Christian people speak often of family values, the sanctity of marriage and the horrors of broken families. We definitely care a great deal about family, as we should, and the Bible has much to say about family. For instance, Jesus himself taught that God’s ideal for marriage was a man and woman in life-long partnership and that a marriage should only dissolve when a spouse has chosen another’s bed. Moreover, several New Testament writers speak of the commitment a husband and wife should have for one another, and that children and parents should treat one another with appropriate respect. Yet, Jesus placed marriage (and family!) second to following him. Accordingly, marriage and family are important, but they are not our most important commitments as Christians.
One only has to spend a few moments in western Canada to find that family is important in the Churches of Christ; one soon finds out that family is often the glue holding our congregations together. Shortly after moving to Canada, I learned how interconnected church and family were. When we introduce ourselves here, we immediately follow with which family is ours. Because of this, ministers and elders in western Canada also need to be part family counselors. In addition, families are the earthen vessels that pass the gospel from one generation to another. Family ties are one of the strengths of the church in Canada—however, it may also be a serious weakness in participating in God’s mission.
Sociologist Reginald Bibby has done some serious cultural analysis of the state of “Christianity” in Canada. In Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada (2002), he addresses the place of family in the life of Canadian churches. “For all the talk about evangelism,” says Bibby, “groups of all kinds were failing to demonstrate much success in recruiting people outside their own boundaries. Most were growing by adding people who were primarily their own—children and geographically mobile members” (p. 24).
In another place, Bibby asserts that churches in Canada generally grow in two ways: birth and marriage. That is, either we give birth to future members or our children marry people who then also become members. In his earlier work, Unknown Gods: The Ongoing Story of Religion in Canada (1993), he observes that churches in Canada were often “family shrines.” In these churches a few families hold all of decision-making posts, both formal (elders, deacons) and informal (highly respected members). Regarding a congregation he once attended he states, “For all the external signs of engaging in outreach, I increasingly had a great difficulty being convinced that people in my small church really wanted things to change. New people would have upset the organizational applecart” (269).
Some of what Bibby observes rings true for us as well. It is entirely possible that we have so much biological family around us that we do not feel the need to invite new people into our church family. Even if folks try us, they might not find the welcome they seek. I often ask church leaders in workshops I hold, “Whom does your church exclude?” The first response is usually that their congregation is very friendly and welcoming. I quiz deeper, “Would the handicapped find a welcome here?” Most of our older buildings are not up-to-date and so we usually have to admit that a wheelchair-bound visitor would find it difficult to move around. We could ask the same about the blind and the deaf, although most of congregation would probably adapt if they had a member with such needs.
But let’s look even deeper. As the morning service adjourns, do we have room at our families’ tables for those who are not physical family? Do people have to know the same people as you know to be welcomed? Do people have to have attended the same (unnamed) school to be part of the circle? If a visitor really wanted to become a member, could they find a clear way in? If they had leadership potential and desire, could they learn what it would take to be a Sunday school teacher, deacon, or elder in your congregation? Before answering these questions, think about how successful your congregation has been in the past ten years at bringing in new people and assimilating them into the common life of the church. (If this concerns you, see Lyle E. Schaller, Assimilating New Members [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978]).
While Bibby’s research may help us take a hard look at ourselves, we depend ultimately on the teachings of Jesus to place family, church and discipleship in proper perspective. One time, Jesus’ family came to take him away because they believed he was crazy. When his family, which included Mary and his brothers, approached where he was teaching, they sent word to see him. To this Jesus asked the messenger, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Looking around at the rag-tag crowd listening eagerly to his message, Jesus said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3.32-35). To feel the sting of this, imagine your son or a significant family member saying something like this about you. Jesus gave preference to his seeking-God’s-will family over his physical family.
However, Jesus has more to say regarding family. Luke records Jesus teaching, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.26-27; cf. Matt 10.37-38).
This topic is of personal importance to me. My mother and father were strangers to the people of God. I am a Christian today because a Christian woman invited me to a Vacation Bible School when I was seven years old. I had no physical family in the church and the physical family I had was not able to teach me God’s ways. I was a stranger and the church took me in and gave me a place to belong. Consequently, I have always looked to the church to be my family wherever I have lived. I understood that when I accepted the call to follow Jesus that my present family—my wife, my daughter, and any extended family I have—all come second to my loyalty to Jesus.
This topic has become important to me for another reason. I now live in this country and I want our churches to grow and to prosper in every way. We all know that we are not growing and I have come to suspect that in some degree we are the problem. The protection and nearness of our families may give us the false illusion that we are doing well, yet all the while church after church is on the verge of closure; as many as four have closed in Saskatchewan since I arrived here in 2003. As these churches die, they often find themselves being mostly members of a single-family group. I know several such families and they are my heroes for keeping the doors open, but they know that if revival is to occur, it must involve those who are not biological family.
I do not write this as a final word, or even as a word of judgment, but as a place to begin a very difficult conversation. I recognize I could be butchering a sacred cow here, but we must be willing to lay this one on the altar if we are serious about following Jesus. I may have overstated my case a bit here or there, but maybe not. Is it possible we are not inviting people into the family of God because we have “enough” family on earth?
Adapted from my May 2008 Gospel Herald article by the same title.