We will conclude our series of messages on Faith in the Modern Age at the end of this month. This morning, we are considering The Family in the Modern Age.
Everyone, I’m sure, recognizes these famous TV families –
I stopped with the Bundys because I don’t know who would be an example today, and because things go downhill with the Bundys. The typical American family, as portrayed on television – and as in real life – is no longer typical or idealized.
I’m not sure families were ever as “normal” as they were portrayed on some of the classic TV shows, but I am sure that family life is much different today than a generation ago.
There are, certainly, many more pressures on today’s families. Finances are certainly different. When I was younger many families lived on one income. There are not many families who can survive on one income today. Time is a huge issue for families today. There are so many opportunities – and responsibilities – that make claims on our time. There are many who are caring for ageing family members. Caring for a parent, or parents, as well as raising children, is very stressful. And the world is a far more dangerous place since a generation ago. You have to take so much more care these days to protect your kids. And the structure of families has changed. There are many more blended families today, and that can pose certain challenges. Taken together, all of these pressures can place enormous stress on the relationships among family members.
This morning, as we talk about The Family in the Modern Age, I want us to consider family life from a different perspective. For years, I’ve found that many congregations like to use the idea of family as a model for church life. Many, many churches like to think of themselves as a family.
I would suggest something else. Instead of family as a model for the church, I would suggest the church as a model for the family, which is a very different way of looking at both church and family.
Why this way of considering the church and the family?
First, family is not a Biblical model for the church, and I think this is for good reason.
As great an image as family can often be, I’m not sure I want my family to be the model for any church. And I’m not sure I want your family for a model either. And that’s not to say anything bad about your family or mine; I simply don’t think anyone’s family is a proper image for a congregation, because it was never meant to be so.
The family is a closed circle, that is, some people are in the family, in the circle, and some people are not. A family can grow larger through biological additions – and sometimes through marriage (I say sometimes because not everyone feels welcomed into a family after a marriage) – but not everyone becomes a part of the family. If you consider me family, I need to talk to you about some tuition bills you can help me to pay. I just heard the circle close, didn’t I?
We treat people like family, we say, but subconsciously churches can become a closed circle. Countless churches describe themselves in the following way – we are so friendly. In fact, we are just like family here. Except that some of the family may not talk to you or welcome you into the family. And in some places you will hear people say if you didn’t grow up there you are always an outsider, so it’s not much of a family.
Churches ought to be welcoming, certainly, but the goal is not to treat everyone like a member of the family. The goal for a church is to remind each person that they are a child of God, that they are loved by God, that they are called to love themselves and to love others, and they are called to use their God-given gifts to work for the building of God’s kingdom.
That’s a very different purpose from simply being like a family, isn’t it? This means that,
Second, being like a family doesn’t necessarily move a congregation outward towards other people.
If family is the image of the church, then the purpose of the church becomes simply to serve its families, and that’s what a lot of churches do. The minister becomes a chaplain to look after the members of the family. The activities and work of the church revolves around providing something to do for the family members. The image of family leads a congregation to do things simply for its members, which turns it inwards, and when you turn inward you begin down a road that leads to decline, to failure of purpose, and eventually the death of the mission to which the church is called.
A church should certainly love, encourage, and minister to its families, but the church does not exist to serve the family; the church exits to serve God and does so be continually reaching out in love and grace to others.
Third, the church is an open circle, welcoming all people into its care and community.
Our Scripture reading tells us something very radical about he church – the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.
That is an incredibly radical statement, because it removes the barriers among humanity – all barriers. Paul uses the word adoption. My mother was adopted. I told her story in my message on Mother’s Day of 2010, and some of you may remember it. I won’t retell the entire story this morning, but simply say that if she had not been adopted I am convinced she would never have survived. I am literally alive because of the love and kindness of someone who adopted my mother, who, along with her siblings, had been abandoned by their father. That’s a pretty big deal to me. My father was nine years old when his father died. One of my great regrets is that I never asked my dad what it was like to be nine years old and your father passed away. He never talked about it, and I never asked him about it. I sure wish I had. But his father’s family didn’t like his mother, and after the death of his father, his father’s family tried to take him and his brother and sister away from his mother. That’s a lot for a nine year old to have to experience, isn’t it?
Paul says we are God’s children, every one of us adopted by him. Human families have their issues. Human families may sometimes hurt and even abandon, but not God. If you tell someone the church is like a family and their family suffers from a lot of dysfunction, it’s probably not going to make a positive impression upon them.
Fourth, the church is about the focus of mission.
When I was younger I spent a lot of the summers at church camp. Like many of you, church camp was an incredibly important and influential experience for me.
Our camp director was Bob Mack. Bob preached my ordination sermon and was tremendously influential on my life. One day at camp, as we took a break from work on building a new chapel, he told me the story of how he came to faith. For some reason, I had assumed he grew up in faith but he had not at all. I’ve known people who have experienced quite a life change when they came to faith, but wow, Bob had an unbelievable change. When he told me of his life prior to faith I just couldn’t square it with the person I knew. It was a complete 180, total life change.
Bob began to work for a man who had a great faith. He also had several daughters. Bob asked him one day, why didn’t you tell me you had daughters? The man said because I didn’t want you anywhere near my daughters! And he had very good reasons to feel that way about Bob. But Bob began to change from being around this man, and a miracle happened in his life, as he came to faith. He also married one of his daughters. Through that relationship Bob was introduced to his wife, but also to a great purpose in life.
There was a mission to that family that was about more than their own lives. As the people of God we are to be pointing to something greater than ourselves, and that is to God. The purpose of the church is its God-given mission to go forth and love and serve others. That is a high purpose, and our focus.