image of a grafted olive tree in Romans 11 reveals the mystery of Gentiles being adopted into the covenant family. Christians, when they pursue adoption, do well when their motivations reflect this all-encompassing love.

But for far too many orphans, barriers to being legally adopted into permanent homes are a tragic reality. Some countries have closed themselves entirely to cross-border adoptions, Russia being the highest-profile example. Others place restrictions with varying degrees of transparency, as byFaith’s January 2015 story of Benjamin Dillow illustrates. Even if such increased regulation is well intended, it makes it harder to bring orphaned children into families through legal adoption. Indeed, as the Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO) reports, intercountry adoption into families in the United States has declined precipitously since peaking in 2004.

In light of this, how can Christians bring about a sense of identity, belonging, and trust in the lives of the fatherless, the kind that results from being grafted into both an earthly and a heavenly family? And even as Christians hope, pray, and fight hard to remove barriers to responsible, ethical adoption, what can the church do to serve those for whom adoption is currently an unlikely outcome?

Like Our Own

Philip Darke is the CEO of Providence World Ministries, an organization that seeks to inspire and equip believers to love orphans as God does. “In Pursuit of Orphan Excellence,” a book he co-edited with Keith McFarland, argues that Christians need a paradigm other than “something is better than nothing” when it comes to caring for orphaned children. Along with this challenge, the book advocates for implementing a set of best practices in caring for unadopted orphans, practices that center on the family model.

Darke has seen firsthand what it looks like when unadopted orphans receive society’s leftovers in poorly functioning institutions. In his book, he describes a visit to a facility in Honduras that housed 143 children in a building designed for only 120, spending only about $3.50 per month to care for each child. It was no wonder that some children attempted to get out by digging holes in the bedroom ceiling. As he recorded on his blog after the visit: “I truly believe that the situation … is not better than nothing because it gives the illusion to the world that something is being done to care for the orphans in Honduras — in reality, these kids are simply in a prison (surrounded by a two-story high wall and guard tower) trying to escape.”

What Darke wants Christians to see is that the call to care for orphans is a call to excellent care. The kind of costly love that characterizes the pursuit of adoption for some families (even in the face of barriers) ought also to be mirrored communally in the church as it cares for the unadopted. Even those not called to adopt or foster orphans themselves should still seek excellence, and that may mean more than cutting a monthly check to an orphanage merely because it is “better than nothing.” In short, this means Christians collectively treating orphans as our own.

There is no better or more convicting illustration of this idea than an anecdote at the beginning of the first chapter of “In Pursuit of Orphan Excellence.” In it, a wealthy Peruvian woman tours an orphanage to which she is a large contributor. Throughout her tour, she heaps praise on the dormitory-style facility with inconsistent caregivers, unsanitary conditions and an “education” consisting of training to work in a neighboring textile mill (coincidentally managed by the orphanage owner). Frustrated by her attitude, her guide asks if she would be comfortable if her own children lived there. “Well of course not,” she replies. “But my kids aren’t orphans.”

Father to the Fatherless

It may be easy enough for Christians to acknowledge that institutions such as the ones Darke describes — those that fail even to provide adequately for children’s physical needs — are far from worthy of our calling to illustrate God’s love. But Keith McFarland, co-editor with Darke of “In Pursuit of Orphan Excellence,” challenges believers to take the concept of excellent care much deeper to heart. In a chapter entitled “Family Matters,” McFarland argues winsomely, if firmly, that the lack of biblical fatherhood at many orphan-care ministries belies a mindset of “settling” for something less than what is best.

Making the practical case for the importance of fathers, McFarland quotes from President Barack Obama’s 2008 Father’s Day speech, in which the president recited some heartbreaking figures about fatherlessness in the United States: “We know the statistics — that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime. They’re nine times more likely to drop out of schools; 20 times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home, or become teen parents because the father wasn’t in the home.”

Such social data are powerfully persuasive on their own. Christians, though, have still greater cause to pursue a standard of care that includes all the benefits of an intact family. Christians know that the ultimate benefits of fatherhood are not merely physical, emotional, or social; rather, they are spiritual.

