Chris H. Smith Jr., family, singleness, family of God, church

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Mother and Brothers

Not only did many of today’s adults grow up in broken families, but an increasing number are dramatically delaying starting a family or avoiding it altogether. Where do they fit into the life of the church?

The 2004 film Garden State is still relevant in many ways (and the soundtrack still slaps, as the kids say). It is part coming-of-age story, part rom-com. It’s warm and funny and occasionally thoughtful. The film is at its best when it reflects on the emotional complexities of family and home. 

In one memorable scene, after being laughed at for not knowing how to swim, Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) makes his way to the shallow end of a pool where he is joined by Sam (Natalie Portman). Largeman laments missing some normal childhood things, like learning how to swim, while Sam confesses that there are some normal childhood things that she wishes she had missed. In one of the more poignant moments of the movie, Largeman says to Sam, “You know that point in your life when you realize the house you grew up in isn’t really your home anymore? All of a sudden even though you have some place where you put your [stuff], that idea of home is gone.” Sam doesn’t immediately relate, so Largeman explains more:

You’ll see one day when you move out it just sort of happens one day and it’s gone. You feel like you can never get it back. It’s like you feel homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist. Maybe it’s like this rite of passage, you know. You won’t ever have this feeling again until you create a new idea of home for yourself, you know, for your kids, for the family you start, it’s like a cycle or something. I don’t know, but I miss the idea of it, you know. Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people who miss the same imaginary place.

Largeman displays the angst and anxiety common to every generation. But those feelings ratcheted for many of us who were setting out on our own when Garden State released. 

We are the last of the Gen X’ers and the first of the millennials, the children of the baby boomers. Whereas our parents grew up in the golden era of the nuclear family, their own marriages and families turned out much different. The most obvious and objective measure of the difference is divorce rates. Boomers have divorced at historically high rates, according to data from 2014, reaching a peak in the late 70s and early 80s. Still more research shows that the Boomers who set those records in their early adult years are now seniors and continue to divorce at higher rates than previous generations. It should be no surprise, then, that for many in the Garden State generation, the first word that comes to mind when we hear the word “home” is “broken,” and a primary way we describe our families is “dysfunctional.” This has left a large percentage of American adults homesick for a place that never existed.

Our own experience of home and family may be part of the explanation for why many in my generation have waited to marry later than ever before, if at all. And reporting from data scientist Randal Olson shows that, when controlled for population increase, marriage rates today are lower than they have ever been in U.S. history, even lower than during the Great Depression. According to the most recent census data, the average age for a first marriage has climbed to around 30 years old for men and 28 years old for women, up from about 24 years old for men and 22 years old for women in 1980. As a result of delaying marriage or avoiding it altogether, the percentage of adults 25 to 50 years old who have never married is 33.5 percent, up from merely 13 percent in 1980. Not only did many of today’s adults grow up in broken families, but an increasing number are dramatically delaying starting a family or avoiding it altogether. 

Where does this leave this growing number of unmarried adults, with broken homes behind them and a family of their own uncertain? Are they left homeless, without a family to call their own, just a group of people who miss the same imaginary place? Are they doomed to isolation and loneliness? They certainly don’t have to be, but many often feel that way. 

Lonelier on Sunday

Sadly, one of the primary places where people of faith feel this pinch is in and among the church. Through how church leaders speak of marriage, family, and singleness, churches often exacerbate feelings of isolation and loneliness among unmarried adults. Intentionally or not, sermons and programming often communicate that marriage is the only way to be happy and relationally fulfilled in this life. In addition to the clichés that imply single people are incomplete — lacking a “better half” or needing someone to “complete” them — Christians run into passages of the Bible that speak of spouses and children as blessings, evidence of the favor of the Lord, and more precious than great treasure (Pro 18:22; 31:10; Ps 127:3-5). While someone may be able to brush off the clichés as cultural artifacts that have made their way into the church, the scriptural affirmations about the goodness of marriage and family can leave him or her feeling spurned not only by cultural norms but by God himself.

