The Church Should Focus On It’s Own Family

Many years ago when I was driving through Colorado Springs I saw a bumper sticker directed at Focus on the Family that said, “Focus On Your Own Family”.  I thought it was sort of funny but I didn’t really give it a lot of thought.  But the phrase sort of stayed with me.  Whenever I’d see something from Focus I’d think about that sticker and smile.

But in thinking about it, this might actually be a good idea.  Now to be clear, before I start, I like a lot of what Focus the organization does.*  I’m not picking on them here.  However, the Church’s focus on the nuclear family is a huge problem with far, far reaching implications.

As I’ve stated many times, I’m not against the church teaching on family or how to be a good husband, wife, parent or even child.  I’m not against that all.  If I’m married and/or have kids, I need to learn how to do that in a Godly way.  In other words, if that is my context, I need to follow Jesus and grow in my ability to fulfill that role.  Absolutely.

However, if that is the focus of our church or if we lift up the nuclear family as the answer to how the kingdom advances, or as the thing that helps make us holy, or makes us eligible for leadership in the Church or as the model for the church instead of the other way around, we end up on seriously shaky ground.  Frankly that is exactly where many churches are today either by intent or by accident.

The kingdom does not advance by the nuclear family.  It advances through Jesus and His family.  The nuclear family does not make us holy, Jesus does.  Being married is not a requirement for leadership in the church – hello Paul and . . . uh . . . Jesus.

I’ve covered all of that before.  But what I want to say today is what brings us back to that bumper sticker.  What if the Church focused on it’s own family.  Because frankly most church families are a mess and that’s not even to speak of the body of Christ as a whole.

Now I get that church is messy. It’s made up of humans and we are all sinners.  People sin.  Against God, against each other, against non believers.  Whole nine yards. That’s not what I’m talking about.

What I’m talking about is are we teaching our churches how to be a family.  Is that our focus?  From a global level: How do we treat fellow believers that we don’t quite theologically agree with?  How do we talk about them behind their backs?  How does the “local church”** talk about missional “para church” parts of the body and vice versa?  How do church planters talk about the old church that is literally down the street?  Protestants and Catholics how we doing?  This list could go on and on.

From a particular church level:  How welcoming are we to new people that might join our family?  Have you gotten to know anyone in your church family?  Is our teaching inclusive to those who have a nuclear family and those who don’t?  Do we love each other?  Is there actual church discipline?  Who is accountable to who?  Who actually knows anything about the people leading the small group?  Could anyone walk in and feel welcome?  Not necessarily agreed with, but welcome.  Do we hold the Kingdom picture of advancement or the “lets live in the nuclear family bubble” picture?  Are the people Jesus welcomed welcome?  By each member?  Again the list could go on.

Bashing the church is not my point here.  The point is this – the church should focus on it’s own family.  We should be focused on getting our own stuff in order.  We should remember that marriage and the family point to God and His family, not the other way around.

You see God is the creator of the family unit.  He really is.  This means it’s a good thing.  But just like everything else that He created we tend to start to count on it instead of God.  We start to elevate it over God’s Kingdom, just like we do many of his other good creations.

Jesus said, Who are my mother and brothers?  In other words, who is my family?  He answered, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother”.  At the end of the day, and for sure at the end of days, the Kingdom family will be the one that lasts.  It will be the one that is most important and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the nuclear family.  The church should focus there.

When we don’t do it, we set up everyone to fail and alienate many.  When we do focus on the Kingdom family we set up everyone, including those with nuclear families, to thrive.

 

 

* Focus does a lot of great things – especially in regards to children and parenting.  For example, if you’re a parent and not looking at Plugged In for movie reviews you’re missing out.

**The idea of the local church is totally misunderstood and mis-taught. First, in the city and suburbs there is almost no such thing as a “local” church.  Parishes are long gone.  People drive by 50 churches on the way to the one they want to go to.  The local church in the bible was all the people in that location, regardless of the place they worshiped in.  When God looks at your town, He sees one church, not hundreds.  Your church is not the answer.  The Church is.

The Church Is Fighting Yesterdays Battle

Right now there is a lot of reporting out there about the American Evangelical culture and it’s impending doom.  While I think that reports of it’s death have been greatly exaggerated, it should lead to a lot of reflection in all sorts of contexts.

As I watch it unfold and watch the church interact with the culture in several ways and in many different contexts I see a couple of things that we have to get past.  These things play out in all sorts of different ways, but of particular interest here in the space, is in relation to singleness.

