FAMILY. When you hear this word, what is the first image that pops in your mind? Was it your spouse? Your kids? Parents? Siblings? I’m guessing this is the case for most of us. Did any of you think of church? Probably most of us didn’t see an image of a Sunday service or a church picnic.
Family can be wonderful. God designed family to be the life-giving space where a father and mother deeply and sacrificially love each other, where children are raised up to know Jesus and walk in His ways, and where there is a rich sense of belonging and loyalty within the family tribe. And the Church must always contend to support and strengthen the nuclear family unit.
The Ugly Truth
But there is an ugly truth that we can’t deny in our day and age. Today, about half of marriages end in divorce, many parents decide to not get married at all, and LGBTQ+ living situations are exponentially on the rise. These and other factors have led to the painful reality that 54% of American children didn’t grow up in a “traditional” (heterosexual, two-parent) home. That’s right; over half of the children in the U.S. are being raised in what is commonly known as a broken home. For these children, they often never received the full-benefits package that comes from a healthy family. They deeply need healing and belonging. And they often won’t find it at home. They need the Church.
Church Is Our “First Family”
Interestingly enough, the most common language that the Bible uses to describe the Church is that of a family. In the thirteen letters of Paul in the New Testament, the familial terminology of adelph (brother/sister) occurs 139 times, pater (father) occurs 63 times, kleronom (inherit/inheritance/heir) occurs 19 times, huio (sons) occurs 17 times, and tekn (child) occurs 39 times. Theologian and Cambridge professor Robert J. Banks states, “… The comparison of the Christian community with a “family” must be regarded as the most significant metaphorical usage of all.” And he goes on to say, “More than any of the other images utilized by Paul, it reveals the essence of his thinking about community.” And Christian philosopher and author James K.A. Smith, in Desiring the Kingdom, even goes so far in his emphasis of the church as a family to refer to the church as our “first family.” We are adopted into God’s family (Ephesians 1:5), instructed to pray to God as our Father (Matthew 6:9), to relate to other believers as brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:50), and to see true religion as caring for widows and orphans (James 1:27). This is God’s redemptive plan for broken families and relationships: that the Church would be our family.
Longing For Belonging
For over half of our children today, there is no plan B. But even for the rest of the children that did grow up with their biological mother and father under the same roof, they need the Church family just as much as the rest of us. They need the faith of their parents to become their own faith, and they need other loving, caring adults and peers to help them grow up in the Lord. Every single child needs the Church family.
At Awana, we have seen the lives of countless children transformed by Jesus through the presence of the Church family. In our recent book Resilient, we state that, “A ‘seeing’ church understands that this generation of children needs the church to be family like no modern generation before them.” This is why the first component of our 3B ministry philosophy (belong, believe, become) is Belong, which entails highly relational ministry led by loving, caring adults. When children are in an environment that provides familial belonging, the soil is set for them to believe the truths of God’s Word and become children who know, love and serve the Lord Jesus and are resilient to the cultural pressures of our day.
We Must Open The Home
We’d like to think that our churches and families within our churches are welcoming, but so often the church can functionally look like a collection of families rather than one big family. Think about holidays like Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving. Who is around the table? Or family picnic days, parent-child campouts, family talent shows, baptisms, weddings, and even just sitting together at church gatherings. These experiences are important and can be absolutely wonderful, but for those who don’t have a father to go camping and fishing with or who don’t have a family or home in which to celebrate Christmas, these pillar moments in a believer’s life can be deeply painful and lonely. Often for singles, widows, orphans and children whose families aren’t intact or aren’t believers, their experience of church doesn’t feel like family. We need to change our paradigm about how we view family and ministry.
For those of us involved in children’s ministry, we must begin to see that “our ministry” is also our family. And our ministry deeply needs family. And, interestingly enough, our nuclear family needs them, too. James K. A. Smith wonderfully explains how we might begin to head in the right direction as a family unit: “If the church is our first family, then our second homes should be defined by it, and our doors ought to be open to the stranger, the sick, and the poor. Baptism opens the home, liberating it from the burden of impossible self-sufficiency, while also opening it to the “disruptive friendships” that are the mark of the kingdom of God.” Although it might not be comfortable to invite your widow friend over for Thanksgiving or that school friend that your son brought to Awana over for Christmas morning or Sunday family dinner, it is essential that we as the Church begin to take responsibility for being the familial hands and feet of Jesus to those around us.
Jesus, our Model
Jesus modeled perfectly for us what it looks like to love others beyond our blood family. All through the Gospels, we read about Him being filled with compassion for others as He cared for them. He loved the outcasts, tax collectors, prostitutes, the children, His disciples and the multitudes. Those around him were loved like his own family. In John 15, Jesus says, “As the Father has loved Me, so have I loved you.” And in Matthew 12, when someone interrupted Jesus by telling Him that His mother and brothers were waiting to speak to Him, He flips all cultural norms upside down by pointing to His disciples and stating that these are His mother and brothers! He wasn’t married, and He didn’t have children. He gets it. He lived it. The Church was His family; and so also, it must be ours. We must see and love the Church as our own family — for the sake of our children and for the sake of the world. This is the hope for the other half of children.
“The glory that You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one even as We are one, I in them and You in Me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You sent Me and loved them even as You loved Me.” (John 17:22-23)
 Pewresearch.org. “Fewer than half of U.S. kids today live in a ‘traditional’ family .” Last updated December 22, 2014. Accessed May 9, 2017. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/12/22/less-than-half-of-u-s-kids-today-live-in-a-traditional-family/.
Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 77.
 Robert J. Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Cultural Setting (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 49.
 James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2009), 186.
 Resilient, p. 105.
 James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2009), 186-187.
Article written by Taylor Skidmore