This is because instead of balancing a biblical, high view of marriage with a positive evaluation of the single life, churches often do the opposite. I couldn’t count the number of times someone quoted Genesis 2:18 — “It is not good that the man should be alone” — to me when I was a single man. Usually, it was in response to revelations of the unhealthiness of my diet or the uncleanliness of my bedroom, but whether there was an immediate referent or not, having that verse quoted to me always left me with the feeling that my whole life was being judged as “not good.” The elevation of marriage as a spiritual ideal and the underappreciation of singleness creates an unwelcome atmosphere for single people in the kingdom. 

Further, programming like marriage or parenting conferences are common among churches while conferences aimed at single adults are rare. Even more problematic than the lack of special programming, many churches struggle to find a place for single adults in their regular rhythms: Sermon illustrations are often drawn from a pastor’s family life and applications aimed at parents and spouses. With unmarried pastors a rare commodity, single people don’t have living examples of what a faithful single life looks like. Churches may have Sunday school classes or small groups for college students and young married couples, but the 30-year-old single guy or 40-something single woman doesn’t fit in either category. Some churches have singles ministries, but many are more focused on catalyzing marriages than on catechizing individuals. And, honestly, these “meat market” ministries are off-putting to many people, especially those who are older or who are not actively seeking a romantic relationship. In these ways, Christian singles often feel alienated from married Christians and out of place within the life of the church.

This isolation and loneliness is tragic because God created us to be in relationship not only with himself, but also with one another as one family. 

We Are Family 

The first man, Adam, is created by God’s hand from the dust of the ground and, thus, spoken of as the son of God (Luke 3:38). Adam is given a bride and commanded to be fruitful and multiply, to grow a family. The first couple is given a home, the Garden of Eden. Unfortunately, that idyllic existence was short-lived. As a consequence of their sin, Adam and Eve are estranged from God and one another, and forced to leave their paradisal place. The message of Christ is, among other things, an invitation from our heavenly father to return home. Those who respond to it in faith are adopted into a family of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and sons and daughters that spans the globe and stretches throughout history.

The New Testament uses a number of memorable images to teach us about the nature of the church: the body of Christ, a garden/temple, a royal priesthood, and others (Eph 4, 1 Cor 12, 1 Cor 3, 1 Peter 2). But the church is most often spoken of, and Christians are most often addressed, in familial language. In fact, every relationship within what we would consider to be the nuclear family is used to describe how the church relates to God and how individual members of the church relate to one another. 

For starters, marriage — the nucleus of the nuclear family — is said to be a profoundly mysterious witness to the relationship between Christ and the church (Eph 5:32). The church is Jesus’ beautiful bride, spotless and without blemish because she’s been washed in his redeeming blood (Eph 5:25–27). Individual Christians are spoken of as children of God. Those who have placed their faith in Jesus are adopted as sons and daughters and therefore are able to cry out to God, “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4:4–6). The church is Jesus’ bride and individual Christians are God’s children.

And these familial terms are not just used to describe a Christian’s relationship to God; relationships within the church are also presented in familial language. Older Christians are spoken of as parents: The apostle Paul tells Timothy not to rebuke an older man but to “encourage him as you would a father” (1 Tim 5:1). Similarly, Paul commands Timothy to encourage “older women as mothers” (1 Tim 5:2). Perhaps the most poignant use of parental language is Jesus’ address to his mother and “the disciple whom he loved”: Jesus sees them standing at the foot of the cross during the crucifixion and says to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!” and to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:26–27). With these statements, Jesus redefines the relationship between Mary and John as a relationship between mother and son, but not one based on biology or legal adoption. They are family based on their mutual faith in the Son of God. And according to church tradition, John cared for Mary as one would his own mother until she died. 