Here are two major problems (not that there aren’t more – as well as many good things) that I see over and over again in different cultural exchanges.

First, the church is in constant reaction mode and almost never in leadership mode.  There are numerous reasons for this including insulating ourselves and living in fear of everyone else’s opinion.  We want everyone to like us – and come to our events.

Secondly, we come late to every fight.  Now in fairness – we almost always get there – just not usually first, or when the problem starts.  So bottom line, we react to what is going on around us too late, and then fight the battle that we should have fought earlier.

There are sooooooooo many examples of this in the last 50-60 years.  Marriage is one – I don’t remember the protests when no fault divorce was being ratified state by state across the country.  I don’t remember bakers not doing third weddings?  But now we want to take a stand on marriage.  Here’s one happening right now.  We are now in the last decade or two really figuring out that we ought to do poor urban ministry – heck we should even all move there.  But the next wave – it’s already coming – is called the rural poor.** I’m not seeing a bunch of hip young believers heading out there to “live among” the people.  That’s probably a little harsh.  But the point is valid.

What made me think of this is a recent sermon series from a church about family.  I’ve talked a ton here about the the churches nuclear family idol.  To this particular church’s credit while they did talk about the nuclear family, they started and clarified that the church is a family and we have many different family make ups.

But regardless it was their series description that got my attention and that I want to discuss today.  The first part of that read something like this: Our families are in crisis, marriages are crumbling, kids are hurting . . . .Rediscover how the family (read nuclear) can be transformational.

I’m not picking on this church today.  But this is a great example of the problem.

For starters, the idea that families are crumbling is only sort of true.  Actually most marriages aren’t in crisis.  The divorce rate is actually going down slightly for first time marriages.  Even better news is that the idea that divorce is rampant among practicing believers is not true at all.  The funny thing about this is that the church probably should take some credit here.  But instead of pointing to the success of their marriages, they are reacting to the sky that was falling 25 years ago.

The reality is that the boomers caused the divorce rate to skyrocket. They’re still doing it actually – now they are leading an all time rise in “gray divorce“.  But the new problem, the one going on right now, is not divorce – it’s lack of marriage.  It’s the fact that people aren’t getting married.  The new “family” problem is not “My parents got divorced”.  It’s literally that “My parents were never married”.

You see while people aren’t getting married (or divorced – as much) they are still having sex, living together, and having kids (sometimes alone on purpose – future post).  40% of the kids born in the U.S. today are born out of wedlock.  Don’t look for that number to drop.

Basically what we are doing is telling all the people who probably won’t get divorced, how not to get divorced.  I guess that’s good.  It’s for sure easier.

The problem we are facing now is different.  Why aren’t people getting married?  We have to be willing to actually look at the real answers to that.  Why aren’t they at church?  66% of the people that don’t go to church are unmarried.  We have to be willing to deal with the real reasons for that.

If we want to go make a difference in culture we have to figure out how to talk to single people.  We have to stop being the church for the family and start being the church that is a family. We need to stop looking to save the family and start trying to save the people.  If we do that, the family part will take care of itself.

 

** For free – Read that link and ask – where’s the church in this story?  We should be going there now.

 

Condemned To Celibacy?

Recently I attended a conference on healthy sexuality.  It was very well done and the spirit of the event was super encouraging to say the least.  Within the many different topics and conversations was of course the discussion of how a person who is attracted to the same sex should live out their life.

Now this wasn’t a conference where people were demanding that anyone live a certain way and it was all non-confrontational, but the general answer was that from a biblical perspective that person should not be engaged in a same sex sexual relationship. In other words they should live a celibate life.

In response to this, one person said, “So basically we are condemning them to a life of loneliness and isolation.” I’m quite sure that this person was far from the only one in the room thinking that way.

I’m not going to dive too far into the topic of homosexuality today (I have a couple of posts that I can share if I ever decide I want to go viral).  But instead, I want to respond to this person’s understanding in a very different way.

I can’t speak for him, but I can deduct that the reason this gentlemen said what he said about celibacy is at least two fold.

First, in evangelical culture, we have completely left out the call to celibacy, the gift of celibacy and those who for one reason or another end up unmarried and yet desiring holiness.  Literally we have spent about 500 years of protestantism screwing this up.  It’s a real problem.

Because we have no place for or theology of celibacy, we then only dust it off for special cases.  Because we have no place for a heterosexual to pursue the call or gift of celibacy, we look like idiots suggesting that the homosexual should be “condemned to that”.

