By Krish Kandiah, Published in Christianity Today
The Bible refers to fellow Christians as "brothers and sisters," but how often do we treat them as family?
More Than an Event
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.
Add our 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
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?
Becoming the Family of God
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.
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.
A little neighbor boy, who has been attending our church, 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).