Church As Family

Church As Family

Where do you go when you need to belong? When you need a friend? A place to call home? Where do you find the sense of family we crave?

My friend Jared and I grew up together in the same youth group, but over time he has fallen away from faith and is no longer connected to a Christian community, although he nominally believes. Recently he and I we were chatting, because about 18 months ago he moved to the West Coast and has had a difficult time making friends and finding a place where he could fit in. “Do you know how difficult it is?” he lamented.

Jared’s sentiments are echoed by so many people these days. We have so many different ways to connect technologically, through social media, Meet Up groups, etc. Approximately half of relationships currently begin online. Yet we often feel disconnected.

I think back on all of the television shows that were cultural phenomena in my lifetime. Like Cheers, that Ted Danson classic that ran from 1982 to 1993. Set in a bar in Boston, the theme song summed it up as it spoke of a longing for community:

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they're always glad you came.
You want to be where you can see,
The troubles are all the same
You want to be where everybody knows your name. [1]

Or the television shows Friends, which ran from 1995 to 2004. It showed a group of six 20- and 30-somethings, mostly from dysfunctional families, who developed this cohesive group. They weren’t just friends; they were family.

I'll be there for you, when the rain starts to pour.
I'll be there for you, like I've been there before.
I'll be there for you, cause you're there for me too. [2]

Or Big Bang Theory, which ended its 12th season this year. A group of nerdy college researchers created a community, found love, developed family, and discovered friendship together.

Our entertainment reminds us that people are looking for a connection. For friendship, acceptance, trust, encouragement, accountability, challenge, care, and fun.

Indeed, connection is what it means to be human. Recent sociological and cognitive psychological research has begun to argue that we cannot begin to describe an individual except in relationship to something and someone else. Because we aren’t meant to be alone; we are meant to be with others.

We were created for community, and we cannot discover what it means to be whole without others. We could even state that we can’t be fully human without connection to others.

It is striking that, as Genesis speaks about God’s creative agency, everything is declared good and very good. What’s the first thing that is described as being off, not quite right? “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18a).

Humanity was created for community. Simon and Garfunkel got it wrong: You are neither a rock nor an island.

It is within that search for belonging that the church can minister. The New Testament gives us a number of different metaphors for the church: the body of Christ, a temple or building, a royal priesthood, the new Israel, mustard tree, a flock, God’s house. But one of the most enduring pictures is that of family.

  • Those who follow Jesus become family for one another. “Stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matt. 12:49-50).

  • Repeatedly, Paul refers to other believers as “brothers and sisters” (adelphoi). The term appears 133 times in the Bible; 129 of those are in the New Testament, and almost all of those are from Acts onward. The term “disciples” pretty much disappears from this point on in the Bible. [3] Instead, they are brothers and sisters. They are a family united by faith in Christ.

  • Early Christians were called to see one another in terms of family connections. “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity” (1 Tim. 5:1-2).

  • This became their identity. “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household” (Eph. 2:19).

  • “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1).

In the first century CE, those who became followers of Jesus were often ostracized by their families and communities for their faith. If they were Jewish, they were seen as having denied the idea of the oneness of God. If they were Gentile, they were despised because they now stated that there is no other God but God and that Jesus is Lord. These confessions of faith made them outsiders and outcasts. So the church became family for one another. And the very markers that divided the Greco-Roman world became meaningless in the church. Those on the top of the food chain and on the lowest rung of the ladder … called one another brother and sister. Masters and slaves … were brothers and sisters. Gentiles and Jews … were brothers and sisters. Men and women … were brothers and sisters. The church became a counter-cultural community as they became family for one another.

I am blessed to stand in front of my congregation each Sunday and look out over the audience. The beautiful thing about a small church is that I know almost everyone’s name and story! And as I look out, I see a great diversity looking back at me. A single mom with three kids. An immigrant from Africa working diligently to thrive. A family who has had to endure and overcome racial prejudice throughout their lives. An individual who struggles with questions of self-worth but feels loved and welcomed by our church. Numerous stories of restoration and redemption, dealing with addiction and finding God’s love, overcoming obstacles through the encouragement of brothers and sisters in Christ.

When I look out at our church, I see a family. Yes, we sometimes struggle with what that means. We are constantly figuring out what it means to live into that calling. But we are a family nonetheless, with God as our father, Jesus as what unites us, and a love that binds us together.

[1] “Where Everybody Knows Your Name,” by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC.

[2] “I'll Be There for You,” by the Rembrandts, Universal Music Publishing Group.

[3] Influenced by Dhati Lewis, Among Wolves.

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