Leading churches

The Messy Part of Being Family

Do I want us to be family?

The other day David, a 50ish single, took two struggling single moms and their eight little kids shopping at Walmart. Besides necessities, he bought every kid a toy.

I was sort of blown away. For one, David’s a pretty reserved guy. Further, he’s not got much money himself.

That kind of caring is more and more common since our church started its gatherings in houses. I guess it’s the “face-to-faceness” of the groups. David plays with those kids and visits with their moms in his house church.

“Family” in our church seems more real now, more like I imagine the church in Acts: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had” (Acts 4:32).

All this has me thinking about our church as the family of God. A close brother, Leo Mendoza, says our church is his family; his biological family has little to do with him. But I wonder, Are we really family? Do we want to be? Do I want to be? What does that mean, really?

One Scripture passage haunts me when I think about this. It’s when Paul writes about giving financially to help the believers in Jerusalem: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality” (2 Corinthians 8:13,14).

Whoa. Would I be willing to drain my 401K to help needy brothers or sisters, hoping that if I later were in need, others would step forward to help? Would they come through? I’m not there yet, though my wife and I find ourselves more and more “foolishly generous” with the needs in our own house church.

Then there’s the messy part of family. My own family had troubles, but nothing like some folks. Being face-to-face means being eyeball-to-eyeball with each other’s conflicts, dumb choices, instability, neediness, even anger. How do we move forward and grow in all this? I mediate more conflict and engage more struggles than I “signed up for.”

Certainly, our urban church has more than its share of needy people. But I know that nearly everyone has their share of junk inside. If we are like family, that junk is going to surface. My wildly optimistic strategy of training new group leaders and multiplying groups has been blown away by all the mess! So what does all this family mess have to do with “multiplying disciples for the harvest?”

Yet the idea of church-like-family still grips my heart. There’s authenticity in families: They know what’s really up with one another. And there’s loyalty. As Robert Frost put it, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

Family is where the “one anothers” of the New Testament flourish: “Love one another. Forgive one another. Bear with one another. Encourage one another. . . .”

I’m not so starry-eyed about church as family these days. Emerging, though, is something breathtaking: honest sacrificial one-another love. It’s slow. It’s untidy. But I’m sticking with it.

Dennis Hesselbarth

Dennis Hesselbarth is interim pastor at United EFC in Seattle, Washington. He served for 26 years as pastor of Hilltop Urban Church (EFCA) in Wichita, Kansas.

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