When we take too much pride in “family churches,” where neat, nuclear families dominate, we risk forgetting what Jesus did on Good Friday. “Family churches,” for all their honoring of family life, may limit the much wider embrace of God’s grace. Some priorities valued in family churches can be hostile to individuals who do not fit middle-class paradigms. They can exclude people Jesus would want us to welcome. The world consists of many persons who have had to take different and often painful roads. The true community Jesus seeks makes space for them all. — Peter Storey, Listening at Golgotha
It is not uncommon in a lot of churches, perhaps rural ones especially, for a particular family to be a dominant force in the life of the congregation. The family may be founding members of the church, pillars in the community. They may have donated a prominent stained glass window or paid for the pulpit or altar—maybe even bankrolled the fellowship hall.
While there is usually a genuine love for the church evident in their actions, sometimes the patriarchs (or, often, matriarchs) of these families can exert a pressure on congregations and on pastors that comes close to manipulation, even intimidation. I know more than a few pastors who have felt defeated and demoralized by the stranglehold that a domineering family has had on their church and its life together.
There’s another kind of family dominance that easily insinuates itself into churches—one that Peter Storey alludes to in the quote above. When churches pride themselves on being “family-friendly” congregations, they usually have in mind the typical suburban mom and dad and their soccer-playing children, forgetting or ignoring or dismissing other configurations of family: an elderly widower, a childless couple, a gay or lesbian baby boomer, a middle-aged divorcée. When family-friendly churches talk about family, these are generally not the people they mean; these are not the demographics they target.
But more than that, an emphasis on the neat, discrete nuclear family, misses the foundational point of baptism and of the Christian life in general: that through the cross of Christ, a new kind of family has been formed. We are no longer identified primarily by biological ties, but by the bonds of love that link us one to other, across time and space, as members of Christ’s body, God’s own family. This love is without partiality because its source is the Trinitarian love-in-communion that transcends every exclusiveness. It is not a love that we muster on our own power through will or personal resolve; it is a love imputed to us and efficacious through us. We are its vessels, not its wellspring.
The journey through Lent—the forty-day pilgrimage of prayer and penitence, discipline and discovery—is a journey toward this Love made known in the suffering death of Jesus of Nazareth who, when he stretched out his arms on the cross, embraced the whole world. Without exclusion. Without exception. He made family of us all.
The cross we will travel toward in Lent is that most palpable reminder that Jesus, our brother, has made us all kin.
(Origianlly published Tuesday, January 22, 2008)