Forming Family Ties

This past Sunday, I presented a lesson on how the church is a family and that we as parents should raise our kids to see the church is a family. I spoke candidly about how my parents raised me to associate "family" with "church." Since dad was a preacher, we never lived close to blood relatives, so the church became our substitute for "doing life together." Birthdays, holidays, Grandparents Day at school—these were often celebrated with those who worshiped with us each Lord's Day.

My dream, I said, is for every church of Christ to develop a special bond among its members in which each one considers the body of Christ to be like blood family...or closer.

Later that evening, a gentleman in the congregation asked me a penetrating question that I didn't immediately have an answer for: "How do you come to see other Christians as family? What steps can an individual take to foster those types of relationships with other members?"

His questions were arresting because I realized I had cast a vision without necessarily laying out the steps necessary to get there. What's the point in talking about how grand the Grand Canyon is without being able to point the way?

His questions also got me thinking——How DOES one foster family relationships in the church, especially when someone was not raised to consider Christians as family? How does one form as an adult what I learned as a child?

I think there are many good answers to this question, but I'd like to offer three habits that, when practiced consistently, will form family ties within a congregation.

1. A true church family will practice fraternal love.

There's a reason churches shouldn't have an atmosphere of a rigorously curated museum or library. Churches are to have a lively, celebratory atmosphere. When family members great one another, there is less emphasis on dignity and more on affection. I don't give handshakes to a lot of my relatives. Do you?

Some people aren't huggers, and I get that. I see nothing inherently wrong with handshakes. My point, however, is that the church must go the extra mile to practice explicitly fraternal or brotherly love (Heb 13:1). I remember the church of my teen years would get together every couple of months and enjoy a fish fry. Church Christmas parties and other holiday celebrations took on epic status. Of course, the majority of the congregation was related to one another by blood or marriage, but that only serves to make my point for me.

Simply put, to foster a family atmosphere in a church, the church must act as if it's a happy, functional family. How we greet one another, our terms of endearment for one another, and how we celebrate the great things in life... all those things reinforce the familial nature of the church. How much warmer would your church be if you greeted other Christians with the same eagerness and joy as you do siblings, cousins, or grandchildren?

2. A true church family will discipline itself.

This one is almost counter-intuitive, and I'll concede that it's quite difficult to pull off successfully. But think about it: who can discipline itself better than a family? If you or I were threatened with an extreme form of family ostracism (i.e. cut out of the will, uninvited to family holidays, etc, being exiled from the family dinner table because you wouldn't finish your supper as a kid), we would think twice about the behavior that had precipitated such ostracism, and maybe change our behavior in order to return to the good graces of the family. When we are cut off or disciplined by the family, we feel a powerful sense of isolation that can be matched almost nowhere else.

I think this is why Paul insisted Corinth and other churches practice church discipline, and I also think this is why church discipline fails in so many modern congregations. Church discipline only works if a family atmosphere prevails. If such an atmosphere doesn't exist, I'll think nothing of going to the next congregation in town when something I don't like happens.

But if the church is a family, and if my church has become like my family (or closer!), then the discipline it administers to me (whether it take the form of words of exhortation and admonishment, or extreme forms such as disfellowship) will be more painful to bear and more difficult to reject or ignore.

Simply put, to foster a family atmosphere in the church, a church must act like a family and discipline itself at times. Properly handled, discipline always makes a church stronger and draws it closer together (just read Acts 5). How much stronger and closer would your church family be if members were bold and loving enough to bring wayward Christians gently back in line as the NT expects us to do?

3. A true church family will eat and fellowship together.

Let me be clear—I am not primarily speaking of fellowship meals here (though they would apply). Rather, when I think of a church family eating and fellowshipping together, I'm talking about its members eating together on a regular basis, and most often AWAY from the church building or outside of regularly-scheduled church activities.

In every place where I have preached, I have made it a point to have people in my home on a regular basis. Even when I preached in Tennessee and was a bachelor, I drew closer to those members whom I had into my home, and who invited me into theirs. Somehow, we have made excuses for practicing hospitality and eating meals together outside of church activities, and I believe this has been to the church's detriment. As the preacher, I naturally get closer to those church members who show up every time the doors are open. But I get EVEN CLOSER to those with whom I eat on a regular basis. After just 1 or 2 meals together, I'd run through a brick wall for that family or go to the ends of the earth to help them out, even if we had previously not exactly been the best of friends. Of course, I should feel that way about everyone in the congregation, but I don't...and this post is about why.

Simply put, you can't stay mad at someone with whom you break bread regularly. Rather, eating together regularly forms a powerful, mysterious bond for reasons I can't explain. With those with whom I have conflict, I regularly invite to eat with me, hoping that the spirit of peace will prevail. With those who are already my friends, our hearts are drawn even closer together when we break bread. I think the concept of table fellowship is a pervasively biblical concept, and for a good reason. How much closer would you feel to your church family if you invited one family into your home or out to a restaurant once a week in 2015, especially if you targeted those family units that you don't know very well?

How about you? What are your suggestions for forming family ties in the church? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.

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