Frequently, when I drive past a church or read the Sunday bulletin, I see a sign that invites people to make that congregation their “spiritual home” and that you would be welcome to join our “church family. I’m sure it’s meant graciously, as an expression of warmth and hospitality. The congregation would love to have you attend weekly (or more) Sunday worship, to participate in a variety of activities, to feel that you are a part of the something-bigger-offered-here.
All of that is good, to a point. But only to a point.
Setting aside that the church also wants your financial contribution and your time commitment to more committees than you can shake a stick at (things that are never said on the outdoor signage or the Sunday bulletin), are “home” and “family” really good and helpful ways of describing church involvement in the 21st century?
I don’t think so.
I’ve said in earlier posts that schools and hospitals are, by their nature, transitional institutions. The people who are there on a regular basis, for a long time, have one purpose–to get most of the people who enter out the door within a reasonable period of time, and in better shape than they were before. They should be healthier, smarter, more independent than when they arrived.
Families and homes do this as well. You form a partnership with another person, often accompanied by some sort of public service of commitment (called a marriage ceremony–civil or religious). Often, the intention is the nurture of children. Who has a child (whether by biology or adoption) in the hope that said child will remain with, and dependent on, the parents forever? Very few, I would imagine. The whole point of being a child is to outgrow childhood. (Yes, I give away my status as a non-parent by saying this.) Some parents do wax sentimental over their babies not being babies any more, but I’m sure most of them are not wishing that their offspring would never be able to walk, feed themselves, toilet themselves, get dressed, and do all the things that indicate growing up, becoming more independent–and eventually making a life outside the home of the family of origin. Some family members remain (often the parents who founded the particular nuclear family), but the whole point of childrearing is that people grow up and leave the nest.
Family and home, once someone is an adult, is a place not of permanent residence, but a place to which one returns. It might be for joyful events, like reunions, weddings of younger relatives, significant parental anniversaries. It might be for periods when life has not gone well, and the love and support of the family is needed for a while as the once-independent adult recovers from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I’m grateful I’ve had family who have welcomed me back when life has not gone well.
Although people tend to remain in families for much longer periods than with schools or hospitals, they do (ideally) not stay in their family of origin forever. They grow, mature, and strike out on their own. If and when they return, their relationship (if they are healthy) to those who remain has changed–and sometimes, as in the case of a child coming back to care for elderly parents, the roles may reverse.
You are permanently identified with your family. For some people that may be a source of pride if you come from a line of distinguished public figures. For others, it can be a source of embarrassment. But you cannot sever all ties, even if you want to. Your name, (often, not always) your genetic makeup, your attitudes, and your beliefs are going to be products of how you were raised. You may embrace it, you may rebel against it–but it is a part of you.
But churches do not tend to see themselves as transitional institutions, where people are meant to grow, leave, strike out on their own, and return for joyous occasions or at times of stress. Churches tend to see themselves as “once in, always in”. Christians can get quite unpleasant about people who leave the church, for whatever reasons. The terms applied church leavers have been appalling: the “lost” is about the nicest. Backsliders, apostates, unregenerate. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus. And all that.
I used to believe it too, for the first 15 years of my adult-onset churchiness. Now, not so much.
First of all, families and homes that invite people in and insist they never leave (or may only leave to visit or live with another branch of the family) are, at best oddities in the 21st century western world. More likely, if a family made such demands, we would consider it highly dysfunctional. If we knew this was true of a romantic partner’s family, we might have serious reservations about moving the relationship to a level of deeper entanglement with those people.
But that is exactly the assumption behind the idea of “church family” and “spiritual home”. We are going to get sucked into the life of the congregation, much like some kind of religious black hole. There is little scope for our relationships to develop and mature past a certain point. Clergy are the “parents” of the congregation, and unless you are a major donor, you will always be a “child”, with your role circumscribed and subject to the approval or disapproval of the ordained leaders. If you leave and wish to return, it cannot be on changed terms–you come back (in the eyes of the church) as the same person you were prior to your departure. The assumption is that nothing of spiritual importance could have happened during your absence from the church family, and outside your spiritual home. Unless you were at the home of distant relatives within the same family, of course. Then it’s okay.
This is the Stage 3 church–with a world moving into (possibly getting stuck in) Fowler’s Stage 4. This is the church as it has historically functioned, in a world that no longer buys the paradigm.
I have to wonder about what happens after the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) returns home–what are the conversations he has with his father about his time away. Of course, the father is glad to have him back, but the son is no longer who he was when he left. Does the relationship change? Is the father accepting of the new insights and self-awareness of the son? Does he remain forever at his father’s home, or does the father understand that the son might be best suited to other things, but be welcome back to visit, to celebrate, and to carry new insights to his home of origin?
I’ve never seen any biblical commentator speculate that when Jesus told the parable, he might have been identifying himself as the Prodigal Son. He left the Father’s home, and lived in much less privileged circumstances than he had prior to his journey on earth. I wonder what the conversations between Father and Son might have been if Jesus was speaking of himself as the one who left and returned under reduced circumstances. Of course, Trinitarian thought tells us that the three divine Persons all know each other’s thoughts perfectly, so there is no chance that the Son could inform the Father of anything the Father didn’t know, but still.
My question is, what if the churches had the confidence to treat those who leave, and only return periodically for celebrations or during times of stress, as the father in the story treated the Prodigal Son–especially if we even consider for a moment that Jesus may have identified with the Prodigal? Instead of treating them–us–as a burden and inconvenience, might we be seen as people who return occasionally in a changed relationship to the institution, with perhaps significant insights and experiences which, if we were welcome to share, might benefit the churches?
Years ago, before my age was counted in double-digits, I went to church with my Catholic cousins on Easter Sunday. Before beginning the mass, the priest stood before the congregation that overflowed the nave of the church. He made the following demand:
Would everyone who isn’t here regularly, please stand up, look around and see what everyone is wearing, and then move to the back so the people who really come here every week can hear the mass?
Is this the message we want to give to those who are returning only occasionally, either because this is the most significant day of the church year, or because they have a different spiritual metabolism?
You are not welcome if you are not here all the time. You have nothing to offer us. We withhold our concern for you.
That is what the clannish terms “church family” and “spiritual home” indicate.
We need better words.