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Church as Extended Family

One of the television shows I remember most from my youth was "The Waltons." This series lasted for 10 years from 1971-1981and was about a bygone era in which a family composed of multiple generations living in close proximity is on full display. Navigating the challenges of living through the depression and WWII, the Walton family beautifully illustrates the importance and power of extended family. This was a time in our country when many people lived like the Waltons. Could it be that many of the failings in our current culture could be remedied if we all were part of strong, tight-knit extended families? We have seen a progression in our country from families living like the Waltons (extended family in close proximity) to the Cleavers (suburban family with a stay-at-home mom), to the Gilmore Girls (single mom), to Breaking Bad (completely dysfunctional).* While a wholesale return to living near our relatives is highly unlikely, I believe that God has created the church to be an ever-present extended family to take the place of our physical families when necessary. Too many times, however, our relationships in the church do not rise to the same level of commitment, involvement and sharing as previously existed in the days when extended family was the norm. Seeing each other at church on Sundays and Wednesdays is encouraging, but does not replace what God created us to be a part of – Christian communities in which relationships are deep and meaningful throughout the week. God desires that we live life together with people who know us and love us.

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you,…no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30). Jesus was referring to the fact that, because of their new faith, many converts to Christianity would be expelled from their “oikos” (high-functioning extended family support structures that existed in the first century). Not having the support of an extended family is not a new problem. The “hundred times as much…brothers and sisters and mothers and children” were to be their new community group structures, their new “oikos.”

The above words of Jesus in Mark 10 demonstrate that Jesus wanted the community of faith to be a replacement for the physical extended family when necessary. The "adoption" of people from different backgrounds, who were not blood relatives, into new extended families, was a powerful witness. It also was a solution for many of the societal ills (ex. widows and orphans unable to care for themselves) which were occurring in Christianity’s inception and which we see even today when we do not have a high functioning extended family of our own. In our current Christian culture, the nuclear family unit and the large church gatherings get most of the attention. However, the plan of Jesus was a community as we see lived out in Acts 4:32, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”

Recently, Barbara and I experienced the transformational power of extended family love, as her parents moved in with us and became a part of our house church. This has been a blessing on many levels. First, our house church volunteered their time and talents to help us remodel the downstairs apartment where Barbara's parents were to live. This was a big commitment on their part that involved multiple days and nights of extremely hard work. Their sacrifice and the time we could spend together in this project cemented our commitment to one another as an extended family. I should add that this did not just “happen.” One Sunday, Barbara and I opened up about the challenges we were facing and the needs we had. It wasn’t easy to ask for that much help, but it was incredibly faith building and encouraging to see the group come together and serve us. Two of the families have babies and they still managed to contribute tremendously! This experience has humbled us and increased our gratitude for our “extended family.”

Additionally, Barbara's parents; Joe and Barbara Nocca, have added a whole new generation to our house church. Their life experiences and willingness to share them has greatly enhanced our gatherings. Perhaps most importantly, has been the opportunity for us to live with Barbara's parents. Combining resources with them has been a tremendous help to us, as we have been going through a career transition in our mid-fifties. Furthermore, they benefit from our assistance in helping them with daily tasks and just “being there” for them. We consider this a "win-win". None of this would be possible if multiple generations had not been willing to share in uncommon ways.

Barbara and I have not always experienced this level of sharing, and I confess nor have we served a group as much as our group served us. Uncommon love illustrated by uncommon sharing provides a beacon of light to a society that lives largely autonomous lives disconnected from "thick" extended families. It is our desire that our house church demonstrate an alternative to “disconnected” living. We want our house church to be not just a way of gathering but a way of life. We have not yet arrived, but we believe that this is Jesus's plan. May we all experience the blessing of extended family love!


*From "City Kin" by Laura Callarman and Kent Smith


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