By Steve Rieske
It occurred to me recently that when we informed Brookside that a Community Group was going to be “a family of disciples of Jesus sent to bless a pocket of people” that the word family is tough to define. Does it mean that if a person joins one that they will loved better than they ever have before, that the group will supply all their needs, and that they will never feel lonely again?
It seems like the expectations can run so high that we will be guaranteed to fail each other.
The purpose of this article is explore biological families to see if we can learn what we can about how we should expect church family to operate.
Is Family a certain Size?
Family is a strange thing. When Sandy and I were newlyweds, it felt strange to think of ourselves as a family. Yet there we were, a tiny little family unit. Conversely, I have a sister who has twelve children. Just getting that group of fourteen to church is a voyage requiring two minivans. And then on holidays, we all gather at my parents’ place. Between grandparents, my siblings, grandchildren, and maybe a few connected in-laws, there might be upwards of forty people packed into their house.
And it’s still family!
In the same way, there is no size requirement or limit in order for a Community Group to treat each other as family. Sure, if it gets too large, there will be challenges for connecting to everyone, and because of that, there are strategic times to split into two groups. Biological families are like this. My family used to be just my parents and us three siblings. Then my baby sister came along forcing me to have to share a room with my brother. Then we all got married, and started new homes with new children. But in it all, our identity as a family unit has never changed.
The point here is that as you are attempting to forge family dynamics for your community group, size cannot be a consideration. Size might be a consideration for when it’s time to split into two groups or when you think through what a gathering can and cannot accomplish, but it has nothing to do with whether you are family!!!
Is Family a certain level of Intimacy?
If family is not about size, maybe it’s about achieving certain “closeness”. Many community groups assume that being a “family” means that we must have a measure of closeness. But consider your biological families. Some might be very emotionally close. Some less so. You may be closer to one sibling than another. You may even be estranged from someone in your family. But regardless of how you feel about your family, they are yours for better or worse.
Community groups sometimes place intense pressure on one another to all be best friends. We hear “family” in the community group definition and sometimes imagine that it will be a group of people who meet our every need for friendship, closeness, and sense of belonging. But no family does that. Even those of us who have close biological families also have close friendships outside the group.
I love all of my siblings and have a pretty decent relationship with all them. But my friendship and connection is different with each of them. We don’t look to achieve some intimacy standard, instead we enjoy knowing that we belong to each other and always will. Similarly, Community Groups must love one another and accept each other as part of the family regardless. Maybe your group has that “crazy uncle” who is emotionally exhausting to you. We don’t go looking for a new family just because ours has weirdos. We just love them.
The point here is that while we should have high expectations of our Groups, and we should expect that emotional closeness will be a side-effect of being a family, we cannot enter in thinking that intimacy IS what a family is.
It is unfair to your group. It can create an idolatrous expectation of one another because we subtly replace Christ as our all-in-all with expectation that the group will meet needs only Jesus can. And finally, it can keep us from being unwilling to invite others in for fear that our intimacy will be thwarted, and ultimately it will keep us from recognizing what it actually means to be a family.
Is Family a level of Commitment?
This one is tricky, because healthy families are committed to one another. The issue comes when we start minimizing one another’s belonging to us because of lack of attendance, vulnerability, or participation. If one of your siblings doesn’t make it to family Christmas, they didn’t become less a part of your family. In fact, it works 180° the opposite direction. Because your sibling simply is part of your family, you are sad that they didn’t make it to Christmas. When I was angry at my older brother for a way he had hurt me, it did not make him any less my brother. We kept right on being family while we worked on our differences.
In the same way, we strongly desire for everyone to be there when we gather as Community Groups. When someone skips a gathering because we are not important enough to them, we will experience some degree of disappointment. But their absence does not change how we think of ourselves in relation to them. Instead, because we know that they are a brother or sister, we give them space to work on their stuff while we work toward greater unity.
It is a commitment to our common Father.
Family is a way of treating One Another
At about two years old, my boys went through a phase where they would show their anger toward Sandy by hitting her. It was the first time in their lives they experienced anger from me. “Rieske boys DO NOT hit women EVER… especially mom.” Later on, Sandy and I would teach them more on how to be a part of our family. “We protect the weak.” “Rieske boys work hard.” “If we say we will do it, we do it even if we don’t feel like it.” Notice the “we” in those statements. I am not just telling what to do; I am telling them how to act like one of us. How to be someone who is part of our family’s way of living life.
God has a way of teaching us how to act in His family. The commands in the New Testament teaching us how to treat each other are commonly called the “one anothers” because directions on how to treat one another appear dozens of times in the new Testament. They are like God’s way of saying, “In our family, we…” (check out this site for more.)
“In our family, we love one another.”
“In our family, we serve one another.”
Our big brother Jesus has these down pat. As his adopted younger siblings, we’re learning how, too.
When we say that community groups are “families of disciples”, we are not saying that they have perfected the “one anothers”. And we are certainly not saying that until others have perfected the “one anothers”, we have permission to act like they are not family. What we are saying is that a community group is a gathering of men and women who are trying to learn to act like Jesus. Of course we fail at it. Sometimes painfully so. But He remains our goal no matter how many times we fall down.
Why should we embrace this?
In 2000, ABC aired a miniseries called “The Beach Boys: An American Family”. One episode featured Dennis Wilson’s involvement with the Charles Manson cult. There is a scene where the Wilson brother arrives at his home and sees Manson preaching inside. The sight scares him, so he decides to leave. In the creepiest moment, Manson sees him out the window and half-growls/half-shouts, “You… Can’t… Leave the FAMILY!”
Men and women who want to be part of the family of God join a local body of believers. But sometimes the fit isn’t very good—personalities rub the wrong way, or maybe theological view-points don’t mesh. We are not a cult that demands everyone agree and that no one is allowed to leave. We want to gracefully allow others to pursue God of their own conscience and choice.
But I wonder if we have embraced that freedom for ourselves so strongly that we have rejected being a family altogether. I wonder if we fear responsibility to one another so greatly that we have missed the Lord’s design completely. Instead of forgiving one another like He taught us to, we just find another body to belong to. Instead of being unified like He prayed we would, we divide His body and make and make a mockery of what he did for us.