The volunteer coordinator at the rescue mission was stunned. I had called to volunteer my family of four to serve at their downtown picnic on the Fourth of July just after the Los Angeles riots. “This is so unusual. We’ve never had a whole family volunteer before.”

Exactly—families are not expected to serve together. Many Christians who are parents (especially single parents) stand confused as this question wars within them: Do I serve my family or do I serve others?

Those of us who are church leaders are especially torn. We grieve when we see a dad and mom showing up faithfully at umpteen church meetings while their children clamor for attention. We vow not to fall into the same trap and so we clear the calendar and stay home every night.

Tired of that all-or-nothing game, I called the mission downtown and volunteered all four members of my family. As anyone might guess, my 11-and 12-year-old children worked harder that day than they’ve ever worked in my kitchen. They cleaned spills and shared resources with each other without one hint from Dad or me. Dad and I didn’t growl when they accidentally splashed red punch on our white shirts. We worked side by side, listening to guests’ stories and holding undernourished, cooing babies. Afterward our kids enticed us to explore the crumbling walls of the mission, and we enjoyed the kitchen help’s offer of ice cream sundaes made from leftovers.

A study by the Points of Light Foundation on family volunteerism spells out what we learned that day: Volunteer families enjoy themselves more than individual volunteers do. They get to know each other better, and they like working side by side with people they already know. The organizations like having entire families volunteer because they ...

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