To be a parent figure, one need not be older in age, though. Being farther along in your faith journey or helping lead someone toward new birth in Christ can make you a parental figure. Paul told the Corinthians that they had many guides in the faith, but he became their father when he preached the gospel to them (1 Cor 4:15). He describes his relationship to Onesimus in the same way, having become his father by preaching the gospel to him while imprisoned (Phil 10). Not afraid of mixing gender metaphors a bit, Paul portrayed his relationship to the church in Thessaloniki as both “like a father with his children” and as a “nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thess 2:7, 11). 

Similarly, we can read that new and immature Christians are portrayed as infants in need of the pure spiritual milk of basic gospel truths (1 Peter 2:2). Like any good parent, mothers and fathers in the faith hope to see their children grow and develop the ability to handle the meatier aspects of the Christian faith (Heb 5:12–14). Even when that happens, as with biological children, your kids don’t stop being your kids. Paul sent out his trusted colleagues Timothy and Titus to manage churches and appoint elders on his behalf. Even though they were trusted leaders, Paul still addressed each of them as his “true child in the faith” (1 Tim 1:2, Titus 1:4).

Of course, the New Testament also shows Christians addressing one another as brothers and sisters. This sibling language is used to address Christians across the Pauline, Petrine, Johannine, and catholic epistles. In fact, of all the letters in the New Testament, Titus, 2 John, and Jude are the only ones in which the writer doesn’t refer to Christians with sibling language (though Titus and 2 John do use paternal language). 

This is true of how Jesus spoke of his followers, too. This is one of the more shocking instances where familial language is applied to disciples: Jesus’ mother and brothers came to a house where Jesus was teaching inside, but they couldn’t get in through the crowd. When a man told Jesus that his mother and brothers were there, Jesus asked him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Jesus pointed at his disciples and 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” (Matt 12:46–50). By faith in Christ, not only are Christians able to look to God as Father, but are able to look to Christians from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation as brothers and sisters.

Welcome Home

We tend to think of marriage as uniquely unifying, uniting a man and a woman together into one flesh (Gen 2:24). But consider that similar imagery is used to describe how the Holy Spirit binds Christians together into one body (Eph 5:23). The physical one-flesh union of marriage seems to serve as an image or a type of the spiritual one-flesh union Christians have with one another as they are joined together as the body of Christ. If this is true, then everyone who is united to Christ by faith, regardless of family history or marital status, has a family to which they belong — the family of God. The bonds within the family of God transcend even the most committed friendships because it is only within the family of God that the Holy Spirit holds Christians together in unity (Eph 4:3). 

The old proverb, “Blood is thicker than water,” is a statement that family ties — blood relations — are the strongest and most important relationships in your life. For Christians, the exact opposite is true: Thicker than blood is water, namely the waters of baptism. These waters welcome new members into the family of God, uniting brothers and sisters in a mysterious but very real union. And not only does every Christian have a people to belong to, but they also have a place to which they belong. 

Wherever a Christian finds a local gathering of the family of God, a local church, they are at home. Whether it be the public service of a North American megachurch or the private worship of an underground church in a closed country, the gathering space for corporate worship is like the family dining room. A Christian walking in is surrounded by family members and preparing to enjoy a family meal. They will feast on the Bread of Life as the gospel is preached, sang, and prayed. They will eat bread and drink wine as they partake of the communion meal. The waters of baptism welcome new members into the family of God, and the sharing of the plate and cup continues to mark who is in the family. And while this family gathering should feel like home to all who are in the family of God, it is only a taste of what ultimately being home will be like. In the new heavens and new earth, the entire family of God — brothers and sisters from all peoples, tribes, tongues, and centuries — will gather as one family in one family dining room to worship our heavenly Father. 

In Garden State, Largeman says that maybe family is a group of people who miss the same imaginary place. The church is a family in a similar way; but we long for home, and we don’t miss a place we once knew. People who are single and married, from stable families and from broken homes, regardless of ethnicity or socio-economic status — all hear in the gospel an invitation to join the family in the home that still lies ahead. 

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