This comes from the Church’s nuclear family idol.  Marriage and family are seen as THE path to holiness and wholeness.  You can’t go around preaching that message for decades and then dust off the other path for a few people.  But that is exactly what the evangelical leadership of our generation has attempted to do.  Obviously that’s not working out very well.  This comes partially from an adaptation of a secular belief into our evangelical culture.

That is the secular belief that sexual fulfillment is a right.  Not only do I have the right to sexual fulfillment, but in the secular culture, I have the right to fulfill that sexual desire in just about any way I want (assuming everyone is an adult and “consents”).

Now evangelical culture has not adopted that belief.  Instead they have adapted it to their own framework.  The evangelical culture says that each person, at least each man, can not possibly contain their sexual desire.  It must be fulfilled.  The message is that it is controlling you, bigger than you, bigger than your moral agency, bigger than your spiritual maturity.  Therefore the only answer available to holiness is marriage.  Marriage makes you an adult.  Marriage makes you mature.  Marriage makes you holy.

Now let me be clear in case you are new to the blog.  I’m extremely pro marriage.  I think that most people should pursue marriage.  But, we cannot assume that in our theological, and practical teaching.  In fact, by assuming that we hurt not only those not called to it, or unable to achieve it, but we hurt even those who do get married.

If the way to holiness is marriage then what we are saying is that the person called to celibacy, the person with the gift of celibacy, the person born without desire to get married, the person who can’t get married, or the person who doesn’t desire the opposite sex, cannot be holy on their own.  By doing this we are literally agreeing with secular culture that sexual desire must be fulfilled in order for a person to be whole and holy.

This is basically what Justice Kennedy said in the supreme court decision on Gay Marriage.  He writes of those wishing to marry, “Their hope is to not be condemned to live in loneliness, . . . ”  Sound familiar?

If celibacy is something that someone is “condemned to” then we are all in a lot of trouble.

Was Jesus “condemned” to celibacy?  Paul?  The early Church Fathers?  The Pope? Do we really want to see celibacy as a punishment?

This is what we have helped set up.  This is why we can’t afford to answer the culture by adapting it into a Christian Version. Its why our answer to an increased delay in marriage, and people fulfilling sexual desires in ways other than marriage can’t be simply – marriage will set it all right.

Instead we have to rescue the celibacy of the New Testament.  We have to rescue the idea of family from a focus on the nuclear family to a focus on the family of God.  We have to have a more complete theology (or picture if you will) of how celibacy and marriage are both pictures of the Kingdom and both paths to holiness and wholeness.  If we don’t, then we all lose.  It will get worse.

The Church, including and starting with each of us in it, is the only hope of something different.  We have to be counter cultural, not just sub-cultural.  Read that line again.  It might be from the Lord.

We have to lead, not follow, not just respond and react.  If the Church (read all of us) don’t step back and consider the whole picture of celibacy and marriage, no one else will.

Focused On Which Family?

When I think about family, one of the first things that comes to mind is dinner around the table. Kids grow up there. Couples grow old there. It’s where the day is reviewed and the world’s problems are solved.  What’s amazing is even if there isn’t much to eat, you still do it together.  There is something about it.

A mentor of mine (father figure is more accurate) lives in a beautiful large home.  In that home he has a dining room table.  Interestingly the table is round, not long, so there is no head of the table so to speak.

Let me describe what happens when you go to dinner there.  When you pull up in the driveway you set off the driveway bell.  They have that bell so that by the time you get the door they are already there to greet you – usually with a hug, not a handshake.  Then you go inside.  Typically there are some drinks and often even some sort of good snack.  This is followed by the choicest of meals.  You eat this while seated around the round table.  My mentor will then have some sort of question that he wants each person to answer. (By the way, this is the furthest thing from fast food possible – you could be there for three hours – but it won’t seem like it).  He genuinely wants to know about the people around his table.

All sorts of people have sat around that table.  Politicians, dignitaries, business partners, business competitors, refugees from third world countries, people from a bunch of different walks of life, and even me.  And every one of them is welcomed and listened to.  “Now wait, we haven’t heard your story yet. Tell me about. . . . ”

It’s a picture of family – God’s family.  It’s a picture of The Kingdom.

We live in a time where it seems like the nuclear family as we’ve known it is being blown apart.  There’s the divorce rate.  There’s the fact that more women in America have their first kid out of wedlock than in it.  More and more people are choosing to not actually get married or if they do it’s much later than ever before.

