The Church as Family

I’ve just finished reading Messy Church and for the past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of church as family.

We often like to think of the church in one of the following different ways: a corporate entity (with strict lines of authority, structures, rules and regulations), a movement (a group of people rallying behind an idea or cause), or an event (a gathering for a specific purpose at any one point in time). But the more I think about, the more I know it’s true that church is family.

So here are a few things I’ve gleaned as I’ve meditated on that concept:

1. Being a Multigenerational Church

I have already dealt with this point quite a bit in my previous post. There is a lot we can learn from the different generations. The wisdom and experience of the old must be matched to the freshness and innovation of the young.

The multigenerational mandate is found in Psalm 145:4, which calls one generation to commend God’s works to the next generation.

I want to take a moment to highlight another one of Ross Parsley’s points on this: if we don’t raise up the generation, then the current generation will die without a successor. On the other hand, if we grow the next generation, then the church will experience both success and succession.

Parsley says this:

It takes no skill or expertise for a church to grow older….

We don’t really have to work at growing the church older because it happens naturally. It happens automatically. People work together and live life together, and they grow old. All the hard work for a church is in continually reaching down to the next generation and including them in the life of the family.

Let’s make it a point to continually grow the next generation so that they can stand on our shoulders and reach higher than we could have ever done on our own!

2. Relational Accountability

I like this idea.

For a long time, I think the church has taught a very artificial form of “submission to authority”, almost as if submission is arbitrary because it is a command of God. During the Shepherding Movement of the 80s, this reached ludicrous heights when shepherds were able to dictate the minutest details of a believer’s life, from the clothes they wear to the people (I mean, person) they should marry.

It wasn’t even acceptable to question that authority because, as much as the command was a “stick”, the “carrot” was that if one remained under authority, one also remained under divine covering and protection.

Postmoderns completely abhor this “mindless follower” mentality.

Parsley makes this point:

I don’t believe in trying to create accountability. I believe in relationships where accountability is the by-product. If we try to set up accountability without relationship, we’ll be tempted to hide our failures. If we build relationships with those whom we love, we won’t want to lie. We’ll endure painful truth because love is at stake. Accountability without relationship can easily turn into empty legalism and broken rules. But relationships filled with love create the seedbed for honesty and integrity.

I’ve been in many accountability relationships, but I agree with Parsley completely. The ones where the other party speaks into your life the most is the one where relationship has come before accountability.

And I think we also need to allow the relationship to flow both ways. Just because I’m the more mature one doesn’t mean that I can’t learn from a younger person. On the contrary, we should, as Parsley suggests, “practise a leadership style that says we can’t learn everything from someone, but we can learn something from everyone”.

3. Grace the Basis of Authenticity

The last point I want to make is the importance of authenticity.

One of the things I’ve found about being in a family is that all your bad bits are there for your family to see. It’s pretty hard to hide stuff from your wife! Your family sees your inconsistency, your failures, your character flaws, your bad habits. We don’t like to display those things at church! Instead, we want to to portray consistency, successes, character strengths and good habits. Who we are in church is definitely not who are at home, no matter how much we want to believe otherwise.

I like worship leaders like Carlos Whittaker. In a very public domain (such as his blog), he uses some pretty “colourful” language. I’m beginning to think that that’s okay.

I have a friend who is always telling me how in his church, it’s okay to be real. I love talking to this guy because what you see is what you get. And it makes me feel unguarded.

Even if being real jars our “good Christian sensibilities” sometimes, it creates a stronger sense of relationship and ultimately accountability and growth. It’s better in my view to lay all your cards on the table (as I say, to be “unguarded”), so that as a family of believers, we know what we are dealing with, we accept each other, and we challenge each other to grow.

To do this, we need to come back to the grace of God and realise that none of us are perfect, none of us could have been accepted by God, except through Christ’s sacrifice and blood that covers all our sins. But we also need to flip this on its head too, and realise that once we “in Christ”, we are made completely righteous.

