The church is often referred to as the family of God which sounds sweet, but is actually a significant analogy with deep implications. If the church is a family, then how we treat one another, how we deal with conflict, and how we help and support each other should all look differently than if we are only a collection of Christians who gather in a building on Sundays.
The “Family Church” Model
As we continue our series on the Ekklesia, the gathered people of God, we look today at what it means to be the Family of God. To help us understand our identity and purpose when we gather as God’s people, the Bible uses several analogies to describe the church. The analogy we examine first is the one I believe should have the greatest impact on how we operate as a church.
Churches have different models for their operations. If you visit one of them, you might not know their strategy for making a difference in their community, but you can feel a difference from one church to another.
Some churches lean heavily toward teaching. Everyone brings a fat Bible, a notebook, and a pack of multi-colored pens. Often there’s a bookstore in the foyer. Typically, the preaching lasts longer than at other churches.
Other churches are all about their programs and efficiency. Everything runs like clockwork. The systems are smooth. The kids all have a great time, and you are always out the door in an hour.
There are many other models; but I have always been most drawn to one I feel is the natural inclination of THIS church – viewing the church as a family. Family churches are warm and welcoming to all. They value young and old alike. People take time to know one another’s names and to connect beyond the Sunday morning services.
When I met Michelle, she had more grandmas than any other person I know, which was ironic because she almost never saw her actual grandmas. Numerous little old ladies in her church checked in with her, sent her cards while she was away at college, and prayed for her regularly. A church connection like that makes a huge difference in a person’s life.
Perhaps you have had that experience as well. Maybe people from your churches in the past were especially close to you or made a significant impact on your faith journey. It may have been a Sunday school teacher or leader; but often, in a family church, it is just someone you connect with – someone who took an interest in you. In a church that feels like family, everyone understands that being a family means finding those on the fringes and welcoming them in.
Today I want to show you how this model of treating one another as family in our Ekklesia – First Baptist – is biblical. We’ll also discuss some aspects of what it means for us going forward.
The Family of God through the Bible
From the beginning of the Bible, we see God selecting one man to be the head of His family. God chose Abraham and promised him that he would be the father of a great nation with as many descendants as the stars of the night sky. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament we read of this family, which become known as Israel.
At various places in the Old Testament, we read that the Israelites spoke of God as their father. They saw Him as the source of their nation, the one who protected and provided for them.
When Jesus comes on the scene, however, He uses a different word for “Father” when He teaches His disciples to pray.
Matthew 6:9 – This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”
Here Jesus uses a Greek word that is warm and familiar – “Abba.” This is different from the word the Israelites had always used when they prayed. That word meant “Father”; the word “Abba” is more like “Daddy.” Both words refer to the same person, but they have very different connotations. Jesus was teaching His disciples that God was more than a distant, respected father; He had a closeness and intimacy they never expected from the God of Creation.
Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sheds new light on what it means to be in the family of God.
Matthew 12:46-50 – 46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Here Jesus redefines “family,” going from his physical family and even beyond the accepted view of the family of Abraham, His fellow Jews. Instead, He extends it to “whoever does the will of my Father in Heaven.” He opens up the family of God to all Christians going forward.
The Apostle Paul describes exactly the same thing in his letter to the Romans.
Romans 8:14-17 – 14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. . . .
Here the spiritual reality of becoming the children of God is more fully explained. We see that if we have the Spirit of God in us, then that proves we are adopted into God’s family. We can now cry “Abba Father.” As God’s rightful children, we are how heirs of His incredible blessing, just like Jesus, His one and only Son.
Think about that for a moment. We are not just God’s servants. We aren’t just citizens in the city He is setting up. We are adopted into His very family! We are His kids! We are kin with Jesus and Peter and Paul and all others who have put their faith in Jesus. Together, all Christians make up One Big Family of God.
Paul lays that out more clearly in his letter to Timothy when he says:
1 Timothy 3:14-15 – 14 Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, 15 if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.
This is the clearest statement in the Bible that the church, the Ekklesia, is the household, the family of God. And here’s the single big idea meant for us here at First Baptist: Our church is more than a collection of Christians; we are a family of faith!
Let that sink in for a moment. We all are members of various groups that are simply a collection of people with shared interests or goals. We’re parents of kids on teams. Some of us share political views. Some of us have a bond because we work for the same company. In these cases the tie that binds us is community and nothing else. But in a church, the tie that binds us is the blood of our Savior. Blood is thicker than water, and our shared bond is that of a family. That’s a big deal!
Implications for Our Church
If our church is to reflect this Family analogy, we must follow several guidelines based on what we know about families:
- We must be multi-generational. We can’t function as a family if we skip generations from grandparents to grandchildren. A family that survives has to have every generation, always birthing new children. A family with no births will cease to exist one day. We understand that for our church. Anyone looking around this room today sees that we are imbalanced and don’t have enough young families and children. We do have the blessing of many older saints in our pews. Some new churches reach only young families but are impoverished because they have failed to reach the older generation. The strongest churches are like a family with all generations represented. That’s why we’ve been beating the drum for many months about the necessity of reaching the next generation.
