A few years ago someone told me about visiting another church and a unique thing they did. Toward the close of their worship service, a church leader would say, “It’s Family Time,” and anyone could come to the front and share.
I was curious about this since for many years we had “cleansed” our services of personal touches too much. Birthdays, anniversaries, births, deaths, and accomplishments are so hard to keep up with in a church, and it didn’t seem fair to focus on some but skip others. It stressed me out when someone wanted to mention a birthday or make a last-minute announcement.
Why was I stressed or annoyed? Maybe I was protecting our time and services for the heart of worship that already had so many elements and movements: prayers, singing, teaching, Lord’s Supper, baptisms, giving, announcements, Scripture readings. How did we have time for birthdays and national holiday observations? Should we even make time for such things in worship to God?
I thought for a few weeks about the “Family Time” idea and talked with staff and elders about it.
We were afraid of the open microphone and unplanned comments, and well we should have been. We’d had too many bad experiences with awkward situations at church gatherings where someone decided to say something confrontational or weird.
But in the previous years we had started to open the floor for questions in larger whole church gatherings, but we prepared ourselves for confrontations with questions in our pockets, such as, “Would you like a do over on that comment, maybe phrasing as a question?” We still had some awkward Q&A times, but it was worth it to open our church meetings to questions so people could have a voice.
Those quarterly meetings were stressful enough. Could we handle opening the microphone to “Family Time” every Sunday? Did we have time? What would the value of it be?
We decided to start Family Time as a replacement for announcements. We’d shift the responsibility of the congregation informing one another about upcoming events, rather than spending staff energies on gathering slides, having someone make announcements weekly. At first the time was awkward and a little stilted, but there were some bright spots. People appreciated getting to say they were celebrating their 64th anniversary or a child would get a kick out of telling us the age of her daddy on his birthday.
In the first few months, Family Time became a way to empower ministries to be able to testify to changes in our lives. For the members of the church body--not just the staff--to encourage our church family to take part in ministry is powerful, and this began to happen frequently during Family Time.
But then an even deeper shift happened in our church as a result of Family Time. Testimonies deepened and became more transparent to life struggles, similar to the authentic honesty of Alcoholic Anonymous meetings. It’s sad that churches have not had the kind of transparency of the recovery environment, but if we need to borrow authenticity and transparency from recovery, then so be it!
It took one person confessing sin, addiction, alcoholism, then another following that person’s lead and confessing family problems, someone going to prison, for Family Time to break open to be a place of authentic sharing of our lives that often only happens regularly in smaller groups. When people share struggles like this, our church shepherds gather around them, lay hands on them, pray, and love without shame or judgment.
In the three years since we started Family Time, it has changed our church in ways as profound as preaching or worship singing. Family Time has become something everyone looks forward to, anyone can participate in, even the first-time visitor.
Nearly everyone has learned to be brief, so no one seems to care if that same person was standing up in front the week before, and no one is keeping track--at least that I know of. Some of the same people ask for prayers, but we’re starting to realize that these are the people who get it. They are casting their every care upon the Lord, for he cares for us.
We’ve cried, laughed, and prayed for hundreds of people spontaneously in what has become a more responsive time than the traditional “invitation” response after the sermon. An elder has told us his son is in drug addiction recovery. A child has cried as she shared that her best friend lost her father this week. A new member joined our church around Valentine's Day and decided to sing a few bars of the song, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.”
No matter how serious the content of our worship, Family Time leads us to end our services aware of one another, as Paul urged the Corinthian congregation to “discern the body.” When people are hurting, we know it if they are only willing to speak it out. We often say, “It may be your turn to talk this week. The microphone is open to you.”
The first year I was the host of the Family Time, but I was looking to pass it over to someone else so it wouldn't detract from the role of weekly preaching. It didn't take a lot of preparation, only working on your feet and being courageous to step in with a humorous comment, or sometimes a confrontational or re-directing one. I tapped one of our members with a great heart, quick wit, and courage to step in and offer prayer or call the elders or redeem an awkward situation. He has taken it to a new level, and people enjoy seeing Dale at the end of service, and sometimes Family Time lasts twenty minutes, which is perfectly fine. We end with the Lord's Prayer and a final blessing from 2 Cor 13:14, "May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all."
And grace has been amongst us! God has moved women, men, girls, boys, people of all ethnicities, great speakers and stutterers, long-time members and first-time guests to have a voice at Family Time.
You will never know what could happen in your church through something like Family Time, until you try it. Will you take a step toward more authenticity and transparency at your church? Give Family Time a try, and let me know how it goes!