Anthony B. Robinson: Quit thinking of the church as a family
The church is in the business of changing lives. The family is not.
“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). You can catch his comments on the weekly lectionary texts here.