For decades, Christians have worried about the weakening, shrinking, and decline of families. We’re in uncharted territory when large numbers of children no longer have siblings (and have fewer aunts, uncles, and cousins) or no longer live with both biological parents. Nearly 30 percent of households today consist of only one person.

In response to these trends, most pastors and church leaders devote their efforts to dealing with the fallout, looking for ways the church can strengthen families in crisis or mitigate the aftermath of family dissolution or better involve singles in ministry. The pastoral impulse to find avenues for the church to serve people in distress is vital.

But a bigger question often goes unasked: How does the decline of the family alter the way we understand the church? It’s not enough to ask how the church can address the breakdown of family relationships; we must also consider how these new challenges affect church relationships. Consider a few examples:

  • How do we understand what it means to have “brothers and sisters” in Christ in a world where more and more children are born and raised without siblings? (That’s a question I’ve asked in relation to China, where the economic and demographic fallout from the disastrous one-child policy has led to a world where siblings are the exception, not the norm.)
  • How do we continue to see the church as the family of God in a world where more and more people live in a household of one, especially in cities where in some congregations singles outnumber couples?
  • What’s the long-term effect of homes broken by divorce on how we view God as Father?
  • How does the perpetual unsettledness of mom’s or dad’s serial relationships affect a child’s understanding of God’s permanent covenant love?

No Easy Answers

These are challenging questions, in part because the situations and circumstances differ from person to person, family to family, and culture to culture. I don’t claim to have all the answers here, and I realize even asking these questions implies some family structures (husband and wife with marriage intact and the children born of their love) are closer to a universal standard. We run the risk of idealizing a particular arrangement as the norm in all places and times, when instead, for example, traditional societies often differ from the Western-style “nuclear family” by placing a higher value on the involvement of and expectations for the “extended” family.

Still, there’s no getting around these issues, because the Scriptures (1) regularly speak of the body of Christ in familial terms and (2) are shot through with marital and familial imagery. We’re right to consider how our understanding of the church is affected when long-standing family relationships (father and mother, child to parent, brother to brother) become less common.

Why Families Matter

When exceptions become the norm in family life—as family sizes get smaller and fewer children have brothers and sisters, as single-parenting becomes commonplace and divorce and remarriage expected—it becomes harder, not easier, for us to undergo the process of learning to live well in other spheres of life. Gregg Ten Elshof writes,

“Learn how to be a good daughter and you will know how to negotiate the dynamics of being a good employee. Learn to be a good father and you will know how to be a good supervisor. Learn to be a good younger sibling and you will know how to receive instruction from a teacher while maintaining a healthy degree of autonomy.”

Unfortunately, expressive individualism often leads us to consider a person in the abstract—isolated and separated from others. The individual is the fundamental unit of society, separated from our familial and relational context. But there’s no way to strip away relationships without stripping an important aspect of humanity away at the same time. No living tree is without roots. No living person is without ancestors. We are, in the end, relational beings.

G. K. Chesterton pointed out that the power of family life lies precisely in the fact we don’t choose our companions. We must learn to deal with people who are unlike us. To revolt against the family because it’s uncongenial is to revolt against mankind.

“Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind. Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind. Grandpapa is stupid, like the world; he is old, like the world.”

Chesterton describes being born as “the supreme adventure,” walking into “a splendid and startling trap,” with father and mother lying in wait, an uncle there to surprise us, an aunt as a bolt out of the blue:

“When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made.”

The family is an adventure, full of promise and peril. Adventures can go well, leading to heroic displays of virtue, and adventures can go wrong, leading to deep pain and trauma. Family life is rarely easy, and that’s precisely why the family matters for understanding our place in the world and our future.

Family Life and the Church

The adventure of family life prepares us for the adventure of living well in other spheres. By learning to relate well to parents and siblings, aunts and uncles and cousins, grandparents and great-grandparents, we develop the skills necessary for making friends, loving our neighbors, respecting those in authority over us, and, most of all, being the family of God—the church. It’s harder to discover what loving the church looks like—“a fellowship of differents” as Scot McKnight describes God’s people—until we learn to love those in our immediate and extended family.

It’s possible, of course, to make too much of the family’s importance, perhaps by freezing a particular form of the nuclear family (father, mother, 2.5 kids) as essential to human flourishing. The New Testament strikes against both individualistic excess and kinship idolization. We mustn’t forget how Jesus relativized the priority of blood relations in some shocking ways. And the apostle Paul’s high view of singleness should keep us from dismissing or diminishing people whose situations and callings are different.

Still, we cannot understate the family’s formative power. When a society’s view and experience of the family shift, we should expect the church’s self-understanding to be affected too. Ten Elshof asks,

“What do you get when you invite folks steeped in the contemporary Western posture toward family to apply what they’re already doing in the context of family to their Christian communities—when you invite them to be extended family for one another? Perhaps you get an association of folks who think of themselves in largely autonomous and individualistic terms and who slide in and out of connection with different churches over the years depending on where their life’s pursuits, interests, and preferences take them.”

Ten Elshof’s point is that if we’re to see church as a family, even a surrogate family, we need the majority of people to have some sort of knowledge and experience in what it means to relate to family members. “You cannot extend what you’ve not yet acquired,” he writes. Apart from learning (from your own experience or from imitating those around you) what it means to be a brother or a sister, a son or a daughter, or a father or a mother, it’ll be more challenging to be the church and to relate well to our family members in Christ.

Family Life and Secularism

We need more pastors and church leaders wrestling with the question not only of how the church can serve people today but of how family situations today affect our view of the church. We should expect our understanding of the church to be altered in a culture where fewer and fewer people grow up with siblings, or with extended relatives around, or in stable homes. This matters for the church and for society.

I don’t have all the answers here, but I think part of the answer is at least asking the question, How does the widespread dissolution of traditional family expectations, due in large part to the prevailing assumptions of individualism, affect our ability to see the church as a family and to act accordingly?

Another question follows: How does the gospel renew and restore the people of God so those who’ve never experienced healthy family life are able to take their place among new brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, children and grandchildren in Christ?

Ten years ago, Mary Eberstadt proposed a new theory of secularization. Most assume marriage and childbearing decline in Western societies after they begin to secularize, but Eberstadt claimed the decline of marriage and childbearing speeds up and causes secularization. Religion and family are in a “double helix”—two threads circling endlessly around one another, rising and falling together, joined in the middle by important connections. Family formation influences religious belief. “Family illiteracy breeds religious illiteracy,” she writes.

Perhaps at least part of the reason there’s been so much focus on the family among Christians in recent decades is the instinct that the strength of the church and the strength of the family often rise and fall together. On this point, we’ve not been wrong.

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