In my eyes, one of the most powerful metaphors in the New Testament is God’s people as family. Imagine living in the ancient world where the only ones you could trust were those directly related by blood or ethnicity. That means that Jones’ stuck with the Jones’ and the Jews stuck with the Jews.
Along comes the Holy Spirit to completely disrupt that assumed social structure, empowering men and women, Jew and Greek, slave and free (Acts 2:39; Gal. 3:28). Followers of Jesus, from various ethnicities and different bloodlines, become family. Followers of Jesus, from different time zones and unique locations, become family. What a powerful metaphor! D. G. McCartney, addressing the concept of family and the social structure of early Christianity, writes:
“Since the church as a whole, as well as in its manifestations in local houses, was regarded as a family, the mutual obligations of its members are thought of in terms of family responsibilities. Christians have an obligation to familial love (1 Pet 1:22; 2 Pet 1:7; 1 Jn 3:11; 4:7; etc.), and failure to show proper hospitality in welcoming family members is grievous (3 Jn 10; Did. 12.1-5). The family must be protected against false teachers, to whom hospitality must not be given (2 Jn 10). 1 Peter 5:1–5 (see also 1 Jn 2:12–14) addresses the church as a household. Elders are to be shepherds, eager to serve but not lording it over their charges, themselves in service to the chief Shepherd (1 Pet 5:4).” (Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments)
Family is a powerful metaphor and I believe that many churches need to recover the importance of this ecclesiological description. Churches are and should be communities that exist and function as families.
Small Town USA is a Great Place to Experience Family
I don’t want any of our readers to be under the illusion that Small Town USA is perfect or the only context in which a faithful witness to biblical standards can be met. Small Town USA is like Big City USA in that they are locations were broken people live, so the each have unique challenges.
Yet having been involved in ministry for over fifteen years in a variety of contexts (big, medium, and small), I’ve found that small town churches are often uniquely shaped and oriented toward living out a family ethos simply because, quite frankly, everyone is family! Your mail man? Family. The doctor and dentist? Cousins. Grocery store clerk and principle? Brother and sister.
Here are several observations related to Small Town USA and the metaphor of family:
(1) While small town churches are often ingrained with a lean toward family, not all family expressions are healthy. To think that just because a small town context is more conducive toward living out the biblical view of church family is not the same as saying that all small town churches function well as family! This is where church planters, pastors, and leaders need to understand an aspect of their role is to teach, train, equip, and model how family members participate and how healthy families function. Small Town USA is just as susceptible to passive aggressive behavior as Big City USA! This leads me to the following observation…
(2) Small town planters, pastors, and leaders need to seriously work through their own issues and function in healthy familial ways. I’m not suggesting planters, pastors, and leaders must be perfect because that would disqualify everyone. But when St. Paul states that pastors need to manage their own households because this will directly relate to how they handle the household of God (1 Tim. 3:4-5), he clearly implies that the church is family. Not to mention that he directly refers to the “household of God (oiko theou)” as “the church of the living God, which is the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15 NLT).
This is not simply related to how important it is for church leaders to have healthy relationships within their immediate family so that they can influence the church family either. This is related to the actual way in which church leaders do relate to their church family! If you have a tendency to relate to people in your own household with unforgiveness or passive aggressiveness or a quick temper, the chances are that you will relate to your church family in a similar manner.
Moreover (sorry to get all academic on you!), I’ve noticed that one challenge that some leaders face when they transition from Big City USA to Small Town USA is their being unprepared for how relational people in small towns can be. It almost can feel a bit intrusive with how interested people can be, but most of the time, people in small towns are just wired this way. That’s why I believe that small town churches can experience “family” in a big way!
(3) Every family has a crazy uncle… in small town churches you’ll have to actually deal with that crazy uncle. If there is one thing I’ve learned as a small town pastor it is that people matter. I’ll admit that people have to matter because there simply aren’t three thousand of them! Okay, all joking aside… in larger churches, senior leaders are often “cushioned” from having to deal with the lady with tambourines, banners, and a shofar because someone “lower on the totem pole” has the “pleasure” of dealing with her (praise God for all associate and youth pastors!). In a small town church, the guy who literally believes that every verse in the Bible is about the timing of the Rapture and is convinced that Bible translators are all involved in a serious conspiracy to mislead all Christians just so happens to be one of your Board members’ siblings. Plus, he might just be your neighbor and drive your kids’ schoolbus.
Effective small town church leaders are both aware that people matter and that you are going to likely sit across the table from one of them that really drives you nuts. But because you love the crazy uncle that is related to you by blood, you need to learn to love the crazy uncle that’s related to you by the Spirit (even if they have tambourines, banners, shofars, the Left Behind series on Kindle, and swear by the KJV).
About the author
Luke Geraty is a young budding pastor/theologian who serves at Trinity Christian Fellowship. Husband of one, father of five, and deeply committed to proclaiming Jesus and the kingdom, Luke contributes regularly to ThinkTheology.org, VineyardScholars.org, and Multiply Vineyard. Follow Luke on Twitter, Facebook, or send him an email.