A postmodern view of family

How do you define family? How does your church define family? Does the way church define family match the way you define family? Does the way the church defines family match the expression of family in your life? In the 21st century, the idea of family has expanded well beyond the traditional view, and you would think churches would understand that simply reality. The old ideas, based on 1950’s culture of “The Nelsons” do not work. If the old ideas of family do anything, they exclude and belittle; and to a world rich and diverse in culture and life it is not healthy to exclude and belittle family structure. Most churches today still see “family” as “a mom, a dad and kids.” I recently received an email from a friend, who knew I was interested in this subject, about a church that considers itself to be a rather “cutting edge church” and yet defines “family” as “mom, dad and kids” – recently The River Church Community (http://www.the-river.org) was looking for a “Family Ministries Pastor” and here is how they described the “requirements of the position”

“Family ministries at the River consists of the following ministries: marriage, parenting, family life, Kids Community, and student ministries. The ideal candidate will be a wife or husband of a healthy 15+ year marriage with children, at least one in their teen years. He/she should also possess both experience in and a passion for developing healthy Biblically based marriages and families.” (This ad is copied from “the exchange at Willow Creek – “other pastor” section)

In and of itself, The River can have it’s pastors meet what ever requirements they desire – and in reality they need not explain that decision to anyone – it is their call – but the problem I have is not so much with The River, but with modern evangelical churches (The River is a modern evangelical church) in general when it comes to defining family they leave out most of the people in the community.

While I do not desire to single-out The River, I will use them as an example. But The River is not alone; we need to keep in mind that with the exception of very few, most modern churches see family in the same way and they exclude any structure that is “outside” the traditional “nuclear family.” While every church has the right to view “family” as they see fit, we need to keep in mind to exclude some is not Christian and can cause one of two problems. Either they do not care about those who do not meet the modern evangelical definition of “a biblical family” or they do not understand how to minister to “other family types” so they are being exclusive. Either way they are causing the deepest hurt the church can bring upon another person; telling them that their family structure is not valid, and not biblical and, in turn, that they are not wanted.

While most modern churches would say, “we welcome all kinds of people here” they need to realize that their actions do not meet with their words. To say, “All kinds of families are welcome at our church” and yet, no one in a leadership role is “out side” what the traditional church defines as a “biblical family” shows that words and actions do not match. It shows that the church is working with antiquated theology and has no understanding of how the culture is forming around them. As with The River, requiring that the staff person who over sees what they define as “family ministries” meet a certain set of standards is not in anyway, shape or form “biblical” is showing that they define “family” in one certain way. It is one thing to say, “we support women leadership” but if you have no women leaders, they are empty words; it is one thing to say, “we support all family structures” but if you do not have a single parent, a blended family, a foster family or other structure of family in leadership you again are speaking empty words.

I tend to think that the modern church is so use to looking inside on itself for the “feel good reality” that it forgets to look outside at those who are wanting to come in, but do not feel welcomed. They limit the idea of family and place it into a very modern, out dated box – if a single parent desires to attend a “family ministry” function on “Raising Your Teenager,” they might be “welcomed” but not encouraged. They would get the feeling that the “singles ministry” would be the best place for them – and in reality, in many churches the singles ministry is designed to simply be a place where you find your mate. Because I believe truth is in the narrative, let me share with you a little story:

Let me share with you a story:
Kelly was a young woman (actually, it could be said that she was more like a young girl) who, through no fault of her own, found herself pregnant, poor, scared and hurting. But she knew she had faith. When all else failed, she had her faith and she knew God did not want her to end the life that was growing inside her. Her prayer was that the child be born healthy and that life would be good for her child. Over time, the child was born; and like many of lower economic status, soon another was born, and another, and another – soon her house filled with screaming kids and messy cloths, but there was always love. They might not have had the best food, the latest fashions, the latest in technologies, or the fastest transportation they did have a deep abiding love for each other.

