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Church Is a Family, Not an Event

The little boy was playing in the street, kicking the dust, jumping off walls. My wife happened to walk past him with our five children, which caught the lad’s attention. He watched from a distance for a while and then plucked up the courage to jog over and ask: “Are you going to a party?” My wife quickly answered: “Yes, we are! We call it church. If you go and check with your mum, you can come with us.”

That little boy ran home and was back in a couple of minutes with a huge smile on his face. That Sunday he stayed for a cup of hot chocolate and left before the service began. But he was back the next week and the week after that. Pretty soon he had brought his mother, his brother, and a couple of his cousins. Eight years later, they are an integral part of our church.

One of the most moving moments of those years was when the boy’s mother was baptized. Standing waist-high in water, she explained a little of her traumatic childhood, her years living rough, and something of the struggles of trying to hold her own family together. Her face shone and her voice clearly articulated her love for the God who had found her and welcomed her home.

The idea that had caught her son’s imagination was that church was like a party that he and his family were invited to. Until then, they had sadly mostly experienced what it was like to be excluded, but the discovery that church wasn’t so much an event you turn up to as a family you belong to was life-changing for them. In fact, it was life-changing for the whole church.

More Than an Event

I have met many pastors and church members who can tell similar stories. As I visit many churches that are embracing people in desperate need of family, my eyes are continually being opened not only to what family truly can be but to what church as family truly can be. This shift in perception of what church is, and what church is for, has huge implications, not just for our own personal spiritual development but for our understanding of mission, evangelism, worship, justice, hospitality, and discipleship.

Unfortunately, a lot of our language presents and reinforces the idea that church is an event where religious goods and services are dispensed. We talk about “going to church” more often than we talk about “being” the church. We hear terms like “shopping around” for a church or “church hopping.” Some Christians are willing to commute long distances to attend a “brand” of church that works for them.

This may stem way back to the 16th century. The definition of the church that I hear quoted most often comes from the Augsburg Confession: “The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.”

This definition, originally formulated during the Protestant Reformation, was worded specifically to exclude Roman Catholic churches. It bravely challenged the heresy of its day, but it was also reactionary and reductionist, portraying the church as an event where the saints congregate to hear gospel preaching and receive sacraments.

Add this heritage to modern consumer society, and the mindset of church as an event becomes even harder to escape. According to Roger Finke and Rodney Stark in their book The Churching of America, 1776–1990, the American church is fundamentally shaped by free-market capitalism. This is also true beyond US borders. Church leaders frequently act as salesmen, and evangelism strategies often resemble marketing campaigns. Churches end up competing with one another for attendees just like businesses compete for customers.

You don’t have to look too far to find a pastor frustrated about a new church that has turned up close by, lamenting the number of young people or families who have left to join this latest show in town. But sometimes those same pastors admit that this may, at least in part, be a problem of their own making.

Look at any church website and what is advertised are worship services for us to enjoy, sermons for us to listen to, youth provision for our children, and perhaps a small group that can provide for other needs. We post pictures of our smart buildings, of our edgy youth work, and of well-designed sermon series; we invest time and money in brilliant branding and a hip visual identity. This all serves to reinforce the idea that our churches exist primarily as events for consumer Christians to attend.

A New Generative Metaphor

The philosopher Donald Schön coined the term “generative metaphor” to describe how mental images affect the way we approach problems. For example, if a company is described as “fragmented,” then a new manager may seek integrative solutions, whereas if it is described as “multi-faceted,” then they may actively pursue diversity. Descriptors, metaphors, and conceptual models can have a profound effect on both how we understand something and how we act.

When church is understood as an “event,” it makes sense to bring event management techniques to bear on the strategies—streamlining processes to maximize attendance, encourage repeat visitation, and increase visitor satisfaction. It is no wonder those have become key success metrics, even though they bear no resemblance to the way successful churches are presented in the New Testament.

What would happen if, instead of a flawed sub-biblical overemphasis on the church as an event where religious goods are dispensed in a transactional arrangement, we were to adopt the generative biblical metaphor of the church as family, that is “the household of God” as the primary influence of our conception and practice of church?

Church as family is not a new metaphor; however, our understanding of church as family may have become so restricted, limited, and skewed that it needs an urgent rethink. This particularly struck home to me when I was in Kenya listening to a Christian from the north of the country give his testimony.

This man became a Christian from a strongly Muslim background, was thrown out of his family, and was ultimately forced to flee for his life. He sought sanctuary in a church that welcomed him with open arms. They gave him a corner of the building to live in, with a mattress on the floor and food generously delivered on a daily basis.

The man was extremely grateful for their hospitality. But, he confided, the hardest part of his week was on Sunday morning after the church service when everyone went home to their families and their Sunday lunches, leaving him alone. Although he was welcome to make his home inside the church building, he did not actually feel welcome inside the homes of the church family.

