Many churches identify themselves as a “family church.” It sounds warm and cozy: we are friendly, welcoming, open, big–hearted. Be part of our family; it’s a good place to belong.
But I’ve always had problems with this image. Partly, it’s because my own family was neither healthy or welcoming or big–hearted. But there are deeper reasons.
Anthony Robinson, a Church Culture Consultant, suggests it’s much too small an image for the church. He argues that the core purpose of the church “is to transform both society and the individual to be more Christ like. This concept goes way beyond family…” while a family’s primary purpose is “the comfort and satisfaction of members.”
These two purposes conflict. The core purpose of a congregation is displaced in favour of keeping people happy. A transformative church is focused outwardly, while for a family, “the prevailing ethos [is an] inward focus and clublike feel. After all, a family may be a warm and wonderful group (or not) if you’re a family member. But if you’re not part of the family, that same warm and wonderful group can feel pretty cold and unfriendly at times. Families aren’t easy to join.”
Families are not easy to leave either. If, God forbid, someone should leave the family, it feels like the worst thing in the world. As a result, a family focusses all its energy on trying to keep people happy. It becomes a “dysfunctional system which ends up empowering grumps and bullies … and inevitably starts to decline.”
In Mark 3, Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” He answers his own question, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
In the economy of God, being church goes far beyond family. It’s not about being related to others, or being friendly, or keeping each other happy. It’s about people with different life experiences coming together around a common vision and mission of partnering with God to transform the world with the good news of God’s all–inclusive love.
I believe we need to find other, better images for the church which capture our outward–looking mission.
In a recent book about John’s gospel, Mary Coloe identifies “the Household of God” as a primary metaphor. It seems to me to be a better image. A family, by definition, is made up of people “just like me.” A household is broader and more inclusive.
I know several households in which people agree to live cooperatively for the benefit of all. Such cooperative housing includes a covenant of mutually agreed upon values. The household is held together by a shared vision of mission and vision which all agree to maintain.
Another image of which I’ve recently become aware is that we are “kin in the Family of Creator.” Yes, it uses the word “family,” but in a much broader way. “Family of Creator” includes all other people, all other creatures. It is non–binary language which has room for people who identify themselves differently.
This language reminds me of a term used by the LGBTQ+ community when they talk about “family of choice.” It is very close to what I understand Jesus to be saying in Mark 3, that we choose the people with whom we will live according to shared values, shared vision, shared ministry.
In a time when the church is struggling to survive, we can find other language to describe who we are and how we conceive of our vision and ministry in the world. We need to continue to do this work of finding new images, for the old images make our vision much too narrow. A congregation’s work is not to be a “happy family.” It is to stay focused on the core vision of the gospel.*
(*Editor’s Note: The 5 Marks of Mission)