Rediscovering the Church as Family

It seemed simple enough. Our Elder Board asked an ad hoc committee to provide guidelines for hiring future pastoral staff. I chose not to be on the committee, feeling others could easily handle the project.

When they began to meet, the chair, a management consultant, felt that the place to start was making sure the ministries of our church were properly aligned. They took the name Alignment Task Force. That’s when things got complicated for me.

It’s what healthy organizations do, I know. Align. Get everything and everyone going in the same direction as their stated mission. Shed the distractions. Refocus.

As our Associate Pastor, Michael, excitedly reported to me on the task force’s developments I grew increasingly agitated. It started like a dark cloud, about the size of a fist, on the distant horizon. A storm was brewing in me. It’s pretty simple: I don’t like this stuff. Actually, I’m unreasonably suspicious of it. I grumbled in my journal, “What is with the power of diagrams and lines?” It all felt like some kind of corporate plastic and chrome to me.

On the morning after one Elders’ meeting, I wrote, “This morning I feel like I have seen my own resignation around the bend. Maybe it’s the headache talking.”

THE SUBTLE MISTAKE

The weeks passed as I brooded and thrashed about. I was a pain about it all, especially to my Associate who bore the brunt of my frustrations. I was well aware that this process is endorsed by church leaders everywhere. But there was no motivation in it for me at all. Yet I didn’t know what to offer as an alternative. I tried to pray through my frustrations, but it was slow going and I probably was just grumbling to myself at least half the time.

Then it dawned on me. This was so hard for me because in our alignment efforts there seemed to be a subtle but unmistakable way of thinking of the church primarily as an organization. I’m motivated as a pastor to help create the right kind of environment for a church to be healthy and effective. That environment, to me, is best described as a home. As a pastor, I’m a “homemaker.”

As a pastor, I’m a ‘homemaker.’

Years ago the church I served in Pennsylvania was featured in a front-page article in the local paper’s Sunday edition. There was a big picture of me in our modest multipurpose auditorium. The article described our growth and our fresh approach to worship. The reporter had asked me about the challenges of pastoring a larger church, and I’d lamented that sometimes I felt more like a CEO than a pastor.

Over the next few days, there was some more public response about me being a CEO pastor in my plush executive office (anyone with this opinion had clearly never seen my office)! In the end, anyone who misunderstood that quote in the paper could have just talked with me about it and I would have heartily agreed that a CEO is not a good pastoral model, even though sometimes that role can’t be avoided.

REDISCOVERING THE CHURCH AS FAMILY

Thinking of a church as home changes a lot. A home is considerably different from an organization. Church leaders have to be very careful when we take our cues from companies, nonprofits, civic organizations, and the like.

But when we conceive of our church as home our priorities shift. Names matter more than numbers. We invest in the high priority of loving one another as the precursor to loving the lost. We take on the inefficient responsibility of caring for individuals. We learn to leave the ninety-nine in order to search for one lost sheep. We worship differently when we worship as a family. And leaders shepherd their flock more as parents than executives.

A home is considerably different from an organization.

It has been right before our eyes in the Bible all along. Scores of references to “brothers and sisters,” to God as our Father, to Jesus as both our Bridegroom and Elder Brother, to the essential loving unity of God’s family, and to the household environment of holiness, spiritual nurture, and safety. Paul taught Timothy “how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God . . .” (1 Tim. 3:15). He told the Ephesians, “You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household” (Eph. 2:19).

New Testament Greek uses the word oíkos to refer to God’s people about a dozen times. For example, in Matthew 24:44–45 Jesus refers to Himself as the head of the house and His followers as His “household.” Hebrews 3:6 says, “Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.” Peter twice refers to the “family of believers” or “brotherhood” (ESV) with the Greek word adelphotes (1 Peter 2:17; 5:9). Translators may not use the word home, but it is obviously a suitable synonym for our Christian family.

Commentator Robert Banks wrote, “A whole cluster of terms from family life are applied to the Christian community. Some of these are among the most frequently used terms in Paul’s vocabulary.” He also says, “So numerous are these, and so frequently do they appear, that the comparison of the Christian community with a ‘family’ must be regarded as the most significant metaphorical usage of all.”

Almost always, as with Banks, the description of the church as God’s family is regarded as a metaphor, like the bride, field, or temple. But it isn’t really a metaphor at all. God’s household is the very definition of the church. We’re not like a household or family. We are one.

We’re not like a household or family. We are one.

Pastor and writer Mark Buchanan affirms this: “Jesus is not ashamed to be called our brother. The Father gives us the Spirit of adoption through whom we cry, ‘Abba!’ Jesus asks who his mother and brother and sisters are, and answers they are those who do the Father’s will. From the cross Jesus says to the disciple John and his mother Mary, ‘Behold your son; behold your mother.’ And he says that our loyalty to him must transcend biological attachments.”

WHEN THE CHURCH IS FAMILY

To think of church as a home rather than an organization changes the way we lead. For one thing, vision statements—which many churches wrestle with—aren’t very important in most families. I know a vision statement can be useful, but they’re overrated when it comes to church families.

I know a vision statement can be useful, but they’re overrated when it comes to church families.

Every church has outliers—people who don’t get with the program. They seem like a drag on our progress. Too needy, maybe; or stubborn, or immature. I’ve heard of churches who tell those who won’t commit to their vision to take a hike. Find another church. It’s hard to pull that off in a family. You not only take what you get, but you must love them, too.

The people in a church, just as in a family, have a way of going off in odd, unexpected directions. Some turn out to be more remarkable than we ever bargained for, like gifted or lionhearted kids, a credit to the family. Some live for a long time in the fog of finding themselves. There are some who break our hearts.

I imagine every pastor knows what it is to watch the horizon along with the Father for prodigals, loved but long gone. With such unpredictable families it is hard for a church to stick to the vision.

The family members are the primary concern of a healthy home. So it is in the church. It sounds nearly heretical to say so, but the lost are not our first concern as church leaders nor as church members. Our first responsibility is God’s household.


Excerpted from Feels Like Home: How Rediscovering the Church as Family Changes Everything by Lee Eclov (©2019). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.

Lee Eclov is Senior Pastor of the Village Church of Lincolnshire (Evangelical Free) in the northern suburbs of Chicago where he has served since 1998. Previously, he served for fourteen years as senior pastor of Chippewa Evangelical Free Church, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and for five years as an Assistant Pastor at North Suburban Evangelical Free Church, Deerfield, Illinois. His columns on preaching and his sermons appear regularly at www.PreachingToday.com and he is a Contributing Editor of Leadership Journal. He has been an adjunct professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for over ten years, currently teaching pastoral counseling. Lee is a native of South Dakota and the product of a rural church. He and his wife Susan have been married for nearly 40 years and have one son, Anders.