We are talking a lot about family in our church these days. That’s my fault. This topic has been of special interest to me for a variety of reasons.
One reason is that I am curious whether a church today can actually operate like a large, extended family. This is what we are after all. “Let brotherly love continue,” the writer of Hebrews wrote. And that’s just one of many references in the New Testament to the idea of the church as a family. The writer of Hebrews certainly liked to describe the church in family terms – Hebrews 2:10-13; 3:6; 10:19-20.
To be a family, of course, means we have obligations to one another. The writer of Hebrews discussed that here. Christians are to show hospitality to one another – to the “stranger” Christians who visit from afar – and they are to care for each other during difficulties, especially when persecution comes.
This family identity of the church can be hard for us to understand, especially in modern America. Our culture prizes individualism. Christ died “for me,” we happily say. I come to worship services to be filled spiritually – to hear powerful worship music and to hear an uplifting message for the preacher. This is good “for me.”
Yes, yes. It is. But so is “brotherly love” and “hospitality” and “remembering” those in the church who suffer. We can turn our faith into a very selfish thing.
There was no room for selfishness in the early church. The writer of Hebrews was trying to keep the church together during difficult times. Some members, pressured by the culture, wanted to drift away from the faith. The writer of Hebrews knew the strength of the community was important to its continued existence. He wanted them to look out for one another. He wanted them to keep gathering – not just to hear worship music and sermons – but to encourage “one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Again, this is difficult for us to understand in our culture. I can sometimes make church about “me,” and I can lose sight of the mutually fortifying benefits of the body of Christ, the household of God. We ought to come to encourage one another, to help each other stay strong in the faith.
Without persecution in our culture – which we are thankful we do not have – we can forget just how important the church is to our faith.
But then again, maybe our culture is trying to draw us away from the faith in more subtle ways than simply throwing us in jail. Perhaps it is trying to lull us to sleep. The very fact that my church life can be mostly about “me” is an early sign of defeat. We are venturing into dangerous territory and can’t sense the danger.
Here’s an idea that perhaps may help you consider whether you’ve made church about yourself or whether you truly do see yourself as part of the community of faith – as a family. When is the last time you were stretched by helping another member of the church? By “stretched,” I mean a circumstance where the need for help by another church member really inconvenienced your personal life. Maybe the person needed your time or your money, and it was just kind of inconvenient for you to meet that need. Or perhaps you avoided the need altogether. You were too busy to help. Or perhaps you just ignored the plea.
“Let brotherly love continue.” Think about it. Brotherly love in the ancient world – and in many cultures today – is the most important kind of love. This is an unconditional love to one’s family members, much like what Jesus gave to us.
I don’t want to make you feel guilty. But I think this is a very valid problem in the church in America. We’ve made the church into something that serves the needs of “me,” rather than a family where we both serve and are served by other members of the body. Sometimes, we simply come to church gatherings as consumers rather than true participants who give just as much as we receive.
It takes work to be in a family. Family disagreements come up sometimes, and we have to work through them. After all, this is family. Family members can be needy and annoying sometimes. But we still have to take care of them. After all, this is family. I might have other things that I would like to do on certain days – and then I might get a call from a family member in need. I might be tempted to blow that person off. But I can’t. After all, this is family.
Sometimes, our family can be inconvenient – like a sudden guest on our doorstep at 8 o’clock at night. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.”
I’m not sure many people in the church are welcome to this idea of treating the church like a family. We do want to do good works. But we often want to do them on our own terms – when we are good and ready. “Let’s form a committee to organize that service project. First, let’s pick a day and time that’s convenient for everyone.” Families don’t operate that way. When needs arrive, family members must respond whether they really feel like it or not. (Unless they aren’t good family members.)
Again, I don’t want to make you feel guilty. I’m guilty enough! But think on these things. Do you serve your church family members through thick and thin, good times and bad, even when it is inconvenient to you? Do you even know what the needs of your church family members are? Do you know a church family member who has a need today that you can meet?
Someday, I believe, persecution will come to the church in America. And because so many Christians have failed to embed themselves in church communities – and this goes beyond just showing up for good worship music and uplifting preaching – I’m afraid they simply will fall away from the faith. They won’t have anyone to encourage them, to hold them accountable, to remind them of the hope that they have.
When persecution comes to the church in America, like it did to the first readers of the book of Hebrews, we’re going to be glad we have a church family.
Please think about these things.