Growing up in the African American church, I’m used to hearing people in a congregation being referred as Brother or Sister So and So. I remember the women who sit in the front of the church usually in dressed in white and they have always been called “The Mothers Board.” I’ve been used to hearing “family talk” in the church and the while it might have never been spoken, the church was basically thought of as a big family.
In my years as a Mainline Protestant, I’ve been fascinated how we don’t like to use that concept of family. I can understand that it is a loaded term, one that can bring good memories as much as bad ones. Maybe because of all that baggage, we don’t like to talk about churches as families.
Anthony Robinson writes on the blog for the Center for Progressive Renewal, that we need to quit referring to our churches as families. He gives many reasons for doing so, including a belief that the family concept is part of the reason for Mainline decline:
This may be stiff but necessary medicine for many stuck or declining congregations. The purpose of the church is to change lives. That’s the “business” we are in. While some families certainly do that, forming and sustaining faithful and courageous people, the use of the “family” concept in congregations often seems to mean something else.
Many of the congregations that claim “We’re a family,” lose sight of larger transformative purposes and settle, instead, for the comfort and satisfaction of their members. The core purpose of a congregation — growing people of faith and helping people and communities move from despair to hope — gives way to lesser and even contrary purposes like keeping people happy. While it may not be a necessary outcome of the use of the family image, many congregations that gravitate towards it seem to make member comfort and satisfaction their de facto purpose.
That may be because “family” suggests to people something like, “We’re all loving and nice here.” That in turn often means no hard questions are asked and no honest challenges are allowed. It wouldn’t be nice.
I can think of other reasons to be cautious about “family” as our image for church. Families sometimes keep secrets that shouldn’t be kept in order to keep from bringing shame on the family name. And families aren’t typically that easy to join. Two of our sons were married in recent years. Turns out that putting families together is a fairly complex dance.
One last issue. The use of the term “family,” may communicate to people who are not married or to the married without children that they don’t quite fit. “Our church is a family,” morphs into “our church is for families.”
Of course, there is some truth to his arguments. But it seems like Robinson is only sharing part of the story, the more negative aspects of family. He ignores the more positive ones such as loyalty. Scot McKnight, talking about a book by Joseph Hellerman about the church as family shares the positives in a blog post from 2009:
…the preeminent social model that defined the Christian church was the strong-group Mediterranean family. God was the Father of the community. Christians were brothers and sisters. The group came first over the aspirations and desires of the individual. Family values — ranging from intense emotional attachment to the sharing of material goods to uncompromising family loyalty — determined the relational ethos of Christian behavior” (119)…Three critical observations:1. In the NT (New Testament) world the group took priority over the individual.2. In the NT world a person’s most important group was his blood family.3. IN the NT world the closest family bond was not the bond of marriage. It was the bond between siblings.
Perhaps other biblical images like “People of God,” “Creation of the Holy Spirit,” or “Body of Christ” are better ecclesiological images? It’s not that these images don’t also have potential pitfalls. It is the case, however, that unlike “family” they are uncommon enough that people seldom have their own set ideas about what they mean. In some congregations, I hear leaders address the congregation simply as “church.” That too seems promising, reminding the gathered community that they are the Church of Jesus Christ (and the building is not).
I’ve heard the reasons not to use “family” language, but my heart responded to the description above about the early church. Just because we have unhealthy applications of a term, or experiences that have shaped an idea a certain way, doesn’t mean we give it up. We’re always redefining. We need to be intentional. I like the idea that, just like family, we are connected – even if we disagree, there is something stronger that binds us together and we can live in love and generosity despite differences. It means we’ll be there for you – with support, prayer, meals, a listening ear, and we know these people will be for us when we need it too. It means we have a common identity as the people of God, and a language that we share that helps us understand ourselves as such – both in relation to and apart from the larger culture. That’s church family to me. Hard and fast rules about things like God as “Father” or Church as “Family”, I think, are not helpful. It opens up a great conversation within a congregation to talk about experiences of family, the good, the bad, and how church is like family – in good and bad ways. No metaphor is perfect, but I still think family is a pretty good one.
I would suggest we use several images. And I would bet that most places DO use several images. Yes, we use “family”; that’s because Jesus referred to the first person of the Trinity as “Abba” and “Father”, and spoke of himself as the Son. And then spoke of his disciples and followers as his mother and brothers (and, by extension, sisters). There’s a definite “family” aspect in the way Jesus understood the life of faith, so I don’t think it’s bad for us to hold that same image. “Creation of the Holy Spirit,” and “Body of Christ” are good too. “In Christ” is a way the Apostle Paul spoke of the faithful. “Beloved” is another way Paul addressed groups. And we can speak of one another as salt and yeast and light, right? Don’t put your light under a bushel. . . so maybe a congregation is a candelabra glowing in a dark room?
I do see the downside to “family.” But I think sometimes family is exactly *where* the tough stuff gets dealt with. I say, keep the metaphor, and also be conscious of using it wisely.