“Church” or Family?

church-house-hiI can see it on their faces when they come in. That look of surprise, bewilderment, and fear. “Oh, no! This isn’t a ‘church’. It’s a family!”

People visiting our Sunday morning worship gathering are often looking for and expecting a ‘church’.  You know: some worship music, a place for the kids and/or youth, and a practical sermon that helps people know how to follow God.  Perhaps they are just visiting some friends in the area, or they just moving in.  But I can always tell when they were looking for a ‘church’, and find a family instead.

This last Sunday about 20 minutes of our worship service, right at the beginning, was given over to family stuff, not typical ‘churchy’ stuff.  One family is moving away after journeying with us for four year.  So we hear their story of God’s call on their lives, and we all go up and laid hands on them.  But before that a mother updated us on the health of a child that had tripped into the family fire pit and been rushed to the hospital the night before. You know, normal stuff. (Oh, and I forgot, all the men and boys are hanging out this Saturday night, but I can’t tell you about it ’cause it’s a secret).

You see, instead of an anonymous ‘church’ centered on activities we are a family.  We strive to be a family where we can be known.  And all this sharing, and praying, and updating, this is what families do.  The whole point of being the church is really to enter into the family of God, right?

Now, of course, families can be quirky and annoying, certainly intimidating.  And it is hard to break into a family (insert all those awkward dating situations of meeting the parents or coming over for Thanksgiving for the first time).  So if people are visiting then we need to make them feel welcome and up-to-speed (of course, that is much easier if we already know them.  And of course the best way of bringing someone into a family is by inviting them in, rather than hoping they will just randomly show up on a Sunday.

So, when people think of your church, when they visit or are invited, do they find a churchy institution or a family relationship? Do they find primarily a “church building” or a “family bond”?

How have your cultivated the sense of being a family? How have you hindered the sense of being a family?

9 Replies to ““Church” or Family?”

  1. (Oh no, I think I accidentally deleted Helen Lee’s comment…darn new commenting syste).

    Here it is:
    Geoff, I appreciate your post. I would love to also read more about how you deal with the inevitable conflicts and challenges that come within your church family–things that we too often either shove under the rug in our congregations or handle poorly. I will also share a point about most Asian American churches I have visited, in which the cultural value of family runs deep–the kids refer to all the adults with the titles “Auntie” and “Uncle”, to emphasize that the congregation is truly a family and not just a bunch of individuals attending the same church. It might be difficult for non-Asian American churches to do this, but it is certainly something I miss whenever I am outside that context. Thanks for your post!

  2. Good post, and I relate to people visiting and not finding what they are expecting. Certainly, the expectation of institutional activities and programs as “church” , is an unfortunate expectation.  Yet, the metaphor of “family” for church while scriptural I find problematic.  Partly it is because I’m not certain our cultural notions of family are the Biblical one, and certainly family in the ancient world is not family of 21st century America.  But that is a minor issue.  
    The church isn’t a family, or rather “Family of God” is only one image or picture of the church.  In my view we should no more exclusively be “family” as church, than we should exclusively have been church as programmatic institution, though that form of church admittedly seems to mostly have had cultural origins and little Biblical or traditional support.  Why not also emphasise and try to be “Body” or “polis”, a city, ann assembly, all these metaphors are used by Paul.  What about being a priesthood! 
    I need church to be both more and less than family at times.  And our notions of familial intimacy seem to me to be something we read into the notion of church from our cultural values.   I guess I wonder, it is like the twist that happens as we move from the Scriptures that indicate that Jesus calls us and considers us friends, or talks about being friends with God, and it moves into “buddy Jesus”.  I prefer a multiplicity of images and modes of being, rather than focusing on a particular image or metaphor.  Plus in my experience, the use of “family” as a prominant metaphor is often problematic when ministering to those who come from abusive family and church back grounds.   One can eventually come back to family metaphor, but others need to be used first.  Intimacy can be a tool for abuse, granted it is a twisted sort of intimacy, but true divine intimacy is also a distance, allows for the unknown, and unknowing.  “Family” in our cultural context doesn’t say that.

    1. priestlygoth Those are great thoughts.  Yes, a multiplicity of metaphors is essential. We also often speak of the kingdom of God.  You mention that “family” often doesn’t connect with those from broken families, but I think that is exactly why to use it rather than avoid.  
      If not the family metaphor, which would you begin with.

      1. geoffholsclaw I suppose it depends on what one means by “broken”,  I’m talking about my experience with those in recovery from physical, mental, sexually abusive families (and/or parent).  In my experience it’s not so much disconnect as some form of unhealthy repetition that the metaphor of family encourages.  One form of repetition is the attempt to make the congregation compensate for the loss of one’s childhood.  That loss is lost, no other “family” will be able to replace what one never had.  the other form of repetition I see is that use of “family” means that the individual expects from the congregation the same sorts of patterns and even attempts to make the Pastor the father, or mother (abusive, neglectful, etc.) in an attempt to resolve the family of origin.  Granted these scenarios happen at particular stages of recovery for the individual who suffered abuse as a child.  I agree that “family” as metaphor is also helpful in certain stages, or where the brokenness of family isn’t so much distortion or abuse.  Also, church as “family” can be used to reorient our sense of family, but only, in my view, if we also are using other metaphors and allowing those images to mold our activity as church.
        I gravitate towards “body”, and find that is often a healing metaphor for those who have suffered abusive familial contexts.  Also, as a good Lutheran pietists “priesthood” is a picture I also gravitate towards.  I also gravitate towards “assembly” the notion that there is something non-biological or natural about the church, as an “unnatural” creation of God.   We are so tied to what are considered natural (even if the concept of nature is multifaceted, complex and problematic) and the duty to the family and it’s often stultifying intimacy that  I find it freeing to enter into the intimacy of the church and relationship with God through images that at first seem to have nothing to do with intimacy.

        1. priestlygoth It is very interesting that “body” would be particularly helpful in healing family wounds.  I would love to hear more.  And what other images that aren’t normally understood as “intimate” have you seen to bring those relational dimensions back into the conversation. 
          I totally hear you about lost childhoods and unhealthly expectations.  I think I often gravitate toward God as our loving Father (as un-PC as that might be) in contrast to all other fathers (and/or abusive family systems).

        2. geoffholsclaw I’ll have to think on it more it’s just an observation I’ve made and haven’t really thought about why it would be.  I think I will have to write a blog post on this.  Also, your own gravitation toward God as our loving Father, has me wondering if my own tension with familial image, has me examining my own distancing from those images and metaphors, perhaps two blog posts are on their way.

        3. priestlygoth I was just asking less as a push back and more of actual interest. i think your insights about how best to minister to and lead others out of brokenness into the life of Christ and the family of God will be very useful for me.  But if you post something please let me know. I’d love to look at it.

        4. geoffholsclaw  I understood that, and realized that I hadn’t really taken the time as of yet to reflect more generally on ministering to and leading other out of brokenness into the life of Christ and family of God.   I have some conclusions I have made for myself and my own ministry but not further reflection than that.  Second, your questions were causing me to nuance some of those conclusions.  I will definitely let you know when I post something.
          Lastly, your own experience, had me think about the role my own interaction with familial metaphors base in my own family background (not perfect but mostly healthy) has lead me to some of my conclusions.  That was something I hadn’t noticed before this conversation.  So thank you.

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