Freedom from the family for the family

There’s a nice article at Christianity Today challenging the prevalent, ongoing “focus on the family” mentality of the American church. In it, Rebecca McLaughlin gives five reasons “Why I Don’t Sit with My Husband at Church” on Sunday mornings.

There’s one big reason: McLaughlin believes that congregations must be more open to showing hospitality to strangers who visit or to ministering to others in the congregation who might have needs. This may mean separating from our spouses or children while at church in order to have the freedom to serve others.

Here are her five reasons under that umbrella:

Outsiders should not be outsiders.

Every Sunday, my husband and I walk into church and see someone new sitting alone. If possible, we go and sit with them. If there are two people, we divide. It’s often awkward and uncomfortable but nonetheless worth it. Why? Because the gospel is a story of juxtaposition in community: Jesus sat with a Samaritan woman and asked her for a drink. Phillip got into the chariot with an Ethiopian eunuch. The early church ate together.

Our Sunday mornings do not require “having it together,” but they do require being together. Newcomers need us and we need them.

Family is more than immediate family.

…the Christian family is not a closed unit but rather part of a larger ecosystem. Community starts now.

Although being a healthy family sometimes requires drawing boundaries, we must be careful how we operate in community. If we close off in biological pods every Sunday, we leave out singles, newcomers, and others. If we open up, we experience a gospel gift—the body of Christ in all its fullness.

Your spouse is too much like you.

If our churches are in the messy gospel business of fostering family across differences, then it makes sense to sit with others unlike us.

McLaughlin specifically mentions sitting with people of other races and cultural backgrounds, as well as joining people from various socioeconomic situations.

Your marriage isn’t only for your benefit.

Marriage is a gift that we steward not just for ourselves and our children but also for the church. People in healthy marriages are outward-looking, spurring [others] on to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24).

We all need disillusionment with church.

Rebecca McLaughlin ends her article by reminding us that the church family itself is a community of the broken, who need each other to be available for mutual edification.

My hope is that, in the midst of our disillusionment with church, all of us—marrieds, singles, and kids—will grow in our sacrificial love for each other as we reach across our differences.

• • •

This piece resonates strongly with me.

Gail and I have always been partners in ministry, finding ways of reaching out to others when the church has gathered. We always viewed our relationship with each other and our children as part of a bigger web of relationships in which we were called to serve. We’ve depended on each other to allow the other a measure of independence so that we might be free to be available to those in need.

Even now, when we are no longer a pastoral couple in parish ministry, we actually attend different churches so that each of us can use our gifts in ministry. We attend and serve together when we’re able, but even then, it is not unusual that we find ourselves separately seeking out people who may need companionship or conversation.

And… I actually don’t think this is all that extraordinary in church communities. But it’s not the standard rhetoric, and I’m grateful that Rebecca McLaughlin had the courage to challenge us to see the bigger family perspective.

30 thoughts on “Freedom from the family for the family

  1. Yes. It could be a Christian church, a Buddhist sangha, or a couples bowling group, same outcome. Remain in touch with others = remain alive in many ways.


  2. This is so good and so right on, Christiane. You have no idea how much I long for the Church you describe.

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.


  3. Church ‘relationship’ might work ‘better’ in a small town where people gathered to worship in the one Church they built with their own hands together in a place somewhere in the middle West in the early pioneer days . . .
    in which case, the ‘community’ was, in itself, a unit that provided support when needed, but people’s familial privacy was respected, certainly . . .

    ‘Church’, ‘sanctuary’, ‘set-apart unto Thee’

    NOT the same as the village social hall and recreation center, no . . .

    maybe when the ‘Church’ became a ‘social outlet’, it lost it’s purpose to be a place where people might come to push the ‘reset button’ to find some peace for their tired souls

    What do we expect of a ‘Church’? Could it be that for some mega Church folks, the frantic socializing and non-stop activity center and ‘stage’ for ‘entertaining sermons and musical productions’ have failed to be that place they need where it is peaceful . . . where contemplation and renewal comes from quiet prayer??
    If this is true, such folks are better off going camping up in the state park near a lake in the quiet calming nature that mirrors its Creator.

    What is Church to us? What are we doing? Are we trying to make it something it was never meant to be, when all we ever needed was a little ‘time out’ in the silence to hear God’s voice?? That word ‘fellowship’ sounds so ‘friendly’ and welcoming . . . but it mustn’t replace Church as ‘sanctuary’, no.


  4. Just to be clear, I’m assuming Pail is writing from the position of a visitor of a church rather than the regular attender who doesn’t like being welcoming to strangers.Those of us with introverted tendencies tend to not like much attention and I assume that’s where Pail is coming from. On the other hand, most folks would like their presence to be acknowledged and appreciated. I like your approach, Rick.

    I’m sorry you were ignored, ACrisp. How discouraging….


  5. 🙂 Congrats to your Unitarian parents on their 50th.

    My husband and I are in our 50th year together also.
    I remember our twenty-fifth, then there was this frantic blur of activity, working, home improvement projects, working harder and longer hours . . . . I think of that ‘blur’ as ‘where did twenty-five years go?’

    But now, being retired, it’s a pleasant experience to cherish the time we have in each other’s company ‘now’. 🙂

    ““And at home by the fire, whenever you look up there I shall be
    — and whenever I look up, there will be you.” ”
    (Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd)


  6. Maybe a good first step is to approach the stranger and say, “Glad you’re here. We want you to feel welcome, but we don’t want to cross any barriers that make you uncomfortable,” and see where that leads. Maybe?


  7. I’m not sure I’m tracking the relevance of these statistics to the original article on spouses helping engage strangers.


