All in the Family

In my last post I made a bold claim. First I differentiated between two different applications of the word “community.” There is the community that surrounds the local pub or Starbucks or a Bed and Breakfast. And then there is a community of believers that looks a lot like family. Then I made the following claim:

I think a lot of churches do community like the first kind of community–the kind you get when you have a community center, club, or your local Starbucks. I am not saying this is what they intend necessarily but its what passes for community. I’ll use another analogy. Walking into some mega-churches I sometimes get the impression I’m treated like a guest at a bed and breakfast not a family of believers.

After carping for a few paragraphs about accommodation, inclusion, and entertainment (three elements of the Culture-Driven church), I asked this question and gave this cliche answer. :  “So what’s the alternative to B & Bs style community? Family.”

The way I see it, there are a couple of important questions to ask in order to navigate our Christian lives through the extremes of either cultural accommodation or cultural irrelevance.   First, what do we mean by community? Is community just a starting point or are are we really called to something deeper, something more like “Family?”  If it is the latter, what is the difference between family and mere community? My last post dealt with the first question. I am honestly trying to develop an answer to the second question. It just seems intuitive that we want a church family not just a community. But I really can’t answer that question until I know the difference between a family and a community.

Here are a few elements that Don and I have come up with:

First, familial relationships are not really voluntary. Communities are. We don’t choose our families, we are born into them and the bloodline makes us family. And likewise, with the exception of adoptions, our family doesn’t choose us. If I don’t like the crowd at Starbucks, I just find another coffee shop. Recently, I went to a chain restaurant that serves Kansas City BBQ. Because it was a chain, I expected the same great BBQ at each one. I was wrong. Evidently the franchise can differ greatly. I won’t be going back to that BBQ place. However, I can’t say the same thing if my wife doesn’t make a great meal every time. In fact, it doesn’t even occur to me to try (fortunately my wife is a fabulous cook who comes from a family of New Orleans fabulous cooks).  The reason is that there are things that bind us together which are greater than wonderful cooking or more to the point, even a combined purpose. There is something metaphysical that binds me to my family that doesn’t bind me to my weekly card game. Because of that, accommodation and inclusiveness just don’t really apply. If my son decides to do stupid things when he is older involving drugs or a cult, I don’t get the option of completely writing him out of my life. And neither does he have the option of writing me out of his life. He will always be my son. But that also means I don’t have to accommodate his sins either. I may even have to tell him that if he is going to engage in behavior dangerous to him or his family that he must leave the house. But he never really leaves the family. If he wants to come home, we’ll be there. If he needs a hand up, we will do what we can to help. The goal of correction is repentance and restoration. Being family means we are connected whether this happens or not.

It seems to me that church is the same way. Church discipline isn’t being exclusive or unaccommodating. Its a reflection of a tie much stronger than common goals or a mission statement. Telling a brother or sister that they can’t take communion or worship with us because of their behavior isn’t like throwing someone out of your restaurant for not having shoes. It is a calculated, formal, and gut wrenching decision, that is not designed as much for coercion (“Straighten up and you can eat with us”) but rather to protect the rest of the family (all the impressionable younger kids especially). This a subtle but important point. There is not a problem with people who are living non-Christian lifestyles coming to church. People who do not share the worldview of the family are treated as guests for whom we pray and seek to convince of Christ. The problem, the danger is when a believer who professes a biblical worldview engages in activity that is contrary to the Christian worldview.  Let me give an example. I worry about my son. I worry a lot about what he picks up from other kids when he’s playing at the YMCA or when he’s playing in the park. The other day he used a phrase I had never heard from him before and I had to tell him that we don’t use such phrases in our family. This is a concern when he goes to preschool next year. Fair enough. What I really worry about is if one of his other family members is doing something inappropriate. Like me. My kid does everything I do. If I were to do something stupid and sinful and there were no consequences for me, then that would be far more dangerous because it seems to give him permission to behave badly.

Let me end with one other observation that Don and I have discussed. Healthy church communities depend on healthy church families. My relationship with my wider community is only going to be good when my relationship to my family is strong, focused, and clear. That is my family is not only bound by strong ties but that we recognize those ties and operate from the base of our family commitments. I invite people into my home but I can’t invite them into my family. There will always be a separation between my neighbor and my family. And that is a good thing. My relationship with my community is better for that separation. I am a better at community when I always have a core relationship to return to where I know there are three other people who have no choice but to love me. I never confuse the two. My family isn’t designed so that I can affect my community by letting them in on what my family is doing. Rather our family is the base of operations for launching our outreach to our community. Perhaps that is the difference in the Culture driven church and the Church Family. Worship isn’t outreach its the equivalent of a family meal. Sure you sometimes have people over for family meals but there is never a question who is the guest and who is responsible for setting the table.

