“For congregational health and mission, the ‘family’ metaphor is a double-edged sword.” This thought was raised a few months ago at an event for emerging leaders in the Memphis & Tennessee Conferences in Dickson, Tennessee sponsored by the Turner Center. Why a “double-edged sword”? What could possibly be the downside in using the metaphor of ‘family’ when a church describes itself? After all, it can be a very uniting message if a congregation has recently been rent asunder by a scandal. It can be an image of healing for a church that has been devastated by a natural disaster. You practice, preach and sing ‘We Are Family’ in moments like this as a way of reestablishing trust and rebuilding toward a brighter future.
Even in moments of stable or exponential growth, churches can use familial language to welcome newcomers, outcasts, those rejected by others. But the other side, one of the potential downsides, is often delivered unintentionally (and unfortunately, sometimes intentionally). As it turns out, many times churches who use the ‘family’ metaphor end up envisioning a family more like Jack Byrnes’ ‘circle of trust’ in Meet the Parents than one that opens itself to embrace the stranger. Ever known or been part of a church that looks a little like this? (Disclaimer: Ben Stiller’s character is named Greg Focker, which is what DeNiro’s character says midway through this clip…)
Trying to become a member of such a ‘family’ is next to impossible. And even if you pay your dues (or tithes in our case), offer your services and bend over backwards, the ‘inner circle’ may never let you in. This is how the ‘family’ metaphor can end up causing a church to implode or at the very least slowly erode away into irrelevance.
So the growing edge for a church that wants to keep the family image is to continually and honestly ask, “Is our ‘family’ language and image enhancing or inhibiting our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ?” And it was this question that filled my preparation for preaching at Post Oak UMC’s homecoming a couple of weeks ago, because ‘family’ is a metaphor that I’ve heard used at Post Oak frequently and I’ve seen it used quite well here. Below are a few of the highlights from that message. The texts I chose for that Sunday were Genesis 1.26-28 & Matthew 28:18-20.
Genesis 1:26-28: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
Matthew 28:18-20: And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Reflecting back over the course of the past year and my experience in this church has led me to conclude that my initial intuition about the character of this Post Oak community has been confirmed. That is that this church is in many ways a family. I saw it the day we moved in when there was a crowd gathered to help us unload the truck and get settled in. I heard it just a couple of weeks ago when I met with the visioning team someone made the observation about the closeness of the people in this church that reminded that person of a family unlike other churches they had been at prior to moving here. I witnessed it as over 40 from the church went out to Eva Beach last Sunday to take part and celebrate the baptisms of three of our youth. Even though it was a holiday weekend, they took time to support and welcome them outside “normal church hours.” These are things that family members do for one another.
The gift of family can bring with it some moments of tremendous joy and humor. Cherishing those memories and enjoying those times of fellowship are important parts of being in God’s family. But there’s something else that’s true about healthy families, and that is often measured by how the members of a family respond and relate to one another when the times get tough. When disaster strikes, when a financial hardship comes one’s way, when we lose a loved one, how do we respond? Jesus said to his disciples on the night he was betrayed, “This is how the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” That is, despite whatever differences may exist (and there certainly come times when there are differences among family members, right?), if you can at least learn to love one another and unite to serve then you will make the world of difference.
I’ve been reading the History of Post Oak Church over the last few weeks and have been truly inspired by the rich history that resides here. Did you know that in the roughly 180 year history of this church, there were at least two times when something occurred to damage the building and the people had to work together to rebuild? In 1912, there was a fire that destroyed the building one night after a revival service. Maybe the preacher said something someone didn’t like or something; I don’t know. Then there was a violent storm only 25 years later in 1937 that brought irreparable damage to the new building. At the end of both disasters, the history says this: “The members of the church began to construct another building donating their time, labor, and materials.” The one built after the 1937 incident was completed in 1938 and is the one we’re sitting in this very morning. A dedicated family will come together: when enemies attack, when the creation seems to wreak its own havoc, when a building collapses, when death makes its unwelcome visits.
But this week as I was preparing to talk about this notion of ‘family’ I thought I would try to think biblically about the purpose of the family. And that is what led me to these two passages this morning, because in these two passages we have two different sorts of families. And the similarities between these two passages begin to unfold as we take a deeper look at them.
In Genesis, humans are given authority or dominion over the earth.
In Matthew, Jesus says that all authority in heaven and earth are his.
In Genesis, in light of this authority and the grace given to humans as being made in God’s image we find the first commandment in the whole Bible: “Be fruitful and multiply…and fill the earth…” (The first commandment is not a “Thou shalt not…” but a positive one.)
In Matthew, in light of Jesus’ authority, he gives authority to the disciples a new commandment and commission: “Go, and make disciples…of all nations…”
My pastor back in Nicholasville helped me see this connection: when we compare how God created the world in Genesis with how God saved the world through the resurrection of Jesus, we will see that being a part of God’s family means that we are commissioned to re-produce what God has produced. God tells the first humans, “Be fruitful and multiply…and fill the earth!” Jesus tells his disciples, “Go and make disciples…of all nations…”
In other words for both biological and spiritual families, for our first parents as well as the disciples, we see that the commission is one and the same: “Go and make some more…” God gathers us and commissions the family of God to go and make some more.
(Again, be careful not to take this too far. We’re not called just to make more who outwardly ‘look like us’ or are ‘kin.’ Remember that we have been adopted into God’s family, a family who welcomes ‘people of all ages, nations, and races.’ But the point is if we are wholehearted followers of Jesus, then Jesus wants that replicated: “Go and make some more like yourselves!” Or as Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”)
If you think about it, this commission even rings true for other beings in creation as well, doesn’t it? Part of our church’s name bears that of a tree: an oak tree. Now, I suppose that the image of the tree may evoke in our minds the stability of a deep-rooted tree, and we may think of psalms and hymns like ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’: “Just like a tree that’s planted by the waters, Lord, I shall not be moved…” That image does give us a good picture of faithfulness and remaining true to our roots. But there’s something dangerous about just holding onto that side of the image of a tree if we ignore a tree’s purpose, which is the same as that of a family. If it doesn’t bear fruit, if it doesn’t re-produce what God produces, then that tree (be it an oak tree or a family tree) will stop right there and will gradually weaken and erode away.
On several occasions, Jesus had little patience for a fig tree that didn’t bear fruit because he saw how God’s people had become like those fruitless fig trees. To bear fruit, however, means we mature and live into Jesus’ commission to “Go and make some more.”
This morning I look out and see many people who are here to remember and to honor those who are our roots, whose lives have gone before us proclaiming the faithfulness of God. The monuments surrounding this building indicate the lives of those who were sure to bear fruit by re-producing the seeds of wisdom and faith that had been passed to them. They were intentional to grow their biological & spiritual families so that we could carry on that legacy that began long before them.
So our strength, brothers and sisters, will be twofold, so long as we follow their legacy: to remember and remain connected to our roots, that is to recognize that we are continuing a larger story than ourselves, a story of God’s loving faithfulness; but the second part is crucial for anything to remain alive and thrive. We must be fruitful and multiply; let us “Go and make some more.”