Written by: Dr. Michelle Anthony
Several years ago, I thought about a statement that I had once written: “God’s family cares for each other and worships God together.” I felt convicted. In what ways was I caring for the varied generations in my church and how were we worshiping God together? On any given Sunday, I saw Ron and Jeannie, a couple in their late sixties week after week, but other than niceties and a hug, I knew nothing of their life together or the wisdom of their years. I would notice John and Kathryn, a couple in their thirties without children, sit in the same seats each week but didn’t understand their story and their struggle with infertility. I watched Megan, a single mom, struggle with her son with autism and would offer a warm greeting but knew nothing of her strength or her daily struggles that were hidden by her loving smiles. I often observed an older woman, named Rachel, bring her great-grandson who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and suffered abuse from his step-father but knew nothing of the painful circumstances that brought them to my ministry. I witnessed college students, single adults, seniors, and teenagers “attending” church but not connecting with others in meaningful interactions that transcended an hour or two on a Sunday morning.
“This doesn’t feel like a family to me”, I would internalize. Yet, I struggled to know how to change it.
Even when we are not aware of it, we are…quickening our pace, adding more to our plates, and with all of our connections and contacts, we feel more isolated and alone than ever before. But the Bible speaks of a different form of life. An abundant life. A life in fellowship with the Sovereign and Holy God who is our Father. And a life lived in community with “one another” which flourishes as we build bridges between our differences.The New Testament consistently challenges us on how we are to relate to “one another.” And interestingly, most of these passages address our actions, not just our attitudes. So how is it in an ever-spinning society, we set ourselves apart to actively pursue intentional community with God and others?
Who are we willing to accept into our “families”…and what could this new diverse family offer us that the world is incapable of supplying?
These are the important questions of today’s ministry to families. The New Testament Christians found the answer and they called it “koinonia”. Koinonia is more than a warm/fuzzy word. It’s a word that establishes the kind of fellowship believers can experience. For our first century brothers and sisters, it was far beyond the type of fellowship we often settle for today in our churches–which is merely a counterfeit, expressed in cordiality, courtesy or sociability. This “koinonia” fellowship was marked by believers in Christ experiencing the gift of the Holy Spirit’s presence and gifts motivating them toward a mission much bigger than themselves. God designed us to live in a community and to experience Him in ways that can only happen in proximity to one another. It was God’s idea to create families and through them learn interdependence with one another. Yet, we often find ourselves isolated, living fragmented lives that are completely independent from each other.
Although I believe that God designed us to live with and learn from one another, I have also come to discover that our “community” must include all the generations. If we only invest in relationships with people who are in similar life stages, we miss out on the opportunity to grow, expand our understanding of who God is, and appreciate the wisdom and innocence of differing ages. Traditionally the church has thought of families as a unit where there is a father, a mother and children. But the family of God is defined differently in Scripture. In I John 2:12-14, we see that all ages and stages are necessary in the building up of the saints. We need those who are fathers (and mothers) who bring wisdom and instruction, we need the young men (and women) who possess zeal and skill, and we need the children’s pure faith and belief. In each of these we grow and become more like our heavenly Father and usher in a new order of family where the enemy has sought to destroy. A vision began to take root in my heart and grew into our first “Family Night”. On this night we would gather together with all the generations for a night of eating, worshipping, and participating in various response stations. In essence, we would become a family of families.
The intent was that those who would most likely self-select out of something called “Family Night” would now find family in each other. Our new list would include: the widower and his children, the barren couple, the single mom and her adopted son, the seniors without grandchildren, the foster parents, the mother and her son who are raising his children, the college student, the single adult, the divorcee’, the orphan, children and adults with special needs, and the married couple raising children, just to name a few.
It was important to identify all who were welcome in overt ways so that there would be no hesitation about who was invited. I specifically invited Ron and Jeannie, John and Kathryn, Megan and her son, Rachel and her great-grandson, and every single person, college student and teenager I had ever met. I wanted everyone to have a place to belong. I was overjoyed (and honestly, a bit surprised) when I saw all the generations and diverse life stages show up and begin interacting with one another over a meal. We worshiped together after our meal and were given some instructions regarding different rooms with stations set up for Bible study, memory verses, games, cooking in the kitchen, crafts, and global awareness. Each station encouraged inter-generational interaction and inter-dependency. Throughout the night I watched as we came together across the boundary lines that usually separate us. I watched the Holy Spirit give us a new vision of what it means to live in community with those who are different than we are. And, I watched each person find meaning and purpose in the family of God.
Family Nights have become an important part of our culture at my church and we continue to seek fresh ways to bring all generations together. We still war against the mindset of some who do not feel a part of our new definition of “family” and we endeavor to find ways for them to have a place to serve in order to have a safe way to observe our Family Nights. On one occasion, many of our adults with special needs led a station before they felt safe to simply come and participate. This has been true for some of our singles and youth as well. However, once they taste the beauty of all generations caring for each other, worshiping together and sharing their lives with one another, they find safety in this new family of God.
I am thankful that God is expanding my heart, to think of my community with other followers of Christ, in more inclusive and diverse ways. As I lean into this type of “doing life together” I see a fuller picture of who God is. I see His love, compassion, faithfulness, wisdom and joy in ways that I could never experience by staying in the safe confines of only sharing life with those who are just like me.