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February 24, 2010

Anthony B. Robinson: Quit thinking of the church as a family

“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.

In Church | Family


The NT and 'family'

Great job, Tony. A few years ago, I was somewhat surprised to find that the NT *never* describes the church as 'family.' Instead it uses the phrase "household of God," especially as it was connected to a first century 'household,' that is many generations, travelers, workers, even animals living together under one roof. We'd call it a menagerie? ;-)

"So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the *household of God*, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. (Eph 2:19-20)


Thank you! Yes! I've been saying this to congregations and pastors for years (with a LOT of push back). The Apostle Paul NEVER refered to the church as a family - he gave us body language - Body of Christ! Community is another better word. The Greek "oikomene" (household) is used for refering to the entire Christian family - brothers and sisters in Christ - that's where we can use family language. Paul told us that we're adopted into God's family - yes!
This is an important distinction that can contribute to the health (or "unhealth") of the church.

Growth at the Table

Our church values 'family' in a way that does not allow for self-reflection or growth. When we talked about this at our staff meeting, our new intern made an amazing comment. He noticed that at an event last week, members of our church hosted a meal for men from the local rescue mission. At one of the tables, it became clear folks at the table did not realize 'who' was from the church and 'who' was from the mission. What's beautiful about that story is twofold: first, clearly we don't 'know' each other. But even more so, stereotypes of homelessness and poverty were tossed aside in the revelation "there is not much difference between them and us." In that sense, we became family in the best sense of the word.

church as family

Thanks, Tony , for laying out an excellent argument for moving beyond regarding church as family.
i have always felt that we have modeled the church after a dysfunctional family. one of the family secrets we then keep is incest in the church family: the sexual violation of boundaries by church leaders.
if we forget that our purpose is to equip the saints for the work of ministry in the world, then we are tempted to turn inward and focus our energies on increasing intimacy.

NT and Family

I must disagree with the suggestion that Paul never referred to the ekklesia as "family". I would point to Romans 8:12-17 and Gal. 4:1-7 as explicit references to the ekklesia as family, children of God, heirs with Christ. In fact kinship/family metaphors are pervasive in Paul's letters. Paul consistently refers to the members as brothers, sons, children, and heirs (with Christ!) of God, and even refers to himself as the "father" of the Corinthian church (1Cor 4:15). Though I think it is unclear what precisely these fictive kinship categories might mean for contemporary church "families", they are all over the place in Paul's letters. I would hate to lose this notion of the church as God's family, but it is definitely difficult to practice.

Let's not get too caught up

Let's not get too caught up in this. Some congregations would wish for the problems that come with the sense of family in some of our challenging ministry sites ("these people have worshipped together for fifty years and don't even know one another's names"). And, it occurs to me that I haven't seen my cousins in a few years, but I would do anything for them because that is a family value that was instilled in me. I think the important thing here is that we work toward the goal of building one another up, holding one another accountable, expectIng the best from one another, and coming to agreement on how we will live with one another. Wouldn't it be sort of nice if our congregations pushed for that kind of family unit ... In the Church and in the home? Is it that we have to stop thinking as a family, or is it that we have to stop unhealthy, and maybe even evil, family practices from being accepted as the norm?

As I mentioned a few weeks

As I mentioned a few weeks ago when we went around on this topic: If we abandon the image of family in church life and the huge importance of ministry with families within the church family, we are not only making a scriptural mistake (both Jesus and Paul use the image as one among others) but an evangelistic one -- we give it all up to the Mormons to employ as they do so effectively in their own way. Jesus breaks open the "family" concept in radical ways that intersect powerfully with the complexity of American "family" life today.

yes, no, maybe

interesting discussion around what is and what is not included in scripture. i like the idea of church as family. drawing from personal experience, church has taught me what family can be.

joining the conversation

Thanks for great responses. I appreciate Charles' caution and wouldn't want to be doctrinaire about this. I see it more as raising some cautions about one, possibly overused, metaphor. The real issue for me is a deeper sense of the purpose or as some put it "ends" of the church. Given our underfunded theological state, these great ends of the church are often lost today.

YES! AMEN! I too have been

YES! AMEN! I too have been saying this to churches for years ... they don't want to hear it (as I'm sure you know)

Out with Church as Family

Thanks, Tony. This is a prophetic response to current behavior in mainline churches. I wonder, though, if we'd better build on and shape good aspects of the metaphor, rather than tossing it. I hang with Paul too much to part easily with "brother and sister" language. And you prize the post-Christendom context well enough to appreciate the early Christian baptismal transfer from one family to the other. Will Willimon once preached a splendid family of faith sermon on the Ethiopian Eunuch passage. Punch line: It turns out water is thicker than blood!

The issue is what kind of family.

I get the danger of becoming selfish and inwardly focused, as some families do -- but that's not the only way to be family. The last church I served as pastor adopted a family-oriented slogan, but it was balanced with both an inward and outward focus, as we strove to be "A Family of Faith: A People on Mission."

I take Robinson's points, but I'm not ready to give up on the metaphor of the church as a family. For me, the more important question is "What kind of family will we be?" This is where both professional and lay leadership should show both spiritual and emotional maturity through intentionally shaping the meaning -- and responsibilities -- of the church family.

It's true that churches can easily devolve into dysfunctional and insular families whose main concern is to keep everybody happy and sweep potential conflicts under the rug.

But it's also possible for churches to think and act as a welcoming family of many diverse individuals who celebrate being part of a larger family of faith, and who understand they have a mission to the human family.

So, despite Robinson's insightful points, I still think the healthier aspects of "family" remain a positive metaphor for congregations to employ.

(Excerpted from my 3/5/10 blog at www.tonycartledge.com)

More than family

Amen. Amen. Amen. There are so many ways calling congregations "church family" has left me uncomfortable, discomfited. We certainly are living in a time where our idea of church is in need of radical reorientation. Thanks for this!

Interesting discussion around

Interesting discussion around what is and what is not included in scripture. Do keep in mind that the early christian church was small and tight-knit enough to be considered a family. Obviously that's different from the current state of the church.

Jack Tizard


I think that it is fascinating that these sorts of comments still get so much attention in our modern society. The lines that separate church, state, and family are in most cases clearly defined, and for people to raise such a hub-bub over such nonsense is frankly ridiculous and out of order.

Different focus

In reading this piece, my attention is drawn less to what we may call ourselves ("family") and more toward what I think we are actually called to become as church: transformed. When our main focus is on keeping the church up and running in order to keep our own "family" happy and comfortable, what happens to discipleship? What happens to justice and mercy for the "least of these"? Every Sunday, these questions gnaw at me.

You have really interesting

You have really interesting blog, keep up posting such informative posts!

Church as family...

We ARE family... Family of God! Our pastor encourages and applauds our church family's attitude of love and acceptance & wants us to drink at that well as a balm to years of abuse, neglect, mistrust, and rejection. This is the way to healing and being made whole. However, every Sunday, he dismisses us with the charge to go out into the world and show that love - Christ's Love - to all!! Don't compare the dynamics of God's vision for family to sinful human families!

Thank you!

For most of my Christian life, I have held the same thought, but stopped talking about it a few years ago because I rarely heard any agreement. I am going to print out this article and distribute it to my council, lay leaders, and, perhaps, new members. Thank you so much for helping me know there are others who share this view!

in the South

Yes, in the south "family" always has those "funny uncles" no one is allowed to talk about or invite to gatherings.

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