In the early church, it wasn’t unusual for someone to show up and have no place to go. This person would have chosen to follow Christ and as a result, their family would have disowned them. That is, they would have told their son or daughter, wife (in the patristic culture, husbands were harder to disown) if they chose to follow Christ, they would no longer be part of the family.
Now, for some of us with dysfunctional families, this may not sound like such a bad deal, but in the first century Roman Empire, losing your family was a huge deal. Losing your family meant you lost your place to work. Most of the time, children worked in the family business and learned their father’s trade. Sons grew up doing what their father’s did. Mothers trained their daughters in the necessary skills and without a welfare system, the elderly were dependent on the care of their families.
Without family, you were not only homeless. You were hopeless. Without family, there weren’t many options left.
So, when a new believer showed up at church having just been thrown out of their families, the early church would become that new believer’s family. The pastor of the church would assign the new believer to a new family. “Here’s your father and your mother and here are all of your brothers and sisters.” The new Christian would learn the trade of their new family and be cared for by their new family as well as the entire church. Remember when Jesus told John Mary was now his mother? This is the pattern copied in the early church.
I didn’t think about this much during most of my ministry. I grew up in a very stable, conservative, go to church every time the doors were open kind of family. In my small world, most of my friends grew up the same way. I thought my family was normal. Years later, I would begin to fully understand just how “not normal” my family was and what and unrealized blessing my family was to me. My dad taught Sunday School for over 40 years. I learned to love Scripture from him. My mom played the piano and filled my childhood years with hymns and songs of worship. The Baptist Hymnal is the soundtrack of my life.
But not everyone grew up like this. Sometimes, dads leave. Sometimes, dads abuse. Sometimes moms leave and sometimes moms aren’t healthy.
And the children, of every age, show up at our churches. They don’t have mothers. They don’t have fathers. This means we’ll have people getting married who have never seen a healthy marriage. They’ll process anger, arguments, express love and make marital decisions the same way they saw their parents do it. When they become parents, they’ll raise their children the same way they were raised. The cycle will start all over again.
We have wives trying to be wives who have never seen a healthy wife.
Mothers and fathers trying to be mothers and fathers who’ve never had parents of their own.
And they show up at church.
The church, in the power of resurrection, is called by Christ to break these destructive cycles.
One of the overlooked potentials of church communities is the opportunity and the ability to rebuild the family unit. Intergenerational small groups can become families where life in Christ is modelled in real life situations. Brothers and sisters at different stages of life can provide moments of mutual benefit in every person, regardless of their stage of life. Want to see what a marriage that lasts forty years looks like? Look at the senior adults in your local church. Want know if you need to upgrade to the newest smart phone? One of the young adults can help you with that one.
For years, local churches have segregated church life by age. Students have their ministries and senior adults have theirs. No senior adult wants to hang around young adults, right? And no young adult would want to hang around young adults, right?
You might be surprised. Here’s what I’ve seen. When senior adults see young adults seriously expressing their faith in worship, they learn to appreciate the music. Well, at least they learn to appreciate a different worship style. Young adults learn to appreciate the grand old hymns when they hear senior adults talk about what the hymn has meant to them over the years.
If you’re a senior adult, don’t join another senior adult Sunday School class and sit around talking about the nation is going to hell in a handbasket. You have too much to offer. Your life experiences are pure gold to a young person who’s trying to figure out their lives. Ask a young couple out to dinner. Adopt their children as your own grandchildren. You will find a purpose and love you didn’t think you could find.
If you’re a younger adult, adopt a senior adult. Senior adults are amazing people. They’ve fought wars, built industries, marched in protests, raised families, developed fascinating hobbies…and they’ll share it all with you…if you just ask.
If you’re a local church leader, make sure your ministries involve cross generational experiences. There’s too many treasures left unmined when the generations don’t connect.