This church was so near and yet so far from Christlike hospitality. The church building provided shelter, the church members provided sustenance, and the church event provided sacraments and spiritual teaching—but none of these were a substitute for the lifelong intimate commitment of a family.

Becoming the Family of God

I believe Bible teaching and sacraments are an important part of church life in the same way that graduation ceremonies and school plays are an important part of family life. But if I only turned up for those events in my children’s lives, you would wonder what kind of parent I was. If I were to define parenting as remembering to turn up for and photograph my child’s sports day, piano recital, and birthday party, you would probably argue I had a reductionist and limited understanding of parenting.

In the same way, we misunderstand what God intended by church if we only turn up to Sunday services, Bible studies, and prayer meetings and exclude the Bible’s clear teaching of the family responsibility that church members have to “love one another,” “carry each other’s burdens,” “encourage one another,” and “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (John 13:34, Gal. 6:2, 1 Thess. 5:11, Heb. 10:24).

There is a rich seam of the Bible’s teaching that describes the church as a family. For example, Paul instructs Timothy, as a young leader, that he should treat older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, older men as fathers, and younger men as brothers (1 Tim. 5:1–2). This is typical of Paul’s teaching and example. At the end of the letter to the Romans, Paul sends his greetings to the church, specifically asking to be remembered by his “sister Phoebe” and Rufus’s mother who “has been a mother to me, too” (Rom. 16:1, 13).

There is a depth of intimacy indicated in these greetings that may well have been forged during times of common persecution, separation from wider biological family, and also common courageous service to God in difficult and dangerous times.

Paul’s use of familial language to describe the relationships between Christians in the church community echoes Jesus’ own approach. Famously, once when Jesus was teaching and his biological mother and brothers were outside waiting to speak to him, he corrected his disciples stating that his family members were “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 12:49–50).

Jesus cannot be accused of downplaying the importance of family—at another point he criticizes the Pharisees who refused to offer appropriate financial assistance to their parents, and at the time of his death, he makes it a priority to provide for his own mother. But Jesus also teaches that even those important relationships must be seen in the light of God’s eternal family (Luke 14:25–27).

According to Jesus, those who convert to Christianity at great relational cost will receive many times more brothers, sisters, parents, and children in the present age (Luke 18:29–30). How is this possible? It is through the alternative family of the church that we receive relationships that can act as a substitute for those that we have lost.

These are mind-blowing ideas. And indeed the generative metaphor of the church as family has always had explosive consequences on how Christians understand their place in the world.

Welcome to the Family Reunion

When I go to family gatherings, I don’t expect my sister to provide restaurant-standard food, and I don’t expect my son to choose a playlist I could sing along to. I expect my uncle to be a bit crabby, one of the kids to have a meltdown, and the house to feel a bit cramped. While there may be peace and harmony—perhaps even some joyful singing—at my neighbor’s house, there’s no way I’d ever leave my family and move next door. If the church is our true family, what does this say about church hopping?

However, I think the challenge can be pressed further. The problem with the family metaphor for those of us used to a Western nuclear family is that it seems to suggest that the church should be a small and cozy huddle, with strong boundaries between those who are welcome and those who are not—an inward-focused community that looks out for the needs of its own. But this is not the Bible’s model of family.

In the New Testament Middle East, there was a width and depth to families that could cross many generations and include slaves, in-laws, and houseguests. With a clear biblical injunction for God’s people to show compassion to the most marginalized and vulnerable people through protection, provision, and care for the widow and the orphan, this must break the nuclear and internal preoccupation that many Western families and churches have.

In other words, when family is used as a generative metaphor for church, it can transform not only our preconceptions and expectations of church, but also our preconceptions and expectations of family. A non-nuclear, welcoming, diverse family can make the difference to all sorts of vulnerable people and model to an increasingly divided and isolated world a glimpse of the coming kingdom of God.

The church as family offers a healthy counterbalance to the church-as-event mindset. It can be an antidote to more individualistic, sadly even consumptive models of church participation that are common today. Families look out for one another; families are committed to each other for the long haul. They support one another through tragedy and triumph. Families are not making economic calculations about cost and benefit—they are committed for better or worse, for richer and poorer.

That little boy playing in the dust has just completed his education, despite spending most of his teenage years in foster care. But his mum is still his mum, and his church is still his church, and when he visits one, he visits the other. We are his home and his family, and the way he is welcomed with open arms on a Sunday morning by people from all sorts of backgrounds always makes me think that the so-called service is not a service—no, it is a reunion, a family gathering. It is, in his words, a party!

Krish Kandiah is the founder of the fostering and adoption charity Home for Good and lectures on justice, hospitality, and mission at Regents Park College, Oxford University, and Regent College Vancouver. He is the author of God Is Stranger: Finding God in Unexpected Places (IVP, 2018).

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