“We believe that the family is more than a social construct; it’s something designed by God Himself in His perfect wisdom,” says Benny Kong, executive director of Focus on the Family Malaysia.
The NGO, which works closely with government agencies to strengthen Malaysian families through preventive programmes and crisis measures (counselling), celebrated its 25th anniversary last year.
As we observe International Day of Families this month (May 15), we ask Benny to share his observations on marriages and families in Malaysia today, along with practical advice for young Christian families trying to nurture relationships in increasingly crowded lives.
Life is running at the speed of now, but relationships need time
The biggest challenge families in Malaysia are facing today, Benny says, is marriage. “The trend is not so healthy. Over 25 years we have seen how the pace of life has changed and busyness has crept in. The result is simply less time to nurture relationships,” he shares.
In 2000, 1,613 divorces were recorded among non-Muslims in Malaysia, but by 2018, the number had risen to 10,087 (Department of Statistics Malaysia).
With life running at the speed of now, relationships have inevitably suffered because they require nurturing. Furthermore, Benny opines that technology has divided our precious time, posing even greater challenges to marriage.
“Studies have shown that the lack of communication is the primary reason for divorce, so it all comes back to nurturing our relationships. We cannot be neglectful,” he advises.
Know your priorities in each season of life
Interestingly, Benny reveals that the first decade of marriage is when most divorces happen. It’s therefore a critical period, and one filled with transitions.
A season of adjustment usually follows marriage through its early years. Having children also often happens within these first few years of marriage.
Benny, who is currently leading the Creative Team at his church, advises newly-married couples to take a breather from serving as they adjust, but ensure there is a roadmap to restart serving after a period of time.
“Ministry leaders can also consider a response of sensitivity and love when team members go through a season of transition. We often equate serving God to loving God, and while that is true to a certain extent, loving God is much more than that,” he explains.
Focus on the Family has just launched Marriage Legacy, where seasoned couples are trained to walk alongside younger couples in their first 10 years of marriage (the critical decade).
“Research has shown if couples have someone they can turn to or trust, it helps the longevity of their marriage,” Benny says. He also encourages churches and Christians to advise loved ones to seek counselling for support and to provide a safe platform for all parties. .
Mental health and sexuality continue to be issues among children and youth
Another challenge that has cropped up in recent decades is mental health, most likely due to increased awareness and decreasing stigma. Focus on the Family’s counselling services have seen an uptick in clients seeking mental health support.
Benny also points out that today, even five to nine-year-olds are showing signs of anxiety and depression. It is a worrying sign and one that requires attention.
“In addition, 2 in 5 Malaysian youths continue to face pressure to have sexual relations, and as goalposts shift regarding gender identity, the need for open, honest and non-judgemental dialogue continues to increase,” he says.
Investing in family relationships builds strong, lasting foundations
Benny, who has been with the organisation for over two decades, then shares some practical handles for young families looking to build strong foundational relationships.
- Focus on your marriage first and foremost. Your children will benefit the most when they see you and your partner love and support each other. It’s easy for parents to get sidetracked by the demands of raising children, but investing time and energy in your marriage will ultimately benefit your children in the long run.
- Prioritise mealtimes, especially dinner, as time for the entire family to eat together (even if that means a later dinner). It is precious time spent connecting with one another and nurturing relationships.
- Connect with your spouse regularly throughout the day. These can be physical (hugs, kisses before leaving for work), checking in with one another via messages or calls in the middle of the day or talking at the end of the day. By intentionally creating these touch-points, you’re nurturing your relationship and showing your partner that they are a priority in your life.
- Children spell L-O-V-E as T-I-M-E. Any time you can give is appreciated, and quantity is just as important as quality. Prioritising regular time with your children shows them they are loved and valued.
As parents, we are called to pass down a spiritual heritage to our children
An important truth to realise when considering family development is that God created the concept of family. According to Genesis 1:27, God, with care and intention, designed a family to reflect His nature.
Therefore, we must prioritise the relationships found in families: spousal and parent-child. This is especially true for young Christian families because the first decade of marriage is critical.
“When we live crowded lives, we need to intentionally prioritise family because they can be taken for granted. Hobbies and even ministry in the church can be time-consuming. Tone down on time with technology, spending more unplugged time as a family, especially outdoors,” Benny, who is a father of a nine-year-old, suggests.
Christian parents must also realise that ultimately, they are responsible for passing down a spiritual heritage to their children.
While Sunday School and youth groups are helpful, Benny reminds parents not to abdicate Deuteronomy 6:6-7, where God instructs parents to envelop children in His commandments in everyday life.
How can I build stronger family relationships?
About 95% of Focus on the Family’s programmes in Malaysia caters for the community at large, as the NGO’s goal is to strengthen all Malaysian families regardless of faith background. These programmes are held throughout the year and are open to all.
Some of Focus on the Family’s popular programmes include:
- No Apologies – helping students make wise choices and set healthy boundaries when it comes to sexual relations
- Parental Guidance – supporting parents in having open, honest conversations about sex with their children
- Date Night @ Home – a virtual, guided date night providing a unique bonding experience for married couples
- Parent-Child Bonding Programmes – curated events for dads and mums to connect with their sons and daughters on a personal level
This International Day of Families, be intentional about strengthening your family relationships! Join or register your interest for one of Focus on the Family’s various programmes here.