“Family speaks to the core of our identity,” McFarland writes. “The loss of family and specifically the loss of fatherhood leads to a loss of identity, belonging, and purpose.” It is ultimately only the good news of Jesus Christ that restores this sense of identity to believers, and that good news culminates in adoption into God’s own family! Earthly families exist to provide for earthly needs but also as a reflection of spiritual identity, a reflection that is less accurate when either the mother or father is missing. Though earthly families will always fall short of perfection, there is no better setting in which children can experience this truth about God himself.

In McFarland’s mind, all this has profound implications for how the church should think about orphan care. Having observed many orphan-care facilities around the world, he knows both the difficulty and the heroism of serving orphans with scarce resources. Yet, he offers a poignant question: Can Christian orphan-care ministries really claim excellence when at least a semblance of an intact family structure is absent?

Family-Centered Care

Thus, according to Darke and McFarland, true excellence in orphan care begins by looking as much like family as possible. But even though full, legal integration into a functioning family is always the ideal, they believe orphan-care facilities must, at least for now, play a role in the church’s pursuit of this excellence as long as there are unadopted children who need care.

“It is a sad thing that, even among orphan-care advocates, there is a perception that you have to be either ‘for’ or ‘against’ orphanages,” says Darke. In his observation, which spans orphan-care facilities in Latin America and Africa, this is far too simplistic a delineation, one that results in unnecessary division among Christians. “The current conversation lumps all ‘orphanages’ into the same boat. People do not have a category for an ‘orphanage’ that looks more like a family. We need a new vernacular.” This, in part, is why Darke uses the term “orphan-care community” to define La Providencia, a family-centered ministry sponsored by Providence World Ministries that cares for orphans and at-risk children in Honduras.

Keith McFarland describes La Providencia as “essentially a hybrid of adoption and foster care,” explaining its function as follows: “Each family home is led by a Honduran, Christian married couple who commit to raise eight children as their own … with a lifetime commitment to love and care for the children. They refer to the relationship between the parents and the children as “spiritual adoption,” under which the parents provide their children a permanent family despite the fact that the children are not adoptable under Honduran law. The children come from institutional state-run orphanages throughout Honduras, and in so doing go from orphanhood to a family.”

Other best practices at La Providencia include a focus on a classical liberal arts education (rather than a more easily exploitable training in agriculture or trade work), Honduran national staffing (rather than international), and a culture of sharing information (rather than hoarding it in a warped attempt at competitive advantage). But the community’s family structure — including both mothers and fathers — is the linchpin. “Are the family units perfect?” wonders Phil Darke. “No, of course they aren’t. But they are healthier than some of the families in my neighborhood in Folsom, California.”

Only a Part

Darke’s prayer is that orphan-care communities such as La Providencia will one day no longer be necessary. Instead, he affirms the priorities set forth by CAFO in a white paper entitled “On Understanding Orphan Statistics,” which include preserving families whenever possible, reuniting them whenever feasible, and expanding them to include other close relatives or community members (sometimes called “kinship care”) whenever orphans’ identity is honored by doing so. Ethical adoption is, of course, another solution that approaches the ideal in many cases, and La Providencia has itself advocated strongly to make Honduras more open to international adoption. For the time being though, Darke argues that communities focused on best practices are a critical piece of the excellence to which Christians are called. They are one possible solution among many.

Beyond a call to excellence and a description of best practices, Darke’s book aims to foster a sense of unity among Christian orphan-care advocates. He is encouraged that even some “orphanage” skeptics tend to be more supportive of communities like La Providencia once they understand that the approaches outlined in the book are advocating for family and not against it. “This is not about point/counterpoint,” he contends, “but about a holistic approach that does not create two classes of orphans — the adoptable and the non-adoptable — and leave one of them behind.”

“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me,” says the King in Matthew 25:40 (ESV). What Christian would strive for anything other than excellence in serving Christ himself? As the fatherless now stand in Jesus’ place, the church’s call is that kind of excellence. As adopted sons and daughters of that same King, may we joyfully heed that call.

Phil Mobley is a writer and content strategist in the Atlanta area. He and his wife pursued adoption for more than a year before welcoming their third biological child in July 2014.