I have spent the majority of my life attending and being involved in different church communities. Over the years I’ve served in Anglican, Baptist, Elim, Methodist, United Methodist as well as non-denominational or ‘free’ churches. Regardless of the denomination or the location the members of any particular local church will often describe their worshipping community as their ‘church family’.
Family is a wonderful analogy. I love the family I have been born into and the extras that have joined us along the way and as members of my family marry into other families and we become connected. I suppose the image that people usually have when they talk of ‘family’ in relation to church is that we are to be close in relationship, sharing life together, looking out for one another, supportive, encouraging, loving, and so on and so forth. This is no doubt the kind of family that we want to promote and encourage, the family we think of when we read Bible verses such as:
‘And pointing to his disciples, [Jesus] said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”‘ (Matthew 12:49-50)
‘So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.’ (Ephesians 2:19-20)
Of course, when we talk of the vision of church as a family it is this loving, caring, close type of relationship that we want to encourage, but I think there is more to family that this.
What people tend to forget when using family as an analogy is the pain, suffering and hurt experienced within families. 0Growing up I would wrestle with my brother, wind up my sister and no doubt cause my parents hair to turn grey younger than they would have preferred. There are some aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives that I’d look forward to seeing whilst others it was an experience to avoid – usually because of boredom and the long journey to visit them, when a day would feel like a week and a week like a year. Of course as I got older I had more choice about who I stay in touch and visit with, I still wind up my siblings but it’s been a long time since my brother and I wrestled. Modern church in our consumer society makes it easy to avoid the people and places we find difficult to engage with. We can move on from one church to another if it doesn’t quite suit us (for whatever reason). As challenging as it can be I want to be part of a church community that holds together as a family despite our difference and despite the challenges. I don’t want everyone to like everything the church does all of the time, that would mean the church is bland. I certainly don’t think God is bland and to be part of his church means celebrating and persevering with our differences are diversity.
‘And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’ (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Then there are the family members who we’ve never met. For reasons I will never know my grandfather didn’t have a great deal to do with his siblings, of which he was the eldest of 5. My father didn’t know his aunts and uncles and had never met his cousins. Thanks to the wonders of social media I recently had the privilege of finding and meeting my grandfathers sister (now in her 80’s) and her two children. We had never met, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was welcomed into their home and we shared stories of a common ancestry. I felt a little like the prodigal son, it wasn’t me who had walked away from the family but in a sense it was my line of ancestry who had. I was welcomed into the family home, fed, introduced as a special guest and shown photos and special family heirlooms. Whatever the cause of separation and how long ago I have a hope for local communities who welcome back, without criticism or judgement, those who were once members. I hope to be part of communities that people, regardless of past experience, will feel safe to return or to join for the first time.
‘So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.’ (Luke 15:20)
A vision for church as family is therefore one that includes sharing, encouragement and support but it is also one that involves perseverance with relationships, wrestling with diversity, and creating a safe environment to with people can return without fear of prejudice.
Finally, not everyone has a family. The church should be a community that provides family (warts and all) for all those who need one.