- We must treat each other as family. Paul gives the following advice to Timothy, who is establishing churches that Paul originally launched:
- 1 Timothy 5:1-2 – Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, 2 older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.
- Simply put: if, in fact, the church is the family of God, then we should treat those in the church like they are part of our family. I love that this gives me a biblical reason for treating young people as little brothers and sisters. I was a youngest child and never had younger siblings to tease; and if you ask the youth, they will attest to my love of teasing them! It’s my older-brother duty!
- We must support growth and development. When we are growing up in a family, we are all growing up, maturing alongside one another. This means we can’t expect perfection from those around us but, instead, should seek how we can help each other grow and mature and become everything God created us to be. Mistakes will be made; but rather than cutting someone from the team, the family steps in, supports them, and helps clean up the mess.
- We must address conflict in healthy ways. Part of cleaning up the mess is addressing the conflict. Every family has conflict. With so many people and personalities and preferences in our church family, we are bound to have disappointments, misunderstandings and challenges. Healthy families deal with these issues in healthy ways – through discussion, forgiveness, and humility. Too often people want to fight over these issues or “flight” away from them, but God gives us clarity all through the Bible about how to peaceably resolve differences. We covered that last fall in a series called “Closer.” If you want, you can look it up on our website. The important idea is that we can’t let issues fester. Instead, we need to be gracious as we go to the person we have concerns with and talk about our concerns.
- We must be there in a time of need. If we act like a family, then we are there for each other when all friends have left. Family has an interesting way of sticking together when life goes haywire. Even families that don’t seem particularly close often come together in the middle of a crisis. The family of God should operate in exactly the same way. When a person’s marriage is falling apart or their depression is raging or they “fall off the wagon” in their addiction, they shouldn’t run away from church because of shame. The church should run to them to help in the middle of the crisis! That’s when people need their family the most.
- We must welcome new people as family. If we are a family, we have to understand the importance of welcoming new people into our family. Some family churches have the problem of being super-close with one another but not overly open to including anyone else. Imagine how it would be if your son or daughter married but you did not include the spouse because he or she wasn’t part of your “real family.” Families change and evolve and grow through marriages and births. We as a church must be open to bringing new people in. More than just being open to new members, we have a responsibility to include them.
- Some people put the onus on the new people to get connected. They have cards to fill out and classes they can attend and ministries they can sign up for. The new members have to work to get to know anybody. That’s not how a family operates! When I married into Michelle’s family, they (mostly) welcomed me with open arms and treated me like I had always been one of them. It took a great deal of pressure off me knowing I was accepted and loved without having to slowly earn it. Let’s take the pressure off the new people in our church. Let’s be the ones who reach out, introduce ourselves, invite them to dinner, and invite them to join us at church events.
- This is especially important nowadays because the old paradigm of a person first sharing belief in Jesus and then becoming part of the church has flipped. Nowadays many people want to belong to the church, get to know the people, feel the love and support of the family, and then put their trust in Jesus. I see this clearly with the youth. They want to know I know them and care about them before they will listen to anything I have to say. That’s why we make our youth group so relational with so much time to hang out and eat together and play games together. The relationship is the key to sharing Jesus.
Where do we go from here?
You may be curious about why I believe this imagery of our church as a family is so crucial. As I’ve said, this isn’t the only model of how to do church, nor is it the only biblical analogy. We will look at others in coming weeks.
You may remember my talking about a strategy planning meeting we held last August. A diverse group of church members gathered on a Saturday to discuss where we have been as a church and where we are going. Part of that discussion was on the community God has placed us in. What stood out to me the most in that discussion was that so many of the kids and teens in our community come from broken or dysfunctional homes. Many kids don’t know what it’s like to have steady, supportive people in their corner. They don’t know what it’s like to have grandparents who check in on them and have healthy relationships with them.
I thought that was so contrary to our church that is filled with healthy families and people who could offer the steady impact of a family of faith. Coming out of that meeting, the phrase that stuck with me and has been guiding my thoughts and planning for this church for months is “A Family of Faith for the Next Generation.”
We already operate in many ways as a church family. This is not a big change to how we already interact with others. However, sometimes naming something helps give clarity. It helps us refine how we interact with others and how we work extra hard to include people on the outside. That’s what family does.
The biggest announcement for today is a new ministry I want to begin to help us be a family of faith for the next generation. We’re going to call this ministry “Cross-Gen,” and it is going to intentionally connect people across generations. I would like to partner a child or teen with a person who would consent to praying for them, sending them a birthday card or an encouraging note now and then, taking them out to dinner once or twice a year. The older person would simply invest in the young person’s life, seeking their emotional and spiritual maturity. Or perhaps we could partner a young married couple with an experienced married couple to talk about relationships.
There are lots of angles we could take, and I don’t have all the details; but I do know that people are hungry for the stability of a family that invests in them. And I know we have a richness of experience and maturity in this church. I want to steward what God has given this church to be a blessing to the next generation.
Stay tuned for how we are going to roll this out.
And as you walk out of here today, remember that we are more than a collection of Christians. We are a family bound together by the blood of Jesus.