The Church as a Family

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Pastor preached a great sermon this week out of 1 Timothy 5 about how when we need to confront other believers about an issue of faith, (especially when they are near the cliff of a heresy) that we should treat them like a family member. He also talked about how we actually treat our own biological and cultural family members, and how if we don’t “provide” for them we are worse than an unbeliever.

This caused me to think about what it means to treat my family as God has instructed, and also whether our modern North American Evangelical church culture is really anything like a family. I was deeply convicted by the message, and this is the outworking of my thinking about the topic.

Let’s start with our real family… Sometimes our families are close knit. We enjoy being around each other. We have grown up treating each other with respect. We learned as children to apologize to and to forgive each other. We learned to care about and to take care of each other. Mostly we learned this from our parents example; from their treatment of us, and from their interactions with their siblings and parents.

Yet as adults, the description above looks like something out of a hallmark family movie. Sometimes we realize that we have grown apart from our siblings. They have grown into people that we no longer enjoy being around. We don’t like some of the choices our siblings have made. Perhaps they married someone who doesn’t like to participate on family gatherings, and so has either limited or sabotaged opportunities for the family to spend time together. Perhaps one or more of our siblings has become self-interested butt-holes, who only enjoy being around others that give them the opportunity to brag, gloat, or show off.  While we love them, we may no longer like who they have become.

Sometimes though, things were never that great. Parents were divisive, having obvious favorites among the sibs. Parents were pretty self-involved so the example that we got was not that great. Sometimes parents were abusive, addicted, or neurotic to the point where the family was so dysfunctional that it seems miraculous that kids turned out even semi functional as adults. Sometimes separation, distance, or divorce damaged the picture of the family that is our example.

In many real world families, our example of how the family works is distorted from God’s intention. We come out of a background so steeped in dysfunction that we don’t have a clue how to treat our own family members as God intended.

It is in this kind of a world, that churches can be the example of how family is supposed to work. There are many problems with this, though.

Can the Church be a family?

When churches are small, it is easy for the church to be like a family. We all know each others names, and even for new “joiners” it doesn’t take very long to get acquainted. However – dysfunction in a small church is very easy to spot. A small church in decline (smaller than it once was) is likely to be populated with people who are stuck where they are, not growing very much.

When churches are very large, it is hard to find a family setting. It often feels more like being a sports fan – cheering for your team. Larger churches have trouble with creating a physical plant that is good at providing a reasonable family atmosphere. They use “small groups” to get to a reasonable family model, but we also see that they overload the purpose of small groups such that they are not only family, but also discipleship or evangelism at the same time.

As we see families in the US become more and more transient (with people moving an average every 6 times between ages 19 and 44) the church needs to recognize that it needs to learn to do “family” better. Forty years ago, we were largely an industrial society, with people locating close to a job/career that was fairly persistent. We tended to stay close to our family. Many churches literally became an extended family, as stable families within the church intermarried and often half of the people in a congregation were somehow related either by blood or by marriage within 3 generations.

Now we are in a generation of church planting, and we are in the information age, where services are really what is driving the US economy. The probability of working for the same company or in the same facility for your entire career is much lower than it was forty years ago. In the US cities, forty years ago, most suburban young adults adopted a commuter lifestyle staying in the suburbs and commuting to work either in the city or another suburb. Now our cities have been gentrified and our young adults are moving back to city neighborhoods because they are more attractive than they were in the 1970’s.

What families do!

And this really starts me thinking about what it means for a church to act like a family. These are things that I see being part of a real family that a church could reasonably emulate.

1) Know each other – In a real family, I know things about relatives I have never met, and I know how I am connected to them. In church, I don’t have a nearest relative, or an organic way of getting connected to other family members. Even an adopted child immediately has a parent when the are brought into the family. We are directed by the scripture to care for each other as if we were members of the same family. We can’t do this if we don’t know each other.