These ideas are percolating at the moment. I am just beginning to think through them. I invite your own comments and corrections.


All in the Family — 6 Comments

  1. Personally, dear brother, the whole idea of church as community is fine for the elite of the Christian world- the pastor and those favored to be in his orbit (er, small group). For the majority of us dumb sheep it isn’t even an option.

    I don’t expect you to understand. I am quite sure neither you nor any other of the megastars of your church have any problem with people not wanting you in their group, not committing to come to your group, or saying that they feel intimidated by your prayers, etc.

    So to me, this whole conversation is not a conversation for the little unimportant people like me anyway. Been there, tried that, many times over the years, never works out. Though I am sure if there is any thriving small group in any church, it will be the one in which the pastor takes part.

    People are hero worshippers. For all the press the “least of these” gets from Jesus, most people just aren’t that interested.

    • Shadowspring,
      Your words imply a few things that puzzle me. First, I am not a megastar. I go to a church of 200 people and I am not a pastor. I’m a college professor. You say, ” I don’t expect you to understand. I am quite sure neither you nor any other of the megastars of your church have any problem with people not wanting you in their group, not committing to come to your group, or saying that they feel intimidated by your prayers, etc.

      I’m confused by this statment. Is it your point that we need anonymity in worship for the “unimportant dumb sheep?” If so I am truly sorry you inferred that I think Church should be some in family club necessarily. I don’t. If one is a christian and shares a Christian worldview, they are part of the family. My point is only that worship isn’t intended as outreach. Do you disagree? I would really love to hear your opinion. I am the first to avail myself of sarcasm, in order to get a point across, but in this case your sarcasm is confusing me. I genuinely want to hear where we disagree. As I said I am still thinking about this idea of a culture driven church. I look forward to your reply.

  2. Suppose I have lived in a neighborhood for several years. One day I learn that my father is coming to visit. When I tell my children, they are ecstatic because my father has never come to our home before. I decide to cook my father’s favorite meal. We look forward to exchanging family stories. The children practice their piano music, selecting some songs my father especially likes.

    We also decide it might be fun to invite a few neighbors, because although they have heard about my father, they have never met him. They accept the invitation.

    As the exciting day nears, we begin to think about our neighbors and whether we should change our plans a bit. Our neighbors don’t like certain foods; to be save, perhaps we should cook hot dogs and hamburgers instead. Further, our neighbors don’t really like music; perhaps we should watch television for an hour rather than listen to the kids play the piano. Also, our neighbors don’t really know our other relatives, and they might get bored hearing about our family. Perhaps we should skip the family stories.

    All of a sudden, we have reoriented our big event. It is no longer an intimate family affair, bringing joy to my father and the rest of the family. It has turned into an affair designed primarily to please the neighbors.

    • Steve,
      this is a good analogy. Its getting at what I am talking about. The question is what is the worship service’s purpose? Is it to enjoy the intimacy with your father coming to visit or is it to introduce your neighbors to your father perhaps. Both are good activities but perhaps mutually exclusive. You can’t really do one and the other at the same time. The analogy might break down if we scrutize it. Since I argue the purpose of the family gathering becomes the launch for the visit with the neighbors. I’ll keep thinking about this though.

  3. It depends on which definition of the word community you use as to whether you will differentiate it from the concept of family.

    A community can simply be a group of beings living in the same geographic area, to a group that is in the same area that has some or all common property, goals, loyalties aspirations, etc.. The more that is shared, the more like a family it becomes.

    Because of this, when thinking of the word, and discussing it with others, it is important to make sure each is using the same definition.

    Scripture says we are members of one another. That we are brothers and sisters in Christ (whether we act like it or not). That we are in Christ. “Organic” is also an important word here, I think.

    @ Shadowspring – it appears you have had, as I have, some troublesome experiences feeling shut-out of close-knit fellowship. I know how you feel, believe me. However, I presume you do not know the author of this article personally, yet above you were making some pretty judgmental comments about him in your remarks, remarks based on your experiences in church. If you look at your second paragraph, the remarks were pretty off-putting. How can you know he is as closed and exclusive as you presume him to be?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *