Quit thinking of the church as a family

“Our church is just like a family.” This is a common claim in many congregations, perhaps especially in smaller ones. Some go further, “This church is my family.”

Sounds good, don’t you think?

Not long ago, I worked with a congregation that had used the services of a national firm to do a “ministry audit” prior to our work together. The firm’s very first recommendation, in bold print, read, “The most important thing (Name of Church) will ever do is end whatever amount of ongoing conflict exists as well as quit thinking like a family.” This grabbed people’s attention. Church leaders seemed both miffed and mystified. They worried that release of the report to the congregation would offend church members.

What did the consulting firm mean by its blunt directive? Didn’t Jesus speak of “all those who do the will of God” as his kin? (Matthew 12:50). The consulting firm elaborated: “The purpose of the church is to transform both society and individuals to be more Christ-like. This concept goes way beyond family.”

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.”

Keeping the family members happy, having everyone know everyone else and get along like “a happy family,” isn’t really the point for Christian congregations. Their goal and purpose is both different and higher.

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).

If we must use “family,” we should be aware of the way that Jesus, while using “family,” also subverts conventional understandings of family and challenges their usual boundaries with a thoroughly new vision of “family.”

Tony Robinson is a United Church of Christ minister and consultant to congregations and their leaders. His most recent book is “Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations” (Eerdmans).

  • Cynthia

    Thinking of the church as a family can also set the pastor up to be Mom or Dad–not a healthy paradigm for a church or its pastor.

  • http://www.nianticcommunitychurch.org John A. Nelson

    More radically, Jesus took direct aim at the family as the basic social unit (Mt 10:34-36, Lk 12:51-53). Today, when the definitions of “family” and “marriage” are so hotly contested, it’s crucial to recover Jesus’ extraordinary new vision of faithful relationships re-defining and re-forming families as they have been constructed by society and biology.

    • http://firstcongwttn.org John Kennedy

      @ John N., Good comment John

  • Sarah Caldwell

    If we saw ourselves as a collection of siblings (under the Fatherhood of God, as the no longer quite so Modern Affirmation says), it might be easier to understand the idea of the church as a family. After all, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and the other 11 were brothers.

  • Fr. Bill Hobbs

    Most, if not all families, are dysfunctional to one degree or another. It has been my experience that people relate to the church the same way that they relate to their families; and often that is not very well. In fact, my theory is that people bring their unresolved family issues into the parish. “Nobody appreciates me here”, often means that they feel that their children or their spouse don’t “appreciate” them. I embrace the idea that we should perhaps get away from the image of the church as a family. Families often tolerate, if not promote dysfunction. The church should be changing people, not allowing them behave in unhealthy ways.

    • http://firstcongwttn.org John Kennedy

      @Fr Bill

      Well said Bill

      John Kennedy
      Sr. Pastor, First Congregational UCC
      Watertown, Wisconsin

  • http://www.LeaderResources.org Linda L. Grenz

    Families are affiliated by blood, adoption or marriage. Churches are affiliations of choice. You can choose to join or leave a church at any time. You can’t really leave your family…..and even if you do, you are STILL so-and-so’s son, daughter, cousin, etc. You can’t really join a family very easily at all. They have to let you in (marriage or adoption being the most clear examples of that). But a churches boundaries are (or should be) porous.

    That difference between families and churches changes the dynamics dramatically and we ignore that at our peril. If we become a family, we become less porous — ergo, much harder to join. Time for us to be who we are — the People of God on a shared faith journey who welcome all travelers to journey with us.

  • Pat Pope

    Preach, preach, preach!

  • Tanya

    I’ve said this very thing. But lately, I’m rethinking it. I’m wondering what caused the early church to share its resources with one another, to stand in for one another’s family members who abandoned them, and who were asked to practice lavish forgiveness among themselves. And finally, I recognize the image of family was not such a bad one. Sure, family members speak hard things to one another, but you have to know you are in loving arms, or you’ll just walk away.

  • Jim CastroLang

    Thank you Tony! This needed to be said. The Church should not strive to be a family. A family is a closed group with only two ways to enter – marriage or birth. The sooner we get this idea out of people’s head, the better off we will be.

    • Bo Grimes

      We are “birthed” into the Church. A family is, broadly and ideally, a community of relationships one does not choose to be part of (“You did not choose me; I chose you.”) but which one chooses to participate in, doing so in a way that is in for the good of the relational community and not the individuals. If anything, the ontological nature of the church has been replaced with a functional nature; that is,’ family’ has been replaced with ‘service provider’, both for congregations (internal ministry) and their external communities (social and evangelical outreach).

      This article feels more like psychological projection based on a modern bias against any terms of “exclusion” rather than serious Scriptural and theological reflection on ecclesiology.

  • https://twitter.com/#!/vogelbeere Yewtree

    Yes! I have had a similar experience with people who think of covens as families. I don’t want either someone’s negative experience of their mother projected onto me, or their hopes for how mothers should behave. Priest/ess (or in a church situation, the minister) and parent are not the same archetype, and should not be conflated.

    Also church/religion/spirituality is not therapy. Therapy is therapy and religion is religion.

  • Lea Mathieu

    Hold on! We aren’t married to, born from, or adopted by The Church. We are married to Christ, born of the Spirit, and adopted by God. I think “the church as family” analogy does work (as much as a human-divine analogy can) – but it’s our idea of family that needs to change to meet Jesus’s definition: “And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mark 3:34). Congregations who look at their pastor as Mom or Dad need to aim a little higher.

  • Wally Carlson

    Wow. Just wow. Can’t take the time to really write a response because soon I get to go join two families in a blending covenant some of us call a “wedding”. Let me simply say – narrow understanding of family (read “Illusions: Reflections of a Reluctant Messiah”). Of course, families aren’t perfect. Of course, families have issues. Of course, families are dysfunctional – all of ‘em. Sounds like a gathering of the faithful to me. However, families at their best, don’t stay there, eh? At their best, families keep moving forward — keeping doors and windows open for instant adoption.

  • Sunny Mckenzie

    The Church is not a family; it is a commercial enterprise. Observing your religioous beliefs can be done without a building or social interactions.

  • http://culturalsavage.com Aaron Smith

    Yes, family is only a metaphor for the reality of our congregational relation with/in/from the kingdom, but it is the best metaphor we have for understanding the biblical reality that makes us the ekklsia: Jesus as *the* head. If we abandon this “model” (which I would argue is more of a reality in metaphor based upon the creation of Israel from one ancestor- literally they were a family nation!), the point of the book of Hebrews gets undermined, and we loose the reality of positional sanctification, because we are left looking only at our own congregations for success/failure as “the church.”
    It is important to have a correct shape to our concept of family: if it is the “we are all loving and accepting” only, then ya it doesn’t make sense for the church to be defined by that metaphor. If however we look at family through the lens of Jesus (christocentric theology FTW!), reflecting back on Israel as the original family of God, we are left with the truth that family or household under the head ship of Jesus is the most transformational identity we can adopt, precisely because it means we are all to be transformed to be like and identify with/under our *one* head.

    • Steve Wagner

      I think I agree with you. (I am assuming that the FTW! is genuine and not sarcastic). I feel, believe, think that the true church crisis of today is a lack of Jesus. And not a WWJD diatribe, but a true centering of our faith in Jesus and complete focus on becoming disciples of Him, rather than all the side issues and good deeds that seem to become the church agenda.

  • http://www.svbchr.org Tommy

    The point is well taken. However, the idea the we are “brothers and sisters” in Christ is one of the most common metaphors in the NT used to describe the church. Let’s don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I like the terms brothers and sisters and I like the equality it implies by having a common Creator/Parent. The primary way we relate to one another is as siblings.

  • http://firstcongwttn.org John Kennedy

    @Yewtree, and yet almost all issues boil down to spiritual stuggles. Abandonement, guilt, shame, ambiguity about death, fear of the unknown, etc.

    As many people as I have walked with during there final months, weeks, days, hours, it all comes down to these kind of issues when other issues have become less important to them/us.

    Each role/function is a piece is a guide on the journey of wholeness and healing.

    Some times body cannot be healed. Those struggling with advanced memory loss no longer have a memory of identity or relationships or even any emotions, and yet they connect with prayer, the eucharist, or other religious spiritual practices. I respect all of the healing traditions and each only is a part of the whole.

    John Kennedy

  • J Marie Booklets

    I agree 100%. I never liked it when my pastor and his wife wanted to be my “Spiritual Parents”. I wanted them to just be who God called them to be and nothing more. Great article.

  • Debra

    I really appreciate this article- as a 50 year old woman who has moved to a new city – I’ve found that most churches promote “a great place to bring and raise your familiies” – which doesn’t afford a place for someone like myself – I was in a very diverse – both socially and economically church that was very intergenerationally oriented – no singles classes/married classes/age based classes after high school, etc… you could join any group – and all were made welocome; that church is not without problems- but all are made to feel welcome and included- thanks for this great article!

  • JANE

    If a person was looking for refuge in church after having a bad experience at home and he/she is told welcome to our family,she may feel that the church is no different from where she came from. It is all the same. He/she may decide that they dont want to join another troublesome family. When people define church as a family, they say we have limits on the number of people who should be in a family and one is not welcomed. It is a defensive term where all matters are perfomed by some particular people. One time I heard a member say that we could not continue with the meeting because one of the officials was not present. No this person, no meeting. I asked myself, what of when this person will die? Will this so called family also die? To me, this family church took him as a savior whom without, the church could not function. A family stays together, eats together and try to lift each member of the family. But the family church does not do that. They even do not know the names of other family members unless they wear a tag. They do not even know where their family members come from and they do not care about their family members needs. I served an area with 7000 members and believe it or not I knew each member by name, where they work, their homes, if they had a car or not and their problems. They never wore a tag for me.
    To me, a family church is not a family, but a group of people who share come interests and hobbies who are not ready to add any stranger in their group. Calling church family is saying to others, they can never fit in unless they form their own families too

  • eagle

    I’m not the theologian some (many?) of you seem to be, but the hackles go up on my neck when I read comments like the one made by JimCastroLang “a family is a closed group with only two ways to enter, marriage or birth” spoken like his word is God’s. Well, to keep my response civil, I’ll say ‘balderdash.’ Who made him the authority? Years ago I read a small book titled “A Family is a Circle of Friends Who Love You.” Having been abused by my birth family (my dad a minister!), rejected by the only living family members I have because I’m a lesbian, and living alone– well, I guess I just don’t have family. I don’t ‘qualify.’ Reminds me of an odious TV ad from Olive Garden: “When you’re here, you’re family.” again, Balderdash. When I am there if I’m really family, they wouldn’t put a bill for the food and their services under my elbow. And, if the church is really ‘family’ well, just what is that definition? Are only certain definitions acceptable? Maybe if JimCLm, and some others in this discussion, gets to write the rules about what is, and isn’t, then someone like me better just hit the road. And if the church (any church) calls itself family, then where are they when I eat supper alone every night? I get to see them when we sit at the Lord’s table (once a month), but not anywhere else? They’re family for a couple hours on Sunday morning, but the rest of the time I’m on my own? Or, where are they when they celebrate their own family events? and I’m not included. WHAT is the meaning of family, anyway? And for those whose position is that the church is NOT family, then why do we call its leader “Father”?? It’s all pretty confusing, no wonder people outside the door quite frequently don’t feel ‘really’ accepted, as in, ‘belonging’!

  • http://banpreachergreed.tripod.com Patricia

    When you come to church alone without a husband or kids tagging along, you feel like a sore thumb sticking out and don’t fit into any of the nice little cliques. After a few months of sitting alone you decide it’s not worth the bother.

  • Debra

    Many people go to church as a ritual and not because they necessarily believe that they have a family there.

  • http://Facebook Ruth Karashani

    I agree 90 percent with most who have commented here and the main article… When the pastor and wife become like dad and mum and the congregation the kids, the church is out of order and not in the biblical order… There is favouritism and feeling Special when the pastor calls you out…the spiritual aspect of it lowers as we are all behaving like a happy family and yet so many in the body of Christ have never had even a dad and mum tht are nice and are come from happy or wholesome homes… We did not come to church to be comfortable but to learn the word of God and to go out and be whom Christ called us to be…making the church like a family brings in familiarisation and unrealistic expectations from the dad and mum or brothers and sisters…because the bible tells us that those that are led by the spirit are the children of God, so sometimes u can be led to do or say what the pastor would not recommend or go,where the family don’t expect you to go like a bar or somewhere else… And then u would be persecuted by your own family. All in all we should look at our selfs as meeting for prayer or casting demons or breaking bread… Not to form a cosy relationship of mum and dad.

  • Rob Bellomy

    Very sad to read some of these comments. Christ made it clear that we are family, Ephesians 1:5,Galatians 6:10,Mark 3:32-35,1 John 4:19-21 and many more. The rub comes when we try to flip it all around and put man in the place of God. The Pastor,Priest,Bishop,etc. is not the father (Matthew 23:1-9) When we put God in proper place as Father,as Abba, then we become brothers and sisters. He is the perfect Dad and He calls us to treat each other in love. It’s our view of family that is skewed but if we do what He said,Love Him first and foremost and then each other as ourselves the view of family will and can be corrected. Our family is huge and spans the globe while reaching the heavens at the same time. We have to open our eyes and realize that we, His church, are one and He calls us to unity in the name and under the atoning blood of Christ. We are adopted by the same Abba so therefore we are ……. family, brothers and sisters very simple. It helps me to remember that we are all wearing busted,rebellious flesh so every now again it is going to get stinky. Dad is watching and He asked us to be kind to each other, to Agape each other, so that those that aren’t part of the family will look and actually want to be part of His family, our family. For my fellow brothers and sisters out there, I love you and can’t wait to meet you in our Fathers house,John 14:2. If you haven’t been invited to be part of the family yet, I cordially and longingly invite you to be part of our family and while we sometimes “blow it” the vast majority of us actually talk to our Dad about you all the time and ask Him to please connect our paths so we can introduce you to Him. Please forgive our occasional bickering as we aren’t perfect……yet :) Romans 10:9-10 is a very personal and easy invitation and if you accept it please let me know, heck let any of us know, and we will gladly welcome you in and help you find a place to plug in.

    Just another brother and adopted son

  • Destin

    Or maybe we just need to change our understanding of the physical family to fit the eternal family after which it was designed.

  • Darkhill

    I once saw a church letterhead that said, “Family Oriented–Family Centered”. I knew as a single pastor that I wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in a furnace of getting a position at that church. I don’t deny the sincerity of my fellow believers, but prejudice against single pastors is a dirty secret denominations don’t want to talk about.


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