What Makes a Church a Family?

Family feud

The gospel of grace has exploded over the past few years. Ten years ago you probably hadn’t heard of Joseph Prince, Andrew Wommack, or Escape to Reality. But today many people are preaching grace, writing about grace, singing about grace, and walking in grace.

There are countless sermons, books, and videos on grace, and gazillions of testimonies – stories about how lives have been radically changed by the healing power of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness.

Given this exciting and global revolution, why is it still so hard to find a church preaching pure grace? Why do many churches still preach a mixed-up message of grace-plus-works? It seems the grace revolution has touched every corner of the world, except the main street church. Why is that?

Why is the church slow to get grace?

The reason some churches are slow to embrace grace is because they are not families. They may say they are a family, but what they say differs from what they do.

God sets the solitary in families. (Ps 68:6)

Family is where we do life and encounter Jesus. You need love, grace and healing? You’ll find it in God’s family.

Churches that function like families get grace; churches that function like businesses or platoons, don’t. I don’t say this to disparage the local church, but to strengthen God’s wonderful family. An orphaned world needs a family, and the church is how God meets that need (see Eph 3:10).

What makes a church a family?

Now there’s a question worthy of discussion at your next leaders’ meeting. What makes a church a family? This may be the most important question a pastor can ask, yet when I was leading a church I seldom did. The word family was not even in our vision and values statement. (Is it in yours?)

Again, I’m not here to make anyone feel bad but to ask a healthy question. Are we a family? Are we real or superficial in our togetherness? Are we grace-givers or grace-killers?

I don’t have this all figured out by any means, but I’ll get the ball rolling. (You might want to add your own suggestions below.) What makes a church a family? For that matter what makes a family a family? It starts with these seven things:

1. Unconditional love

In a healthy family you are loved no matter what. Nothing you do can cause you to be cut out of your family.

But in a church built on anything other than love, relationships hinge on theological agreement. Think differently from the group and you’ll be marginalized, even ostracized. Ask too many questions and you may be asked to leave.

2. Love-based relationships

My marriage and my children are the product of love. I didn’t marry Camilla or have kids because they could play guitar, lead small groups, or provide for my retirement. I don’t see them as resources or recruits.

Churches are such busy places that often the only relationships we can manage are task-based. “If we serve together, we can hang out together. But if you’re not here to work, I can’t make the time.” In a family, intimacy is a right to be enjoyed by all, but in a working church it is often a reward for performance.

3. Families are real

If you showed up at our house without warning, you’d find signs of four messy children and two grown-ups too tired to do anything about it. There’s LEGO on the table, and food on the floor. None of the beds have been made and you can’t get into the laundry for the pile of unwashed clothes. It looks like a dump because life is taking place. Projects are in progress. Learning is happening. That deafening racket is the sound of happy people growing together.

Families are messy and honest, but churches can be shiny and fake. We want to do our best and wear our best for Jesus, but the cost may be more than we can bear. Burn out, fatigue, anxiety – these are the fruits of pretending we have it altogether. Churches talk about doing life together (good!), but life is more than meetings and monologues.

4. The parents provide, the children receive

In a family the parents are the source of love, hope, food, shelter, and pocket money. I ask only one thing of my children; that they receive. Receiving is the key to life. A baby or young child that doesn’t receive, doesn’t live.

In the church we may send a different message: provide. “A sheep that doesn’t provide meat and wool is a useless sheep.” What a terrible message! The sheep are there to be fed not fleeced.

If the church is to be a family, we need to recognize the father, and it’s not the pastor. Jesus said, “Do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven” (Matt 23:9).

Your pastor has needs just like you. Contrary to outward appearances, he doesn’t have it all together. The moment we give the Father’s job to him we set him up for disaster. So let us redefine the role of leader as receiver, and let us follow our leaders in receiving as they follow Jesus (1 Cor 11:1).

5. Children are empowered

We don’t want our children to be robots, so we teach them to think for themselves. Sure, rules are needed at first (stay off the driveway, don’t stick your fingers in the socket), but this is a temporary arrangement. Ultimately we want our children to learn to rely on the Holy Spirit so they can make wise, life-giving choices.

A church destroys itself by preaching law. “The law teaches us how to live.” No it doesn’t. The law condemns and kills. It inflames sin and destroys hope.

