One of the slogans of the emerging church movement is that the church is primarily and family, not an institution. I think most sane people would agree. The church is God’s new humanity, made alive in a new way in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Of course no one wants to reduce it to an institution. And in an increasingly fragmented world, the longing for meaningful relationships is deeply felt, so this renewed focus on family over institution is typically welcomed.
However (you knew there’d be a "but", didn’t you?), I find that while our culture longs for meaningful relationships, it also strongly resists them. The picture of family that most people carry around in their heads is an idealized Disney World caricature of actual family relationships: McRelationships, we could call them. McRelationships have all the benefits of a family (love, acceptance, understanding) without all the costs (working through conflict, forgiving those who hurt you, learning how to interact with those who are different). The only problem with McRelationships is that they don’t exist. I find that building a sense of "church as family" is one of the most difficult elements of leadership, because so much of our culture mitigates against it.
One of the major features of early Christianity was their solidarity. When you became a Christian, you literally joined a new family: God’s new humanity. Part of this was out of necessity, because very often people you would be "excommunicated" from your family if you were baptized into Christianity. Very often people had nowhere else to go. But it wasn’t just a practical issue – there is a new solidarity created by the Holy Spirit, such that Jesus had the audacity to imply that those who were following him were at least as important to him as his blood relatives ("Here are my mother and my brothers!"). It difficult to find this kind of commitment today, when churches are viewed so often as vendors of spirituality where spiritual consumers shop until they find something that "works for them", and they stay until something better comes along. So, in no particular order, and for our leadership team as much as anyone else’s, here are a few things that may help us along in this effort to reveal the deception of McRelationships and build a sense of family solidarity in our churches:
Increased congregational ownership of vision. People are very hesitant to commit themselves to an institution or organization where they have little input into how things happen.
Boston Tea Parties happen when vision is imposed from outside. But people will commit themselves to people that they love, and to a vision that they believe in. People have to "own" the vision of the church for there to be a sense of fierce commitment. Shared values means that people share values, not that an institution has values and people agree with them. So people need to be involved in the shaping and expression of those values for there to be real ownership.
- Maybe we should make public vows. Kind of like a marriage, where the commitment is sealed with the public vow, to one another and before God. Awhile back I read Pete Greig’s The Vision and the Vow, which sparked some thoughts along these lines. His vow consists of promising to love Christ, be kind to people, and preach the gospel. I like it. I wonder is if family solidarity would be more keenly felt if people did this kind of thing together.
- Real accountability. Not the heavy-handed legalistic stuff. But not the impotent, polite sharing that masquerades as accountability, either. Accountability has to be based in relationship, not in a system. If I know and trust someone, I can hear a hard word from them. If I don’t trust, don’t know, it becomes far too easy to dismiss the hard word as a power trip. This is where small groups come in, I think. We as humans are limited in that we can only "know" a few hundred people, and the number we can know intimately is way smaller. The undeniable fact is that we cannot grow except in the context of relationships. Real relationships, with conflict and misunderstanding and frustration.
If people have shared vision and values, have covenanted together toward the expression of the vision, and are in real relationship to one another, it seems that a new sense of solidarity can be developed. No more pining for McRelationships, because we’ve tasted of God’s new humanity. You never long for the counterfeit after seeing the real thing.