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Family Church/Church Family

Most congregations consider themselves "family churches." That's not surprising, since we build on the family imagery of the New Testament. Jesus spoke to the Divine so frequently and so intimately that the Gospels, although written in Greek, retain the echo of the original Aramaic language in Jesus' "Abba, Father." Congregations assume the family image quite naturally.

But for the vast majority of congregations the "family church" is not the agrarian village church that it was 200 years ago, nor the ethnic enclave of immigrant communities that built our country a century ago. For most Americans the very concept of family, as this issue of THE CHRISTIAN MINISTRY makes clear, is under stress and in transition. Indeed, what some Christian leaders have called the "traditional family," composed of breadwinner/husband and homemaker/wife living with only the children of their marriage, accounts for fewer than 6 percent of the family units in the last U.S. census. The model of family has changed, and there is no consensus of its meaning in our time.

Standing at the threshold between the private and public dimensions of our lives, our congregations provide both windows of change and arenas of conflict as they struggle to live the new meanings of family. Of the places I visit, every congregation defines its sense of "family church" differently, and every congregation includes a variety of views, some slightly different and some significantly in opposition to one another. Often the church leaders who can name the competition can avoid costly conflict and are well on their way to creative accommodation within the limits of their faith.

Mainline Protestants take the model of the baseline "family church" from the excellent educational programs of the post-World War II era. They have something for everyone, and each program is organized around the ages of children and the life cycle of adults. The weekly worship bulletin announces meeting times and significant events of the coming month. In this kind of well-run "family church," ushers may greet a mother and child with the (double) message, "It's wonderful to see you this morning," but since children can be disruptive they will quickly add, "and we have child care - we'll be glad to show you the way." With such specialized programs, this family church has proven amazingly successful and resilient in the face of massive social change. But other options are becoming available.up

There are "family churches" who see themselves as servants and counselors in an era of family distress. They are characterized by prayers that acknowledge "the pain of our broken family lives," and respond with liturgy that lifts up the comfort of God and a sermon that reaffirms God's healing power. Theirs is a family church that offers therapy in prayer and mutual support of pastoral care for all members.

Others may be a family church but reject the meaning they think the phrase implies. They may see themselves as models and advocates for the contemporary values of gender equality. Known by their use of pointedly neutral or feminine pronouns for God, their perception of "family" as male hierarchy makes some worshipers uncomfortable. Yet they are equally vocal and vigorous in their commitment to the family values of fulfilling our Christian vocation (gifts) through mutual love, child care, educational opportunities, lifelong commitments and the like. In these congregations, with some members mainline and some members drawn from gay and lesbian communities, the language gets reversed but not lost: these Christians talk of "church family" more than "family church."

Many ethnic congregations define "church family" in a similar, vertical way, as a family of the whole.· In the historic black Church, for example, adult members are likely to attend with parents, and children to attend with their grandparents. In these congregations no separate child care exists or is felt to be needed. Committee meetings for adults often include the children and grandchildren of participants. These extended church families have provided continuity over time, and, in turn, sustained a spiritual awareness unparalleled in other cultural groups.

With Jesus, these churches all call upon "Abba, Father/Creator." Although it has different meaning, no doubt all are heard. I believe we need their differences, not only between congregations, but within each church.· Then we are embracing all who are included in the love that we have known.

July-August 1998




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