Jesus said, “The Holy Spirit will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). Read the New Testament and you will find a church led and strengthened in the Spirit. Those led by the law are slaves, but “those led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom 8:14).

6. Children are encouraged to think for themselves

The noble Bereans were lauded for checking things out for themselves (Acts 17:11), but in some churches you are discouraged from thinking for yourself. “Don’t question the Lord’s anointed.” This has created a population of spoon-fed pew-warmers:

By this time you ought to be teachers yourselves, yet here I find you need someone to sit down with you and go over the basics on God again, starting from square one. (Heb 5:12, MSG)

Every day I get simple, easy questions from grown men and women who don’t know what to do. They beg and plead with me to give them wisdom and this grieves me. They are so accustomed to looking to the man of God for wisdom that they have not grown up. They need someone to go over the basics of God again.

7. Children are encouraged to dream

Recently I saw an Indian family on TV celebrating one of their children’s achievements. The interviewer said to the parents: “You must be so proud of your child. What do you want them to be when they grow up?” I expected the father to say something like doctor or lawyer, but he wisely said, “We don’t know what God has made her to be. Our job is to help her figure that out for herself.” Good answer!

Churches and families send one of two messages to their members and children:

  1. I believe in you. God believes in you. God had a dream and wrapped your body around it. Let’s work it out together.
  2. You can’t be trusted. Your heart is deceitful and wicked. You’ll probably screw this up so let me dictate your choices for you.

A dysfunctional church has but one vision and everyone is expected to sign up for it. It says a lot when a family of six has more dreams than a church of sixty. Free people dream (Ps 126:1).

Those are my thoughts; I’d love to hear yours. Remember, this isn’t about fault-finding. This is about learning how to be family. What makes a church a family? How do we get it right? Where can we improve?


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7 Comments on What Makes a Church a Family?

  1. Oh man I just love this!!! Thank you Paul.

  2. Great to read this again, Paul. One can dream. Sigh…

  3. Delores Lowry // September 23, 2018 at 1:17 am // Reply

    I live 50 miles from the church I grew up in I looked for a church closer, but I couldn’t find one that I felt I was part of the family. They all preached law. Several years ago I went back to my church family where I belong, even though I have to drive 50 miles to attend, Larry T Ingram only preaches Grace, and so thankful for him and my family!

  4. Hi Paul , great word shared , thanks ,
    What bothers me these days is the entrenepeur based Churches , as if it was a business and you are hired to work for them volentarly , but use statements as it’s the Grace message but the whole agenda of every Msg is attached to the root which is growth in numbers and your labor involvement in that growth , but they use words like togetherness , community etc.. and the gatherings usually is like a business meeting , you are pummped up encouraged to work harder and you identity is not really rooted in Christ but in your carnalilty , being told that your are a champion etc…
    These enterprises grow , I mean they really grow in numbers so organized in labor but is the msg. Really the Grace msg? I don’t hear it that way , freedom does mot me you got a cool pair of pants on you or ratios on your arms , that is not the Grace msg, that is a style that you prefer to dress and look like , whats that got to do with knowing the truth and being set free ? any stylish person can wear a cool jeans so what ? Or if i want a cool entertainment they got it much better at most theaters , is it part of the mega growth agenda ? Well these ones suck , i’ll just go to the real thing it’s much more proffesional ,
    Funny thing is that they like to preach cool things with unique style and vocabulary but when it comes to thithing they want to prrach like the old , no comprimise there
    What do you think Paul ?

  5. Profound article… I sadly stopped going to church after the repeated experience of one after another of them imploding from one crisis or another. It was just too heartbreaking. Also, the religion became repugnant and impossible to stomach. I find Christ in the relationships I have with my family (we live on The Word) with of remote handful of brothers and sisters whom we occasionally meet and blogs such as this… I know, I know, almost everyone reading this will judge me and quote “do not forsake the gathering yourselves together” but that kinda makes my point.

  6. ronald little // December 13, 2019 at 2:49 am // Reply

    I love these thoughts. As God began to redefine my perception of “His Church”, he imparted this to my heart, “Pay attention to the relationships I put in your life”. I later began to see that he was showing me how I was connected in his Body, in the Vine, in His family, in His Temple, ……….relationships, all connected to Him.

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