An advertisement for a writer's retreat.

I was a bit surprised by a blog at Faith and Leadership, where author and consultant Tony Robinson suggested that churches would be healthier if they stopped thinking of themselves as a family. That ruffled my feathers a bit because I’ve always thought the family metaphor to be both appropriate and helpful in congregational settings.

Robinson’s initial argument derives from a congregation who hired an unnamed national firm of some sort to do a “ministry audit.” The firm concluded that the most important thing the church could do was to “end whatever amount of ongoing conflict exists as well as quit thinking like a family.”

Robinson suggests that the church, like many plateaued and declining churches, had fallen into the trap of family thinking that caused it to “lose sight of larger transformative purposes and settle, instead, for the comfort and satisfaction of their members.”

I get the danger of becoming selfish and inwardly focused, as some families do – but that’s not the only way to be family. The last church I served as pastor adopted a family-oriented slogan, but it was balanced with both an inward and outward focus as we strove to be “A Family of Faith: A People on Mission.”

Robinson suggests other dangers lurking in the family metaphor. Seeking to maintain a comfortable family atmosphere, churches may be afraid to ask hard but needed questions for fear of conflict. Families can also harbor secrets, be hard to join and send unfriendly signals to single persons because the notion “our church is a family” could morph into “our church is for families.”

I take Robinson’s point, but I’m not ready to give up on the metaphor of the church as a family. For me, the more important question is “What kind of family will we be?” This is where both professional and lay leadership should show both spiritual and emotional maturity through intentionally shaping the meaning – and responsibilities – of the church family.

It’s true that churches can easily devolve into dysfunctional and insular families whose main concern is to keep everybody happy and sweep potential conflicts under the rug.

But it’s also possible for churches to think and act as a welcoming family of many diverse individuals who celebrate being part of a larger family of faith and who understand they have a mission to the human family.

So, despite Robinson’s insightful points, I still think the healthier aspects of “family” remain a positive metaphor for congregations to employ.

Tony Cartledge is associate professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School and contributing editor to Baptists Today, where he blogs.

Share This