Kelly saw hard time, the “father” of her fist child was not the father of her other children. Like so many other stories in this world, no one knows what happened to the father of the babies – some say he died, some say he left, other said he never was – but thought it all, Kelly had her faith. The pains of life did draw on her soul, and to make matters worse, her eldest son did not always get along with his brothers and sisters. It seems, he grew to be a non-conformist and a rebel.

Kelly did what it took to raise her children with a solid home life – she saw herself and her children as a solid family, filled with love, hope and faith. She did all she could to keep her children in the faith. She took them to church, read scriptures to them, encouraged them to ask questions and explore the deeper side of their walk with God. Some of the kids followed, some did not; some grew in faith, some did not – but she loved them all, each and everyone.

It is a hard fact, but in today’s modern evangelical churches Kelly and her kids are not seen as a “nuclear family” – and at best, if she married again, they would be seem as a “blended family.” People would speak behind her back and question her motives and her abilities. But you see, Kelly cannot marry again – Kelly is long dead; her children are long dead – and one of them died so that we could live. You see Kelly is Mary.

Living in the “post-nuclear” age
In a postmodern reality “family” extends far beyond the limited idea of “mom, dad and the kids” – even when modern evangelicals claim that “other family” designs are “all right” they always “qualify that with the “but God’s plan is still mom, dad and the kids” – as to say, “yes, all are family – but then there is a ‘better’ family idea, and we have it.” The problem with that way of thinking is that it does not truly define family. In a postmodern world “family” is so much more then just the limited nuclear family structure.

In a “traditional” reality, the “family” (“the nuclear family”) is defined as the basic unit in society consisting of two parents (one male and one female) rearing their own children. But today, the seems so limited when we have single moms, single dads, grandparents raising grandchildren, aunts and uncles, friends, foster children, adoptive homes, group homes, and it seems the list is endless. It is not that anyone of these is right or wrong; it is that they simply are – and as the church we must learn to accept that, minister to them, love them and learn to grow with them. He center of a “postmodern family” is love – and it can, and often does, include friends, blood relatives and more. In a postmodern/emerging church if we simply follow the lead of the modern church and reject those who are different, those we think we cannot reach, we are missing a great wave God is sending our way. Our role is not to judge the style structure of a family, but to love, honor and help in anyway possible the family structure that has formed. The idea of family in a postmodern/emerging conversation needs to go well beyond “blood” to the realization that water is thinker then blood – as Christians we are a family, adopted and approved by God. We should extend that fellowship to others, we should go beyond our gates and love those who are “hard” to love – to see others as family is to extend the nuclear family to the point of being “post-nuclear.”

Groupings, blood, lininage, last names, fathers, mothers, or any other thing we can limit our love by does not define family. In a post-nuclear world, family is as Christ defined it in Matthew.

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, "Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
He replied to him, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" Pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." (Matthew 12:46-50

Family, or the “perfect biblical family” is so much deeper then we can think – it is all who follow Christ, and his teachings. In fact, we should accept any of various social units differing from the “traditional family unit” as equivalent a “biblical family.” One thing is very clear; Christ saw the role of the family as very different from the rather narrow perception we have of it today - and I believe we still have much to learn.

This churches definition of “family” did not include single parents, divorced parents, blended families or adoptive families. So the question is this, “how do you define family?” Even to a larger extent, how should we as a church define family?


Anonymous said...

A few comments:

Firstly, I disagree with the idea that "It is not that anyone of these [family structures] is right or wrong; it is that they simply are." The idea rests on a fallacious bit of reasoning that David Hume called the "is/ought" fallacy and what some call the fact/value distinction. The simple fact of something has no bearing on the moral status of that thing. So simply because a family structure exists, it does not therefore follow that that family structure does not stand under God's judgment.

Now, I will say that the family structures alluded to in the list that follows the above-quoted statement do not strike me as standing under God's judgment. Nonetheless, I will caution you that such broad generalizing statements open the door for family structures that do go against God's intent for His creation: same-sex marriages, multiple-member marriages, polygamy, incestuous relationships, and the like.