2) Are connected – Ask yourself, how are you connected to the family. I went through a time where my closest family members in a church that I had been attending for over 15 years suddenly were gone, and I found myself feeling disconnected in my own family. I had been in the family for a long time, and I knew a lot of people, but suddenly it was like my father, my favorite uncle and most of my siblings were gone. I was serving on a church board at the time, and it came suddenly.As we grow more mature in our walk with Christ, it feels harder to connect, because most church “connection” ministries are geared toward newborns, rather than believers who are adopted as adolescents or adults.  It is hard to care for others that you are not personally connected to.  It is even harder to receive care when you are not connected.

3) Celebrate and Surround New Additions – when there is a new addition to a family either a new birth, a new marriage, or a new adoption, we usually have a celebration. The church has a ceremony for new births (called baptism) and it is public – but we usually don’t do as good a job for believers who are grafted into our body. How do we get to know the names of new people and greet new people and get introduced to new people. The thing is the family doesn’t wait for the new addition to plug in, the grown ups actively work to make the new additions feel comfortable and welcome and they encourage the other young ones to do the same by their example. I am certain this is easier in a smaller church than a larger church…. As new people join the family, we can create connections through celebrations.

4) Communicate on a personal level – when good or bad things happen in a family, calls are made, prayers are offered, congratulations or condolences are shared. Families share our joys and pains with each other. Every birth, every death, illnesses and job losses, promotions and graduations. Needs are met. Help is shared. We can’t effectively care for our family members if we don’t know they have needs. We can’t rejoice with them if we don’t know about the blessings they are experiencing.

Challenges of Real Families

The thing is, that in families (the healthy ones. at least) these things happen automatically. At least it appears that way to kids. The grown ups make sure that these things happen. When we grow up with the examples, we emulate those examples – because they just seem right to us. It is “normal” and we are “used to it”. Our parents tell us stories about their family that they grew up in. They tell us stories about our aunts and uncles and cousins. Aunt Edna is the communication center. Uncle Fred always embarrasses all the kids in a way that makes everyone equally vulnerable. We always go out to the family cottage in the summer where we hang out with our cousins at the lake. We spend time together at holidays and special occasions (weddings, funerals) and while we have our favorites among uncles aunts and cousins – we know them or we know of them.

Then again, the other thing that happens in real families is this, as each successive generation passes away, a new generation must take over. Your parents are your main connection point to the rest of the family. If your family has stayed in reasonably close proximity, and you see each other regularly, the connections can survive the passing of the parents. However when the family is geographically distributed or has not developed the habit of frequent gatherings, the probability of connections surviving the death of the leading generation is small.

A family’s mission largely ends when the kids are able to be independent in their twenties, and then resumes when the elder generation is no longer able to remain independent. The time in between is likely just time to stay connected. In a family there are usually 3-4 living generations at any one time, and so each generation cares for the next when they are young adults and cares for the previous when they are middle aged. The family is an adaptive organism, and each successive generation as they pass into the lead leaves their mark on the family for good or for bad.

The Family Church

One of the more difficult outworkings of North American Evangelicalism is dynasticism.  Without a central governing structure (like the mainline churches) and with a predisposition to either pastoral or congregational government, evangelical churches have often become dynastic in that is governed by a large family group that is either related to the pastor or somehow involves a congregational majority.  One of the tendencies of dynastic churches is to become introspective – tending to focus on the needs and wants of members rather than on the mission assigned by Christ – to reach the unsaved and make disciples.  Dynastic churches are often (not surprisingly) not that responsive to the needs of new non-family members and struggle to find meaningful connections with outsiders, as the connections within the family are so dense.  What is worse, is that the leaders of dynastic churches are mostly blind to it, as their experience of church is dramatically different from those outside the dynasty.  It is not that the dynastic leaders must be unspiritual or sinful for this to happen, they merely have to listen to their family.

Conclusion for Churches

In the North American Evangelical Church, we need to start thinking ahead on the socio-economic and demographic trends. The methods and programs that we have devised are not likely to be suitable or relevant in two generations. From my reading of scripture, The Bible does not prescribe in any level of detail how to run a church – only the results that the church should produce. I am convinced that the reason that this is so, is that God anticipated that the church must continually change and adapt to the culture that it invades. If the church can create a system that does the things for its members that a family does, then it will enable the outcomes prescribed in 1 Timothy 5 and it will remain relevant to its congregation and appear attractive to its community.

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