Sometimes I have heard people describe Foothills as a family, even as “my family.” There’s a lot of rich meaning in describing a church this way. However, the description is not always as straightforward as you might think.
Sometimes people mean to describe an intimacy and connection that they associate with a family – people who know you, and who love you, and who will be there for you, no matter what. This is what we hope families are like! Through small group connections, social gatherings, and worshipping and serving together, it can be a profound experience to discover this type of web of relationships with people beyond those society might name as your actual family.
On the other hand, many people have not had that experience of a family. Instead, family means dysfunction, struggle, even violence. Family gatherings bring to mind discomfort, inauthenticity, addiction, abuse. If this is you, maybe the church has been, or you hope it can be, a place where you experience the opposite of your family-of-origin, a place where you can finally experience that idealized sense of family our culture promises but often falls short of delivering. Or, maybe the church affirms your past experience, and you feel heart broken all over again.
The truth is, churches are made of imperfect and complicated human beings, just like families. Idealizing either will inevitably lead to disappointment, heart ache, and perpetuating rather than transforming cycles of suffering. Instead, we are called to use what we experience – whether joy or sorrow, disappointment or discomfort – in others as a mirror reflecting back questions for our own growth, our own spiritual journey and development. We are invited to ask: What am I seeing in this person that is a reflection of something in me that needs to change, grow, or transform? What fear does it touch on, what value does it tug on, what new insight does it offer me? What compassion can I bring for myself, for the other in our encounter?
I have mixed feelings about using the word “family” to describe a congregation – but I do think that like families, churches reveal our complicated, multi-layered natures, and how exponentially greater that complication grows when we are in relationship. And yet unlike families, we participate in our gathered covenanted community by choice. We keep showing up, keep participating because we choose to serve something greater than ourselves, choose to work towards a world and our individual hearts filled with more love, more justice, and a greater peace. It is this shared mission that keeps us grounded, even when we encounter disappointment or frustration.
Let us be patient with ourselves, and with one another. I do believe that saying (attributed to many, most often Plato) offers us a great mantra – for families, churches, and the world: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”