  8. > Dr. Wilcox finds that “active conservative protestants” who

    Blah blah woof woof.

    Couples with deep social networks – aka active in one or more communities – have a lower rate of divorce than those with shallower social networks.

    Actually, healthy social networks correlate positively with EVERYTHING. It pretty mush washes away everything else. It is the single most significant correlation to life-span.

    Being lonely, whether married or single, sucks.


  9. 🙂

    I hear you. I won’t try to justify my behavior, but when I go to church I’m there to focus on God, hear the Word and take communion. I’ve found “church” relationships to feel contrived and shallow. My real relationships are in my ordinary life. I realize this is probably not how it’s supposed to work in Christianity.


  10. Oh good. A lone stranger sitting uncomfortably close and trying to make conversation with me. Terrific.


  11. I call shenanigans. Of my five loudly Christian uncles, two are divorced once, two are divorced twice, and one never married. Meanwhile I’m racking my brain for a good speech to make at my Unitarian parents’ 50th anniversary next month.


  12. “What appears intuitive is true. Couples who regularly practice any combination of serious religious behaviors and attitudes—attend church nearly every week, read their bibles and spiritual materials regularly; pray privately and together; generally take their faith seriously, living not as perfect disciples, but serious disciples—enjoy significantly lower divorce rates than mere church members, the general public, and unbelievers.”


  13. Shanti Feldhahn found;

    53% of Very Happy Couples agree with the statement, “God is at the center of our marriage” (compared to 7% of Struggling Couples).
    30% of Struggling Couples disagree with the statement, “God is at the center of our marriage.”
    She writes, “Highly happy couples tend to put God at the center of their marriage and focus on Him, rather than on their marriage or spouse, for fulfillment and happiness” (pg. 178, Highly Happy Marriages). (See her book for the methodology.)

    Dr. Wilcox finds that “active conservative protestants” who attend church regularly are actually 35% less likely to divorce than those who have no religious preferences.

    In all cases, notice the active element of the faith commitment.

    “Nominal” Christians, however, those who simply call themselves Christians but so not actively engage with the faith, are actually 20% more likely than the general population to get divorced—

    [ out of a C.T. article ]


  14. CM and others…

    Sorry for the comment that immediately challenged or advised caution over this “sit separately with strangers” concept.

    I see this almost as a mission field: one must feel led to enter into it, and probably best to have BOTH spouses feel led to do it. There are a few couples in my church that operate a bit like this, by the way, and I can see the benefits to both the couples who do it and to the strangers who benefit from this “sit separately with strangers” missional mindset.


  15. In Alcoholics Anonymous we’re supposed to be there for the newcomer!! That is the intention anyway.
    When this happens it can make the difference between life and death. All of us there have faced our own hideous death from alcohol and or drugs MHO. It’s a spiritual program!! Who keeps us sober? Our Father…


  16. Showing interest in a stranger at a church service is obviously difficult. I think it has to be a planned effort of the church “Greeters”. Even if it’s taught, scripted, and rehearsed, it will be better than what’s happening. Over the past ten year since my relocation, I’ve attended a dozen churches, a few multiple times, and have yet to be even lightly chatted, before or after the service.


  17. My wife and I attend different churches. She was raised Catholic and we had a Catholic wedding and our kids were baptized in the Catholic church. At the same time I was always clear that I had no interest in converting. Also that our kids would be churched. Her church or my church was fine. So the kids came along, and it turned out that the local parish is not very kid-friendly. This is surprising, as Catholic parishes are usually quite good that way.

    This was something of a problem. My church isn’t kid-unfriendly, but it doesn’t have enough kids to have a proper kids’ program. I was happy to park them in the pew with me, but then one summer my wife took them to the local Methodist church for Vacation Bible School, since our day care provider taught there (and therefore was unavailable for day care that week). This church has a fantastic kids’ program, and it stuck. Now my wife is teaching Sunday school and talking to me about prevenient grace.

    It works for us.


  18. Or maybe their marriage would get better for it! Who knows, depends.

    But one of the fun part of meeting people – including who will be your spouse – is having things to talk about. New people and experiences provide that. Having your own spaces is a healthy thing for friendships – otherwise you can run out of things to talk about.


  19. Of course, we need to apply wisdom here. This article speaks to one facet of a multi-faceted experience. There are seasons of life when I needed to be with my wife and kids and they needed me. There were times in our marriage when we needed to be with each other in worship and study with the gathered church.

    These matters are always determined by seasons and circumstances, and sometimes the choices are not clear. Sometimes we are called to sacrifice addressing one need in order to meet another. Life is not perfectly straightforward.


  20. Yes, as I said, I agree with the idea, I just wonder if there are as many couples sound enough to do it as we might like to think. Christians have no or little advantage (statistically speaking) over non-Christians when it comes to successful marriage, and are as likely to divorce as secular couples; their marriages are riddled with the same problems, and imperfections. For many, the person they should break out of their bubble to come alongside is their own spouse.


  21. I think the idea is not to split up newcomers or struggling couples, but to encourage long-term members to break out of their bubbles.


  22. Agree. I think the idea expressed in this post is a good one for those with solid marriages, but many couples in church struggle with dysfunctional relationships; their marriages aren’t solid or healthy. The churches are filled with people who are not whole themselves, and whose relationships are not whole as a result. Jesus came to the lost and broken, in and outside of marriages, and just as individuals are not made whole, and their problems are not all fixed by being or becoming Christian, neither are marriages (or any other relationship) made problem free by proximity to Christian faith.


  23. This seems like one of those things that requires a special relationship and understanding between spouses. If the two aren’t unified in purpose and understanding, best to enter with caution.


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