This actually hurts our society in several ways (shrinking middle class anyone?). And the Church has seen it and often has become focused on changing it.  But the problem is, focusing on the nuclear family won’t turn the tide.

First, it leaves out and alienates too many people.  Families go to church.  Single people don’t.  50% of Americans are unmarried.  And guess what, most of them aren’t going to church.  Part of the reason? Focus on the nuclear family.

Secondly, Jesus wasn’t focussed on it.  Jesus said things like, “unless you hate your mother and father, or brother and sister, you are not worthy of me.”  He said, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.  For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, . . . a man’s enemies will be members of his own household”. Once when he was teaching, his mother and brothers came and he says, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” He points to his disciples and says, “Here are my mother and brothers.  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”  Try preaching that one on Mother’s day.

None of this is to say that family is bad or that the church shouldn’t speak to what marriage and family should look like.  It should.  People who are married need to know it and people who aren’t need to know what it would mean if they did get married.  Not only that, but marriage and family are set up by God.  Marriage happened pre-sin in the garden.  It’s not a concession, it’s a gift.  But the problem with focusing there or calling the family “the foundational institution of human society” is that God never said that.  God’s Family is the foundational institution of humanity – not my family – thank goodness!

The point of marriage, family, or for that matter celibacy, is to point to God, how he loves us, and the Kingdom, not the other way around.  When we lift one up over the other, we limit the picture of the Kingdom and we leave people out – the exact opposite of God’s picture.

You know what the safest, most welcoming place in the world for the single person should be?  The Church.  It should be the place that calls them family, not the place that makes them feel like they dont’ have one.  You see the Church should be a place where you can find fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters.  Maybe if we could figure out how to do that, we’d have less to worry about on the back end.  What we need is for the Church to focus on the Kingdom Family.

Which family is your church focused on?  Who are your brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters?

I believe this:  There is a family dinner table – and you are invited.  When you show up the Master meets you at the door – with a hug, not a handshake.  He serves the choicest of meals.  It doesn’t matter what your story is, how “important” your earthly role is/was. Married, never married – whatever.  It won’t matter except as part of your story.  Everyone has a seat.  He wants to hear everyone’s story – your story – even though He’s knows it. There’s no hurry.  You’ve got an eternity – and after all, this is family.

 

 

Focus On God’s Family

When I think back over my 20 years of singleness, one of the hardest things to deal with is loneliness and living life without a “nuclear family.”  It means you keep switching who you live with, hang out with and often go to church or small group with.  There is very little built in permanence to our relationships as an unmarried person.

This is exasperated by the transience of our society.  We move a lot.  Sometimes this is because we refuse to just settle in and settle down, but sometimes it is harder to stay put. Why can’t you move for that job promotion or calling?  You have fewer ties.

I remember when God was calling me to a new place in my career at age 30.  One of the biggest things that held me back was that I didn’t want to start all over relationally.  When you are married and you move, you have to start over, but you get to do it with someone. You still wake up with the same person, even if it is a new place.

The Church has a huge opportunity here.  But mostly we fumble it because we are focussed on the wrong family. 

As I mentioned last week many churches have family as an idol.  As pointed out by John in the comment section, some churches flat out say this, calling the family the foundational institution of society.  Most churches won’t say that in writing, instead they just imply it by almost everything they do and talk about.  But this is not right and not from the Bible.

Jesus almost never even mentions the nuclear family, and when he does He is usually talking about it mattering too much in the wrong ways.  Now to be fair that was a different culture in which family was more central than in our current one.  However the way to fix the lack of family in our culture is not to focus on it, but instead to focus on God and His family.

Jesus certainly does.  In Matthew 12 Jesus is speaking to people, sharing truths with a crowd.  His nuclear family shows up and they want to talk to him (or maybe reign him in a little).  Jesus responds, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”  Not exactly the answer we’d often hear today.

This is so important.  It’s part of what makes the Gospel scandalous.  This idea that there is new order coming, a new Kingdom where things are different and where all are welcome. He promises that those who have left all (including family) for the sake of the Kingdom will not be left out.

Again, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t teach about how to have a Godly marriage and family.  FAR FROM IT, or as Paul would say, BY NO MEANS.  In fact marriage was ordained by God (pre-sin) and it and the family can be a picture of the Kingdom when done right – so we need to learn to do it right. But what it does mean is that we have got to start from the premise of the bigger picture. A right theology of marriage, singleness and family can only start from having a focus on Jesus and His family first.

