I can’t wait to hug my grandparents again. I look forward to a future Saturday morning with my brother, playing guitar together after we munch on doughnut holes. I can’t wait to grill out with my parents and then enjoy good conversation outside around their pond. And oh for the day my kids are reunited with all their rambunctious cousins and the house descends into a cacophony of joy!

As thankful as we are for technology, FaceTime just doesn’t cut it. I miss my family. And I miss people in my church as well. Every Sunday that goes by, even with our life group meeting on Zoom or our worship service streaming live, I long for the face-to-face gathering of the saints.

Missing church should feel like missing family. Because we are family.

Brother Trevin

One of the cultural differences I discovered when doing ministry in Romania as a 20-something was that everyone called me “Brother Trevin.” In the United States, “brother” was the title you gave to pastors on staff. It was a term of endearment and respect. In the Romanian church culture, everyone was brother this or sister that. Even the teens and preteens, when they would sing, pray out loud, or offer an exhortation, were introduced as Brother Alin or Sister Lidia.

Because everyone was brother or sister, the church felt more like family than anything I had experienced before. Scot McKnight’s recent book on the apostle Paul’s vision for spiritual formation (Pastor Paul: Nurturing a Culture of Christoformity in the Church) includes a chapter on the church as a “culture of siblings,” and there he urges pastors to give more attention to how they speak of their congregations.

“Words matter. Images shape. Metaphors live. Some preacher types think of their churches as audiences; some counselor types think of their congregations as souls; some teacher types think of them as students; sacramental types might think of their congregations as sinners in need of mediation or as needy people. The apostle Paul constantly called his churches siblings, and the constant thinking of them as siblings and calling them siblings built a culture of siblingship rather than a culture of an audience, souls, students, or those in need of mediation” (62).

More Than Friends

Scot believes the church as a familial culture should stand out. We should be marked by five things:

  1. by love
  2. by love for all siblings
  3. by mutual growth into Christoformity
  4. by recognizing the safety and security of boundaries
  5. by knowing that sibling relations began with Jesus, our Brother.

That last point is the foundation for all the others. Scot writes:

“For Paul, we are more than friends; friendship is not the goal. Rather, friendship morphs into siblingship. We are siblings because of our Elder Sibling; we become siblings through the work of Christ and the power of the Spirit; we are related as siblings only because of Christ and his redemption” (78).

Paul’s description of the church in sibling terms means that Christians are to love one another like brothers and sisters. Scot cites Romanian writer Emil Cioran: “Love is an agreement on the part of two people to over-estimate each other,” an echo of Paul’s admonition for church family members to outdo one another in showing honor (Rom. 12:10).

Challenge to a Culture of Siblings

One of the challenges we face as the church in a consumerist society is that it’s easy to look for a congregation where the people are just like you—segregated by ethnicity, class, culture, politics, or worship style.

We must resist the consumerist impulse. The church’s formative influence as a family has its greatest effect when we are thrust into community with people we wouldn’t have chosen on our own—people with a variety of differences. To love your siblings is to love them in spite of difference, to love them because they’re part of the family, and because God in Christ has adopted them, just as he chose you.

The culture of siblings counters the notion that the church is just a voluntary association of people coming in and out of worship. Some congregations act this way, and some church leaders have embraced an essentially porous understanding of the church. But Scot recognizes that, like a family, the church is “a boundaried community of love.”

“What marks the siblings in the Christian community is baptism, a life of faith under Christ, and the identity that flows out of those waters. . . . That boundaried community is to learn to know itself as nothing less than a community of siblings that, like ancient families, is to maintain its honor by living appropriately as a community of faith” (70).

Church with Family Fights

I don’t want to present an overly rosy view of seeing the church as a family. In churches where everyone sees each other as brother or sister, where people have a vested interest in seeing one another become more like Christ, people may love like family, but they squabble like family, too. But that’s the adventure of family, isn’t it?

G. K. Chesterton took issue with writers who spoke negatively of the family for being “not always very congenial,” and claimed instead that its very uncongeniality is what makes the family a good institution.

“It is wholesome precisely because it contains so many divergencies and varieties. . . . It is exactly because our brother George is not interested in our religious difficulties, but is interested in the Trocadero Restaurant. . . . It is precisely because our uncle Henry does not approve of the theatrical ambitions of our sister Sarah that the family is like humanity. The men and women who, for good reasons and bad, revolt against the family, are, for good reasons and bad, simply revolting 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’s wisdom applies also to those who consistently harbor negative feelings about the church. There are so many people with issues. I don’t get along with this person or that. We seem to debate unnecessary things! It would be tempting to trade your church family for a group of friends who are just like you. Or to tailor your spiritual growth based on your favorite Christian thinkers or podcasts.

But what if issues and problems and debates exist within the church because the church is alive? What if drama happens occasionally because the church is full of real sinner/saints, a group of people who have next to nothing in common except for their love and devotion to Jesus Christ and gratitude for his great salvation?

Maybe in this season of quarantine we should ask if missing our church feels like missing family. If it does, how can we further develop that culture of siblings? If it doesn’t, how might we change things once we emerge from these days of isolation?