This is how Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it in his exposition of Romans:

Have you really seen yourself ‘in Christ’? …. You have been put there, you have been engrafted, you are in Him, and therefore you are constituted a righteous person. That is how God looks at you. God no longer looks at you as a sinner and as you were in Adam. That is the whole point of the Gospel, and you must never look at yourself as a sinner again. You are not a sinner, you are child of God. You are a child who fails, and who falls, but you are not a sinner any longer. For a Christian to call himself a ‘miserable sinner’ is to deny this entire argument. He was a ‘miserable sinner’, but he is now a righteous person; and when he fails and falls he does so in the realm of family, in the realm of love. But, thank God, he does not change his position; his standing is not changed, the relationship to God is not changed. Look at yourself always exclusively and entirely in Christ, even as, before, it was all entirely and exclusively in Adam.

I love that phrase: “when you fall, you fall in the realm of family, in the realm of love”. Just as God sees us as righteous in Christ, we need to start seeing each other in the same way. This requires us to embrace a revolution of grace in our churches.

My old church, with all its good qualities and all its flaws, was very much a family.

We’ve now been in Faith Community Church for about 5 months now, and even though it’s a larger church, I’m glad to say that there is still a strong sense of family and belonging. For this, I’m really grateful for a wonderful bunch of people in my cell group, who’ve really taken us in and involved us in their lives. We’re still in the honeymoon phase of course, but I’m glad to say that the foundations are there for the church to really be family through thick and thin.

Church (S)hopping

“Church hopping” is a phenomenon, particularly prevalent in the early Charismatic movement, when Christians would move from church to church, conference to conference, to chase down the best teachers and the most, well, charismatic speakers. As a result, many Christians became dislocated; whilst they heard great teaching, there was no space for them to apply that teaching and experience spiritual formation in the context of community.

Consequently, one of the most insidious aspects of the Charismatic movement was allowed to spring up, now documented by most church historians as the “Shepherding Controversy”.

The central message was that everyone should be connected to a leader above themselves and in turn disciple others. Vinson Synan describes it this way in his book The Century of the Holy Spirit:

This “shepherding” system was considered to be an answer for the thousands of charismatics who were drifting from conference to conference and at times receiving questionable teaching and leadership. To these rootless and wandering masses, the [teachers of the movement] offered “covenant relationships” between a “shepherd” or “covering” who would direct the spiritual lives of his “disciples”.

What began as a good intention was a first step on a slippery slope. Soon, shepherds were dictating to their disciples things like what clothes to wear; what they did with their spare time; even who they should marry! And the shepherds continued to propagate that culture through a theology of fear which went something like this: to be blessed by God, you needed to be under the spiritual covering of a shepherd. Move out of that covering and you move out of the sphere of God’s protection.

By the late 70s, the movement had begun to wane as prominent Charismatic leaders began to teach against it. But a thread of the Shepherding Controversy continues to live on, particularly in churches today where lines of authority are emphasised. Instead of spiritual covering from shepherds who were outside the local church structure, the spiritual covering was now provided by the local church pastor. The dire consequences of not remaining “under the covering” remains.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m all for accountability. I am spiritually accountable to my wife (she might disagree!), some leaders of the church in the city and my close Christian friends who speak into my life. But I’m not accountable to them to the extent that they will dictate the small details of my life (maybe my wife is an exception!). Why? Because God and I are on speaking terms. If a person in authority says to me “I believe God is saying this and this about your life”, I also expect God to tell me Himself!

Anyway, I’ve gotten myself sidetracked now, because what I really want to explore in this post is “church shopping” which is a much more enjoyable activity. It is what happens when you leave a church and you get the privilege of finding a new one to belong to.

