By Steve Corgan
The church is the family of God, made up of every born again child of God. We are the church. This truth essentially defines the church’s identity and provides us with the divine paradigm for church life and relationships. In this article I want to briefly explore God’s paradigm of the church family and how the modern church compares.
The Word of God describes the church in several ways. We are called the church of the first born, house of God, habitation of God, a spiritual house, lively stones, household of God, household of faith, children of God, sons of God, and the family of God. Words like household, habitation, family, born (into, of, again), firstborn, sons, children, and heirs, etc. make it clear that the church is not just a metaphorical family but also a family in essence. The church is first and foremost a family, the family of God.
“When I think of the wisdom and scope of his plan, I fall down on my knees and pray to the Father of all the great family of God—some of them already in heaven and some down here on earth—” Ephesians 3:14-16 The Living Bible.
God is our Father. When Jesus taught His disciples how to pray he began with the words, “Our Father.” He could have said Our God, Our Creator, Our Lord, or any of the many appropriate titles available. I believe that He chose, “Father,” because it is the preeminent term qualifying the relationship God wants with us, and it foreordained the family paradigm for ordering the scheme of relationships in His church. Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion but to initiate a new family, the church of the first-born (Heb.12:23). Jesus is the first-born son of this family. The only way a person can become a member of His family is to be born (again) into it. This isn’t symbolism or metaphor. It’s the very essence and foundation of the church. “You must be born again,” Jesus said.
The notion of a family evokes images of warmth, welcome, love, acceptance, harmony, and freedom to be who you are without the fear of criticism and rejection. Even if your family’s history isn’t all those things you still have this imprint in your heart that it was supposed to be that way. The church should be the one refuge in this world of dysfunctional relationships where people can run to find wholeness, acceptance, love, and forgiveness. If we have anything at all legitimate and of value to offer the world it’s the healing and wholeness of fellowship in God’s family.
I believe that this revelation is the church’s greatest untapped asset and a vital, crucial element to reaching the world. Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, by the love you have for one another.” John 13:35. Notice that He didn’t say they would know because of the love we have for the lost or because of the love we have for God. They will know because of the love, the quality of relationship, we have with each other. His unconditional love flowing in, around, and through us is the outstanding characteristic that the world should know us by. When they see God’s love relationships in His family church they will want to be part of it. The world is starved for the love that can only be experienced in Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, in most cases, the church has drifted so far away from God’s family design that we often appear to be just another dysfunctional family that unbelievers want no part of.
In most instances, the church has become an irrelevant subculture within our culture. Instead of resembling God’s family paradigm, we substitute all manner of religious rites, rituals, formalities, religious politics, hierarchies, entertainment, programs, hype, and slick surrogates to supplant the relationship God wants us to have with Him and each other. We pretend to rescue people from the codependence and dysfunction of the world only to bring them into a religious system of dysfunction and codependence. We’ve become what I meretriciously call the “Dysfunctional Family Church.” A family is dysfunctional when it becomes impaired or abnormal in its functioning. When a local church no longer functions according to God’s family paradigm it becomes a dysfunctional family (church). Unfortunately most churches least of all resemble a family.
Rituals, rites, protocol, programs, and traditions are not the essential elements that define God’s church. The church’s identity is not found in IRS approved non-profit corporation status, in organizational affiliation, or in buildings and steeples. The church is people; we are the church. The church family is God’s marvelous and triumphant plan to reach man and bring him into fellowship and family relationship with Himself. Religion is man’s attempt to reach and please God through his own inadequate efforts, achievements, and plan.
How many times have we said, “Let’s go to church”? The Greek word for “church” is Ekklesia. It literally means, “called out ones.” The church isn’t a building, a place, a meeting, or an event. However, for most modern Christians church means attending a meeting. The routine of attending meetings and sitting in a congregation as a spectator hour after hour, week after week, is the main course and main event of most Christian’s lives. In fact, if I were an unbeliever observing modern day Christians I would conclude that being a Christian meant going to meetings.
Before you jump to conclusions, listen to me. I love to meet together with other believers, worship God, and hear great preaching. And I love BIG meetings and hearing the great preachers of our day. But usually these programmed meetings are productions and events and not an adequate substitute for the family environment that we must cultivate if we want to experience the church as God intended it. I’m amazed by the number of people I’ve talked to who have attended a “mega-church” for years and are still unable to form relationships beyond the superficial, cliché-ridden helloes and good byes during the ten minutes preceding and following the meeting. It’s not because they are inept at making friends. It’s because the context of the large mega meeting is not the right soil for growing relationships. In fact a diet of only large group meetings can actually hinder the forming of church family relationships so vital to Christian life. The best atmosphere to form and build family of God relationships is around a dinner table, on outings, at informal get togethers, and in small group home meetings. These environments provide the fertile soil where real live Christian fellowship can flourish and grow. This type of fellowship should be the most common and frequent in a believer’s life.
