We asked Paul Harcourt, National Leader of New Wine, for his thoughts on why we were created to live in family and how the Church can support those for whom the word ‘family’ comes with an emotional price tag.
If I see a church describe itself outside as ‘a family’, I usually turn around and walk away”. Those are the words of a single friend of mine.
It isn’t that she doesn’t want to have relationships, it’s just that her experience of how we do “family” often makes her feel more isolated rather than less! “Family” is one of those biblical concepts that so easily gets overtaken by cultural or inherited understandings. It can be used to justify an inward-looking, self-content huddle, focussed only on the needs and comfort of those already in. It’s hard to break into a family. If we’re honest, many would also say that families aren’t places where it’s easy to disagree and can even be places where secrets are hidden so that a perfect face is always presented to outsiders.
Jesus repeatedly challenged the cultural understanding of his day. In Mark 3:33-35, he scandalised the crowd by putting his disciples above his birth family. His “brother and sister and mother” are “those seated in a circle around him”. He demanded greater love and loyalty than should be given to a father or family. Without allowing people to uncaringly neglect their own family of origin, he consistently taught that he was forming a new community, centred on himself. As Joseph Hellerman says, “For both Jesus and Paul, commitment to Godwas commitment to God’s group”.*
Jesus’ new community is the one for which we’ve been longing. Being made in the image of God, we were created for community. In His very nature as eternal Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God lives in relationship and the constant sharing of love. At it’s best, the human nuclear family reflects that, but is meant to be open, outwardly-turned, joyful, creative, and inclusive. Sadly, that isn’t everyone’s experience – and, even more tragically, not their experience of the Church either. As God’s new family, we’re to get it right where the world so often gets it wrong.
Perhaps the greatest danger of “church as family” is that, wanting to support the family unit, it subtly comes to mean “church is for families”, becoming an even lonelier place for single people. Or even for those whose families are different. For those who are pushed to the margins by their circumstances, church can be just another place of frustration. I recognise something of that in my own life. Becky and I have two children, both of whom are autistic. As a result, there are many aspects of normal community life that we struggle to join in with. We can’t go to the cinema or restaurant without “If special arrangements, and many activities that other families enjoy simply aren’t possible or suitable for us. Church shouldn’t be another on that list, but it is for so many!
Our family has the great advantage of being very visible in the church. As a result, we have had great support. We have a great friend, Gill, who moves in to look after our children when Becky and I need to go away on ministry (or simply for a break). Being single, she in return enjoys joining us for Christmas, and moved in for some weeks when she was recuperating after an operation. We have other friends who support us at different times and who, we hope, also feel that we include and support them. When I tell you about my family, not everyone in it shares my DNA, but we share Jesus. It’s based on listening and loving, looking out for each other and leaving space for each others’ gifts.
It’s a blessing to us, and an experience for which I think many today are looking.
*Joseph Hellerman, “When Church was a Family” (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2009)
Paul Harcourt is National Leader of New Wine and vicar of All Saints Woodford Wells. He is married to Becky and together they have recently written ‘Walking on Water’ about overcoming obstacles to stepping into a deeper experience of Jesus.