Ling and I visited over 15 churches in the last 7 months as we prayerfully considered where God would have us settle. It was a great experience because when you have belonged to one church for 21 years, you never really get to see what other churches are doing. So as we visited some of these churches, we went out with a shopping list of essential items – things we wanted in the church that we would call home. In my next post, I will highlight some of the great things about some of the churches we visited, but here, I want to share my shopping list with you:

1. Vibrant worship

As a worship minister, this was non-negotiable. We wanted to be in a place where we could sense the presence of God in worship. Now, how each person gets that sense will be subjective, but we sensed this more in some churches than others. You might feel differently about this, so that’s why I say it’s subjective. Importantly, we wanted this sense of God’s presence married to musical excellence as well because more often than not, the two aspects go hand in hand. God’s presence operates independently of musical excellence; musical excellence without God’s presence is sounding brass and clashing cymbals. But when the two come together, it’s heaven on earth.

2. Inspiring sermons (that don’t go for too long!).

Okay, so this is a composite of two related items. First, the sermon must be Word-based and challenging. The Word of God must be what inspires transformation. I’m over those sermons where you can take out the opening Bible passage and the rest just sounds like a motivational speech.

The second aspect is sermon length. The older I get, the less I retain. I just need the main point of the message to penetrate my heart and linger in my thoughts: three points (each containing three subpoints) are just too much to process. And after 45 minutes, I really need a Kool Mint to stay awake (Joseph Prince is the only exception here. He can preach for 1.5 hours and it’d still be okay).

Actually, and ironically, I have a third subpoint to this main point: the sermon should be anchored in God’s grace. I don’t need grace theology rammed down my throat every week, but messages based on what God has done are definitely more biblical (and inspirational) than those which emphasis my need to do things to gain God’s approval.

3. Warm Fellowship

When you are a visitor to a church, it can be really intimidating. The shoe moves to the other foot and you realise what it must have been like for those visitors who step foot into your church for the first time. You start worrying whether you stick out like a sore thumb (especially if you are Asian and the church ain’t), and you wonder whether you should draw attention to yourself when the chairperson asks for newcomers to stick up your hand if you are there for the first time. (I’ve decided now that whether I put my hand up depends on how good the newcomer’s gift is: in Influencers Church, you get a Paradise CD which retails at $21.95, so I happily stuck my hand up there).

A strong community on a Sunday can actually draw you deeper into the life of the church. But importantly, we wanted strong discipling communities that would foster accountability, encouragement and spiritual growth.

4. Outward Focus

We wanted to be part of a church that had a strong outreach program; and even better, a strategic (rather than an ad hoc) outreach program. The intent of the church was always to mediate between God and the unreached: apart from that, there really is no other impetus for Christians to exist in the world.

But apart from the function of witness, we also wanted to be part of a church that was connected to the body of Christ in the city, generous in resources to other churches and willing to sacrifice to answer Jesus’ high priestly prayer: that we might be one so that the world may know that Jesus was sent of God.

5. Supernatural in Orientation

Strangely, the supernatural and me are an awkward marriage: I know that the Christian life must be supernatural, but I think I’m very much a carnal, rationalistic creature. So a supernatural bent is important to challenge me in my faith, to believe God for greater things, to dabble in the impossible.

My wife is really into healing ministry, so as part of this “must have” item, we wanted to be part of a church with a strong healing ministry. For her, it’s an avenue to serve. For me, it’s to remind me that God is still doing incredible things in our world.

6. A Strong Vision

This is the last item on our shopping list and an important overarching one at that. I actually believe that the church most resembles the original model in the book of Acts when it is organic and flat-structured. But for now, I have to accept that most people do church based on an organisational model. And under that model, what makes the church successful in carrying out its mission in this world is strong (inspiring but not controlling) leadership and a strong vision.

Vision is like the first shirt button. Get that one right and all other activities will be referable to it and fall into the right place. Get the vision wrong, or have one that’s too vague, and everyone ends up doing whatever they want with no follow-through.

I like a vision that thinks big and acts big: one where together, a church will strive for the impossible, even if it means that at best, we achieve the nigh-on-impossible!

So that’s my church shopping list. And I’m glad to say that we’ve found a church that checks all the boxes!