The Church should be a place where everyone feels welcome.  But right now that is often not the case.   And the reason isn’t because single people care less about God.  Here’s the truth – one of the hardest things to do as a single person is go to church alone.  It’s scary.  It’s easier to go almost anywhere else as an unmarried person.  School, work, the bar, the concert, the movies – all easier.  Especially for a non-believer (you know those people we are supposed to be reaching out to).

I’ve lived this.  When you move to a new place, church hunting as a single is brutal.  You have to be super motivated to make it happen.  Friends, when a single person shows up at your church, they are either really trying or really seeking – you need to go get them because if you do, God will move.

This starts by focusing on the Church family.  This is why it’s so important for married and singles to be friends.  As I’ve mentioned before, all my mentors have been married.  I have fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and even kids that are married as well as single.  They are my family just as much as my blood family.

We singles need to do our part.  The Church should be our permanence. That’s the promise of the Gospel and the way it’s going to be in the end anyway.  But when the focus is on the nuclear family and not the Church family we don’t fit.

What is your church’s focus?  Which family is first?

The Church’s Family Idol And Singleness

Here’s the truth about our culture right now. Close to 50% of marriages will end in divorce. Stats show that nearly one third of first marriages will end in divorce within the first 10 years.  When you add in out of wedlock births, close to 60% of kids in high school don’t live in their “nuclear family”.

The Church has seen this and tried to respond. . . mostly by talking about marriage and family.  But as an unintended consequence we have sometimes made family an idol. And for all of this attention to family, we are not winning.

We have this idea that if we do enough teaching on marriage and family that everything will turn around.  We have hundreds of books.  We hold seminars and conferences.  We have Focus on the Family, we have churches named the Family Church.  We have outreach to families.  We say, “We are going to be doing a sermon series on marriage so invite your neighbor.”

We’ve created this idea of the Biblical family.  This is a little crazy when you consider that there probably isn’t one marriage in the Bible that you would want to emulate.

Now to be sure there are great principles in the Bible for marriage.  But really they are mostly the same principles for all of life.  How do you love another person?  If you’re married, that should be the number one example of that. It’s your number one covenant relationship.

But the Bible isn’t about family. It’s about God and us, mainly God actually.  Jesus says unless you hate your wife and children, you can’t follow me.  How do we reconcile that with how we teach all this stuff?  Jesus is obviously not saying to hate anyone.  He is however saying that He comes first – and that is true regardless of marital status.  So the real question is regardless of my context how do I follow Jesus?  Seems to me we ought to talk to the other half of the peoples’ context.

Now before you rip me, let me say that I’m not against any of this.  I think it is vital the Church talk about these things.  I know that I have been impacted, even as a single, by these teachings.  I’m for it and I’ve encouraged us as singles to learn from it for a variety of reasons.  I’ve seen marriages and families be saved by it.  But this focus on the family will not turn the tide because singles aren’t there to listen to it.

Married people already go to church.  Most of the people that don’t go to church are not married.  According to Barna 37% of them have never been married at all.

What used to happen is the Church would lose the young 20 somethings and then when they got married they would come back.  The problem is that now they are not getting married.  Only 20% of those 18-29 have ever been married.  That means that we are losing the late 20 somethings.  It means that the neighbor you are supposed to invite to the marriage sermon series – they are single.

We can’t just say let’s save marriages because if we’re not careful, there won’t be any marriages to save.  We need a theology of singleness to go with our theology of marriage.  We need to offer some practical help for single people.  We can’t just say get married and then we will help you.  We need to help people figure out if they are called to celibacy or marriage and then help them do it.

Let me give you an example from my own church (which I love).  At my church we have what we call position papers.  These are “brief” papers that say where we stand on certain things.  So for example we have papers on baptism, communion, the end times, etc.

So of course we have a paper on marriage.  We also have one on divorce and remarriage. We have one on Christian sexual ethics.  We even have one on “dating” (we’d be better off with a position paper on how to get a date).  But we do not have one on singleness or celibacy.  And our church at one point was 50% single!  If we don’t have it, who does?

I’m not mad, bitter or whining. That’s not my heart at all.  But, we are losing and this is part of the reason why.  We need to deal with it.

Catch this:  Most of the battle for sexual purity, Godly marriage and family, and even the hot button issues like homosexuality and abortion, cannot be won without a right theology of singleness. People are lost and confused.

You CANNOT change this without a right theology of singleness.  And that theology has to go WAY beyond what not to do on a date.  Until it does it’s going to get worse, not better.

What is your church’s theology of singleness?  What is yours?