Secondly, I disagree with the claim that "to exclude some is not Christian," even though I understand what is being hinted at. I do agree with the sentiment that the Church has failed to reach those at the margins of society, and has oftentimes participated actively in making those marginalized more wretched. Nonetheless, it would seem that Paul is very aware of an antithesis between the world and the Church. Moreover, we must keep in mind that, historically, the Church has been marked off by her sacraments: baptism and the Eucharist. There are those who partake and participate, and there are those who do not. This is exclusive, so much so that unbaptized catechumens in the early Church had to leave when the Eucharist was served to the membership.

To the wider world, the Church ought to welcome into her body all those who repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. But this does not boil down to wholesale affirmation of lifestyles and attitudes that are fundamentally opposed to the message of redemption and new creation proclaimed in the Gospel. This last point is where the process of discernment plays an important role: is a family structure such that the acceptance thereof will impinge upon the purity of the Gospel? I'd say in the cases you mentioned, no. But in some cases, the answer is yes.

Thirdly, I would like to agree with the viewpoint expressed at the end. Ultimately, the body of believers in Christ is my family, and yours.

ourgreenroom said...

i'm pretty new to blogcom but this is one post that got me to thinking so i thought i'd put my two cents in as well.

the role that i play in our corner of Christiandom is that of Minister of Family Life which means this is what i make money doing by serving God and Families. my training for this role is both theological and therapeutic (B.A. in ministry and Masters in Marriage and family therapy). That's the background of these comments...not bragging.

anyway, i've struggled over the past few years trying to find from both a theological standpoint and a therapeutic standpoint a definition of family that doesn't alienate some of God's favorite people. i work at a church that has a real heart for singles, single parent families, and other family structures, but the primary focus of the ministry is the neuclear "nelson" family.

one of the problems that i have seen over the years of therapy is that much of what causes stressors on family relationships is the idea that "we're not normal." when a couple fights more than they think they should, doesn't show affection like they think they should, parents differently than they think they should, they end up deciding that this just "wasn't the right match" and go looking for something else. I think we've done a great deal of damage to families by defining the "biblical model" as the 1950's model that you mentioned. The standard is just unreachable for today's dual income, high stress, constantly changing family structures.

we've got to (the church) help our society redefine health in the family. psychology already has the norm set, whether they want to admit it or not and base their diagnosis on the deviation from that norm. my question is how do we take on this task? the tendency in the church is to create a PROGRAM for each possible family structure and hope that we meet the needs (marrieds ministry, blended families ministry, singles ministry, etc.). But that takes away from The Family that is supposed to be student-followers of Jesus. I think that's the struggle that we'll have to address living in this time of transition from modernity to whatever is next. this thing that we're calling post-modernity seems to be the transition and the work that takes place here will set the agenda for those that follow. pretty big task, but it will be fun!

Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

The specific cases mentioned are good examples of people the church is not reaching. However, I strongly disagree with the substance of this article: that a postmodern church is something to strive for. Postmodernism as a philosophy is the belief that reality is subjective. It is the thinking that you and I can see the same subject in two different ways and both be correct. It is the philosophy that there are no absolutes (even in science) and it directly opposed the gospel. Furthermore, postmodernism has its foundations in Secular Humanism - the belief that humanity is the greatest good and that we can "save" ourselves through our own works. Secular Humanism believes that through our great advances is science, sociology, and economics we can solve all mankind's problems. Postmodernism takes that thought a step further and states that it doesn't matter what anyone believes. Your beliefs are just as true as mine. Postmodernism is an evil belief system and nothing to strive for. We should instead strive to be like the examples described for us in the Bible. There we see a great deal of attention (both in Acts and in the letters to the churches) given to widows both old and young. That is the first century version of a "post-nuclear" family. "Broken" families are nothing new, and the principles for caring for people haven't changed. The church doesn't need to redefine anything. What we need to do is obey what God's been telling us for thousands of years.