Most Christian’s church experience consists of religiously attending 2-3 meetings per week. The meetings usually follow a preset program, pattern, and agenda. The church members sit in the audience position thus accepting their role as spectators in the event. The major portion of the meeting usually revolves around the ministry, gift, and personality of one person, typically a pastor. This kind of meeting should be an important part of every believer’s experience.
However, the trouble with this scenario is that the programmed event oriented meeting is usually the only level of church participation most Christians ever experience. They end up becoming meeting junkies. Inevitably a church built on “meetings” of this kind becomes an audience of spectators and the pastor becomes a one-man show. This kind of church’s primary purpose is usually to provide a platform and vehicle for one man’s gift and ministry, and church members become worker drones in his pyramiding ministry scheme. Leaders following this pattern use people to build their ministry. This is in sharp contrast to Ephesians 4:12 which says that the five fold ministry gifts to the church are for, “the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry.” The saints are God’s team that “carries the ball” in doing the work of the ministry. Often the “team” ends up sitting in the stands watching the “coach” run the ball. God’s strategy is for the ministry gift to build people as opposed to using people to build some man’s ministry kingdom. There is a distinct difference.
In his book, “The New Reformation,” author Greg Ogden says,
“Churches have a penchant for wanting to find the leader who can ‘do it all’… We seek a pastor who handles Sunday morning better than a quizmaster on weekday T.V. He is better with words than most political candidates… No church social function would be complete without him.
The trouble with this mentality is that because we want pastors who can do it all, they will do it all. The desire for ‘perfect’ pastors creates passivity in the congregation. People live out their lives vicariously through ‘Mr. Wonderful ’ as if his faith and abilities were theirs. The church member’s role is to pay their dues so that the doors can be kept open and a context created for pastors to do their work. Howard Snyder characterizes this approach in these words: ‘If the pastor is a superstar, the church is an audience, not a body’.” (Pages 74-75)
Your divinely ordained purpose isn’t to be a spectator in the audience of a Christian superstar.
Jesus said in Luke 22:25-26, The Amplified Bible, “The kings of the Gentiles are deified by them and exercise lordship [ruling as emperor-gods] over them…But this is not to be so with you; on the contrary, let him who is the greatest among you become like the youngest, and him who is the chief and leader like one who serves.”
Jesus said that the Gentiles deified their leaders by making little gods out of them. Today the world does the same thing with Hollywood, entertainment, and sports celebrities. They are practically worshipped in our culture. Unfortunately we’ve followed a similar path in the church forming personality cults around “superstar” preachers and the gifts God gave them. Jesus was very emphatic that it wasn’t to be so among His followers. He said that church leaders must “become like the youngest and the one who serves.” 1 Peter 5:3 says that leaders should lead by example. By definition that means living among us with transparency and accessibility a lifestyle every member of the family can relate to. Disingenuous movie star image, style, and personality belong in Hollywood. We don’t need little gods to lead us, but real people who love God and live real lives that we can touch and see. Just like we experience in a family. There’s no “stars” in our family, and yet at the same time each and every member is a star as we celebrate their uniqueness and individuality. Every member is special in God’s family, not just the photogenic, elite “pretty people.”
So what should a get together of God’s family look like? In addition to the elements of a family I’ve already mentioned, the apostle Paul tells us more in 1 Corinthians 14:26. He says:
“When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” NASB
The emphasis in the church is on the ministry and gifting of the many rather than the ministry or gift of one or a few. Church family participation is not supposed to be a spectator event. Obviously there are time and space limitations, and all things should be done for edification. But Paul said, “When you assemble…” That means whenever you get together, in a home, at the park, or wherever, you can share a teaching, revelation, tongue, or interpretation. He said that we should be, “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father;” (Ephesians 5:19-20) and, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colosians 3:16) God’s family is a happy family.
When Paul wrote this most churches were home churches. We don’t need a “church” building to be a church. We are the church. In fact if we wished to strictly follow the New Testament example we could conclude that the home church family is God’s pattern, since no other can be found in the New Testament. Nowhere do we find Jesus, Peter, Paul, James, or John raising funds to build multi-million dollar ministry complexes so they could install themselves as Christian despots over their own ministry empires. What we do find is a pattern, a style of ministry and personal lifestyle that produced a family environment conducive to building church family relationships. As I said earlier, real church life is developed around a dinner table, at informal get togethers, and in small group home meetings. In these environments church family life will be transformed from theory to reality in your personal experience.
In our culture we generally believe that more is better, and bigger is best, but that’s not God’s standard of measure. In His economy of things least is the greatest, the last is first, the weak are made strong, and the meek win. Quality is always preferred over quantity. Determine not to sacrifice the quality relationships you can have in God’s church family by being satisfied with superficial relationships. Refuse to be satisfied with vicariously living your Christian life and relationship with God through a charismatic, “Mr. Wonderful,” superstar. Make the decision that you will have more than the substitutes and placebos offered by modern charismatic Christianity and traditional religion.