To Call a Church a Family

More often than not, I’ve heard people talk about their church as a family – 1,000 member churches to 30 member churches.  Knowing that people have found a place where they feel included, comfortable and accepted is wonderful. After all, churches should be doing this well, be it in cities, suburbs or small towns.

But I wonder how this language influences our behavior.  After all, the language we use influences how we think and possibly act. Can the use of familial language be detrimental to our congregations and the mission of our churches?

As I’ve said, to be able to find one’s church a family is a great thing, especially in our more transient, dislocated culture. I love my family… even if they drive me nuts! But as great as families are, they are also familiar, exclusive, insular and protective.

Families are the most familiar things we have. Afterall, we have them for life. Yet, familiarity breeds habit and families are the worst offenders of habit.  In a family, everyone has their role and place. Dad is dad, mom is mom and your middle sibling… well they’re there too. *Full disclosure, I don’t have a middle sibling, but figured the joke would carry.*  Everyone knows Uncle Joe is the way he is and everyone knows what’s expected of them come the holidays.

The familiarity of family breeds habit and those habits breed exclusivity. No family tries to be exclusive (just as no church does), they just are. I’m four years into my marriage and I’m still making headway into my wife’s family and my wife is still making headway into mine. I nor my wife are perceived as being excluded by our respective in-laws, but that doesn’t make it reality. Our families have familiar ways of being that exclude those who aren’t familiar with those habits. In fact, the only way you join a family is through birth, marriage or adoption. Only the first requires no time to acclimate.

Because families are exclusive, they are stable (barring mitigating circumstances) and therefore insular. And (at its best) the insular nature offers things you existentially need. Families provide support and a sense of meaning in the world. Financial support, sure, but more importantly relational and spiritual support. The way most develop a sense of meaning in the world – one’s identity, sense of belonging and purpose – is through their family or it’s social peer.

And because a family is insular, people are protective of it. We find our support and sense of meaning there; it makes sense to be protective of it. Protecting the family, protects yourself. If the family is threatened then so is your sense of self and social support.

Are churches familiar places of habit?  Are churches exclusive groups? Are churches insular? Are churches protective of themselves? Yes to all four. Is that bad? I’ll just say that in having led a church family (not a family church), I found the four characteristics to be detrimental to the mission and perpetuation of the church’s ministry.

Perhaps we should be speaking of the church as the body of Christ (Paul’s language) or a communion of saints (creedal language). Both phrases express better visions and understandings. The church is a collection of parts joined together for a greater work.

Perhaps by thinking and speaking about our congregations differently we might become aware of the exclusivity of our familiar habits and help usher people into them. We cannot be an exclusive institution. And even though every church person knows that those inside and out of our congregations are all God’s created children and loved by Christ, our exclusivity hinders that belief.
And perhaps by inclusivity, things might become less familiar and thus less habitual.

Perhaps also in becoming less exclusive, we will become less insular. The instability brought about by inclusivity hinders the stability that social support and senses of self require. That’s not to say one shouldn’t be able to find support, but that the person should find their sense of identity, belonging and purpose in that support. In fact, this might even have the double benefit of helping guide people to see that their identity, belonging, purpose and community is rooted in our much larger, wholly other God.

Perhaps our congregations might then be less protective over their Sunday morning groups and locations and instead derive much more satisfaction in missions and ministry as they realize how they and their work are intimately united with Christ’s work to all people of all nations.

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