The Church Family?

July 8th, 2024

Several years ago, a friend of mine questioned whether or not it was a good thing to call a congregation a family. His fear, with which I empathize, is that calling a congregation a family limits its capacity to add new people. After all, it is exceedingly difficult to join a family.

I’ve long been an advocate for the small-membership church, and when I sought out a new church after a recent family move, I sought out a small congregation. One of the challenges of smaller congregations, though, is that they can be hard to really break into. I remember parishioners of mine telling me that they still felt like new members nearly a decade after they first started attending. Perhaps, I reasoned, my friend was on to something.

But if I am not willing to call the church a family, I am also uncomfortable with calling the church something as nonspecific as a “community.” We have all sorts of communities in which we participate, and usually there is some sort of utilitarian justification for being welcomed into them. My job is a community, but if I do not perform and meet key metrics, I will soon find myself without that community. It is also not a community with which I can bring my whole self, whether in my current role as a pastor in extension ministry or when I was a parish pastor. Sometimes, you have to stuff your own feelings deep down to be adequately present at work, whether that’s in a church or in a university.

Sports teams are a community, but my acceptance into my high school cross-country team was predicated on the fact that 1) we won a lot, and 2) I was contributing to those wins. I suspect that if I had not contributed to our victory, I would not have been quite as welcome into the camaraderie of the team.

Civic institutions are a form of community, but usually require some dues and some obligation of effort. I can’t keep showing up at Rotary if I haven’t paid any dues for a few years or skip meetings.

When we moved to a new city, my family and I quickly embraced the rhythms of our new location. My oldest daughter fell into the culture of a new school, our youngest started new a new preschool without missing a beat, my wife and I dove into our new jobs, and our family found new spots to spend time together. Finding a new church was important, but it was a daunting task. We spent most Sundays instead at whatever church I was guest preaching at or consulting with.

We finally found a new church, a small-membership congregation that we had seen in passing and heard great things about from our friends. I will admit that I was terrified on my first Sunday, though we soon found ourselves wanting to dive deeper into the congregation.

The church is what I lovingly describe as delightfully messy. A few years before, the congregation sold the building which housed their sanctuary. These days, we meet in the fellowship hall. There is no high church liturgy, but the service is steeped in scripture. Every part of the service, each prayer, responsive reading, blessing, and transitional moment is derived from one of the lectionary passages. No one minds when my three-year-old daughter disrupts the service by dancing in back of the church. The sermons are thoughtful and theologically rich. Our Sunday school conversations are unstructured, deep conversations on scripture. It is exactly what I had craved in a church.

Still, for the last several months, I have found myself hanging back, so as to not intrude on this congregation of which I want to call myself a part. I bite my tongue in Sunday School, so that I don’t become the person that talks too much. When I emailed the pastor to express my thanks for a sermon that brought me a great deal of healing and comfort, I signed off by apologizing for sending the email. 

Part of that is my own insecurity. I am always eager to not be a burden or an intrusion. But part of it, I find, is my assumption that church is like most other communities. Can I really email the pastor of my small-membership church and request her prayers when I’ve only been attending for a few months? Or do I need to volunteer for a few more activities and give a bit more money before I have earned that right? 

But then, we had communion Sunday. During the liturgy, as the pastor broke the bread, she silently made eye contact with each member of the congregation, holding the bread silently towards us. Her head bobbed and ducked to make eye contact with us in the back row. After the adults had communion, the pastor realized that the children hadn’t made it up from the children’s church. She sent her son to retrieve them, the pianist kept playing, and the congregation waited for several minutes for the kids to receive the elements, even though the service was now running over time. 

For years, I’ve held to the idea that church shouldn’t be family. It’s too hard to join a family. But is it? Because really, joining a new family is a matter of adoption. What the congregation was asking me for was not some grand contribution or proof of allegiance. They were simply asking me to be willing to place myself up to be adopted by them. To be cared for by them, and to care for them. To serve and be served by them. It is a much deeper commitment, without the failed utilitarian imagination. It is a demand to bring my full self – to bring my gifts when I have them, but also to bring myself for others to care for and love. 

After church, I took my oldest daughter, who just turned seven, into the vestibule, where nametags of all the regular attendees are stored. I showed her where her nametag was hanging. “You’re a part of this church,” I told her, “So they made you a nametag.” She gave a big smile and ran off to talk to someone who was handing out peaches. It was already obvious to her that she belonged. 

Church is not an abstract community, with social dues and performance demands. It is a place to bring ourselves and learn what it means to love and be loved in a way that no other community will allow. It is a place of adoption. And that is what makes it beautiful and unique. 

About the Author

Allen T. Stanton

Allen T. Stanton is an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church. He currently serves as a consulting fellow with read more…
comments powered by Disqus