Many churches make it their philosophical aim to be like family and when that reputation is achieved it is thought to be a sure sign of health and unity. They want a place where people care for each other, praying for one another during difficult times, checking in on one another, greeting everyone that comes into their gathering with warmth and gladness. When people say that their church is like this, they will usually gladly declare, “We’re like a family!”
But the question that needs to be asked sometimes is, “Really?”
Let me start by saying that a church should be like a family. It should be a place where we genuinely rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, where we bear each other’s burdens, where we take care of each other, where the needs and longings of others are a concern to us, a place where when we gather there is warmth and palatable love and commitment. To this every church should aspire.
The problem, I think, is that often when we say that a church is like a family or that it should be like a family, what we really have in mind is an idealized, Hallmark-channel, Ward-and-June-Clever-esque family. We want our church to be like a family without the messiness and tough-love of a real family.
A church member may believe that their church is like a family until real discipleship begins to happen. It feels like a family until individual sin is confronted. It feels like a family until someone speaks difficult truth into your life – telling you something you don’t really want to hear. Then it is no longer a family in the idealized sense. It is divided. It is uncomfortable. People avoid each other. The “dinner table” is tense.
The problem is that what was just described is real family life. In a real family there is warmth and love, but there is also messiness, there is confrontation. In a real family you find the people that love you enough to risk relationship for your greater good. In family is found the few people on earth who can speak hard truth to you, because they love you, because they care more about your long-term security and joy than momentary ease – yours or theirs.
Family life is wonderful, but it is also very hard, because we aren’t perfect. The same translates to the church. It is a wonderful thing to be a part of a church, but it’s hard, because we are sinners and the Word we speak to each other confronts that reality with imposing light.
Imagine a family where everyone is allowed to do their own thing. Destructive behaviors are never challenged, the father passively sits in the arm chair with beer in hand as chaos unfolds, mother is careful not to say anything to her rebellious daughter lest she upset the balance, the son is making some poor decisions, but challenging him would just upset the peace of the moment. The family is gathered, everyone is smiling, there is a kind of peace and togetherness, but it is actually kind of creepy. Because no one is being real. There is a terrible selfishness at work as the members of this family care more about the comfort of the moment than they do the good of one another.
Now imagine a family where one sister sees that her sibling is becoming more and more distant, getting into relationships that could be harmful. She so badly just wants to let it go, to let there be a kind of “peace”, but she loves her sibling too much for that. She loves her sibling enough to sacrifice momentary comfort for lasting good. A father sees his son showing signs of destructive behavior, he gets along well with him and he doesn’t want to mess that up, but his love for his son motivates him to speak to him. The son’s initial reaction is to run out of the house and slam the door, but perhaps over time he begins to see that his father was right. The point being, a real family is a place where the individuals love each other so much that they are willing to risk comfort and approval for the sake of each other’s good.
In Ephesians chapter 4, we are told that we grow up in Christ and are protected from harm as we speak the truth in love to each other. Sometimes when looking at that verse people take “love” to be the manner in which we speak, when I think it is more about the motivation. In his writings, Paul had some very harsh and difficult things to churches and individuals, but he was speaking the truth motivated by love. Sometimes in the church when uncomfortable truth is spoken people call it out as unloving not because it is unloving, but because it doesn’t fit into our idealized view of love – because what is being said challenges our self-love.
So before you boast that your church is like a family, consider whether or not it is actually a community of loving accountability under the authority of Christ and directed by his Word. Will your “family” atmosphere hold up to the rigors of discipleship? If it will, then you are blessed and you have a true family dynamic, but if not, then your idea of family is likely idealized and skin deep.
In the church we are supposed to be like a family, because that is precisely what we are in Christ! But during this age in redemptive history the reality of sin means that we can only truly be described as being like a family if our loving dynamic includes both tender love and tough love.
So strive by God’s grace, anchored in his love displayed in the Gospel, to give love and receive love in both forms. By doing this we will be able to move from cheesy clichés about what it means to be a family and onward to an authenticity that leads us to lose sleep, risk relationships, weep, pray, plead, and rejoice until the whole family is together with Christ their head – safe and sound.