When I lived in Europe as a single woman in my early twenties, the church I attended would host after church gatherings known as “After Church.” “After Church” consisted of a meal at a nearby restaurant, where we, the congregation, would fill the space with chatter, break bread, and make new connections. Through these “After Church” gatherings I developed close and meaningful relationships with dear friends who are still close to me despite oceans separating us, and in many ways they became my family. It’s a time I look back on fondly.
Some years later when I moved to the U.S., I was already dating my husband and was entrenched enough in ministry that I didn’t have to look too hard in order to find people to spend time with or connect with. But as I left my late twenties and entered my 30s creating a family of my own, I became increasingly aware of how wider American culture is hyper-focused around the nuclear family. On the average Sunday in America, families mill to church, attend the service, and then head out for Sunday lunch as a family. And while I now have my own family, the family lives of others—the dinners, birthdays, and soccer games—have still made it challenging to break in and feel true community in the greater family of Christ. It’s hard to be close when it takes weeks or months to schedule a dinner or lunch date.
I haven’t experienced an “After Church” in America. And while of course I understand that hosting after-church gatherings isn’t a biblical tenet, I think the call to be the family of God is, which is something “After Church” captured so well.
Christians are called to live counter-culturally. This is less a call to live against culture and more of a call for us to live in a way that is not dictated by culture. It means that rather than living in opposition to culture, we understand that living biblically often challenges us to live differently. This is a holistic call that should affect every aspect of our lives, especially our relationships. Jesus said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples”(John 13:35, NLT). This is about how we relate to each other–how we live in relationship with one another.
While American culture does a great job of celebrating the nuclear family through family-centered holidays, “family vacations,” and “family time,” the Bible calls us to expand our vision of family far beyond shared DNA.
A Broader View of Family
When we look at Scripture, it’s clear that family expands beyond a nuclear family. We see it in the New Testament when Jesus, James, and Paul make statements about the family of God. Jesus famously said, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers…whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:48, 50). In making this statement He expanded family beyond biology to include anyone who called His Father their Father. James claimed that true religion was to “visit orphans and widows” (James 1:27), which is a clear call to fellowship, and Paul spoke of Timothy relating to him as a son to a father (Philippians 2:22), placing familial status on a person he had no other kinship with outside the family of Christ.
Scripture draws a far wider family tree than those we typically draw for ourselves, and this is something we are all called to as believers.
A Committed Family
After the coming of the Holy Spirit, Paul writes in Acts 4:
“the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common…there was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:32, 34-35).
“They had everything in common.” “There was not a needy person among them.” This is a picture of a family! In a nuclear family, if one of the kids has something another sibling needs, they lend it to them. Or if a teenager needs a ride home, a parent goes to get them. It’s teamwork, but beyond that it’s an understanding that family members take care of each other.
A Shadow of God’s Family
Biological families are multi-generational, and the Church is supposed to be too. Paul tells Titus in Titus 2 that the older women are to train the younger women, and while many churches might look at this through the lens of formal discipleship, I believe the model Jesus gives us of discipleship is just doing life together; it is sharing meals, knowing and meeting important people in each other’s lives, and literally walking together.
In a biological family, younger family members learn from older ones with more experience, and siblings learn how to get along and figure out forgiveness. This is part of God’s design for His family too. Family is a gift and a resource, a place where we can be known and loved and learn to love through disagreement because we know we need each other. In the same way as Paul calls us one body with many members, we are one family with many members (1 Corinthians 12); that’s why Paul calls us brothers and sisters, and that’s why there are lessons we don’t learn and gifts we miss out on when we don’t live as part of the wider family of the body of Christ.
A More Inclusive Family
Psalm 68:6 says, “God settles the solitary in a home.” This is such a beautiful description of what God does through the family of the Church. The problem with the nuclear family is that it doesn’t account for everyone. What if you’re someone who never gets married? What if you’re someone who was married and then loses your spouse to death or divorce? What if you’re a single parent?
Our nuclear-family culture makes an already challenging single lifestyle even more challenging because of the isolation single people often feel. And being single in the Church is often even harder than it is outside the Church. When families go home to spend time together on a Sunday afternoon, where does the single person go? On evenings where the family does movie night or wrestles with the chaos of family dinner, does the single person eat alone? And what about the widow or the recent divorcee? When a wife falls sick, her husband takes care of her, and when a child celebrates a birthday, parents throw a party and invite friends. What does this look like for the single adult? Or for the child in foster care? If we believe all of these happen solely within the nuclear family, then who celebrates and cares for people who live outside of one?
When we don’t operate as God’s family, but instead focus solely on the nuclear family, we fail to account for all people. There are those without kids and those without husbands or wives, but there are also those who have kids and a spouse and still need God’s wider family. Precious older spiritual mothers impacted my life growing up. Some of them were simply women a few years older than me, and others were mothers or grandmothers of their own kids who made an effort to know me and journey through life with me. While I grew up with both my parents and my sister, experiencing “family” life with families other than my own gave me a new context for my family of origin and taught me other ways to live.
I experienced so much healing as a single woman in my twenties as I spent time with other couples and their kids. I got to see couples argue and make up. I got to see parents lose tempers on their kids and apologize. And now, as a parent of young kids, I love when my friends get the joy of building relationships with my kids, and it blesses me that my kids are surrounded by great role models with different lifestyles and in different life stages. My kids are learning all the time about the different ways that people live and that there are married people, single people, people with kids, people without them, all of whom are living fulfilled lives. Something my kids have come to understand is that there are two types of family, the family we choose and the family we are born into, but we are all family. We all would give our lives for each other, and we all seek to find ways to make each other feel known and loved. We all need each other.
A Lifestyle of Family
If you and I are going to live as the family of God, what can we expect life to look like? We can expect more multigenerational, family-inclusive birthday parties. We can expect dinner tables regularly filled with friends. We can expect spiritual mothers and fathers to give toasts at weddings and spiritual children to read tearful eulogies at funerals.
To achieve this, and for us to really operate as a family, you and I need to be bolder in the way we love. We need to rediscover love as an action and not just a feeling. Bring meals. Clean houses. Do laundry (this is actually one of my favorite ways to serve people). Offer to babysit kids. Ride along through the pick-up line. Plan movie nights and game nights that aren’t just for single friends or couples or people with kids. Invite people into your home.
This isn’t an easy switch. It requires us to reorient our lives around the things that move God’s heart. How can you and I make space in our lives so we can spend time with people? What activities and commitments are pulling us into isolation instead of community? Has God been laying people on your heart to reach out to? Think about how you can make room for them in your life. Making this family of God a reality in our lives takes some adjustment, but as believers we are called to live this way, and through our “one-anothering” the body of Christ is enriched.
We need to celebrate and honor marriage and our nuclear families, and we are also challenged in Scripture to celebrate our broader family in Christ. The family of God has a place in this life as well as in eternity, and you and I need to cultivate it. We need to remember what it is to be in God’s family: that we are all brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers to one another.
Image by Paul Kim via Unsplash