Shortly before my ordination as a church deacon in the fall of 2005, I sat down with a mentor of mine (himself an Anglican clergy) for lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. Over the course of our conversation we reflected upon our chosen career, each from the opposite perspective. He, on the verge of retirement, was looking back upon nearly four decades of parish ministry and, hence, nearly four decades of triumphs and failures, joys and regrets. I, on the other hand, was on the verge of ordination, looking forward into the unknown- towards a host of vague expectations and murky fears. Being so long ago, I forget much of what we spoke of that day. However, I do remember one thing: He emphatically warned me to not allow the demands of church ministry to alienate me from my family. “I know too many of our colleagues whose children now resent them for the endless hours that they spent working and not in the home.” he said. “As you begin your ministry, resolve not to make the same mistake.” Although delivered to a soon-to-be priest, the advise my mentor gave me could easily have been offered to a lay person- a committed disciple of Jesus heavily active in her church. Indeed, over the course of my ten years in ministry, I have worked with a number of burnt-out lay volunteers who have quit in frustration, complaining rightfully that their work in the church was keeping them from their spouses, children or grandchildren.
Therefore, I think its fair to ask: Isn’t there something wrong with our theology of the church if we have come to think of it a threat from which we must protect our families? Did the Lord really establish the church to be an institution with endless demands- an institution that would tear us from our sons and daughters were we to let it? When did the church become a demanding taskmaster to which we had to say: “This far but no further!”
Naturally, I believe that the Lord’s will for his church is something radically different from the family-threatening institution that many of us have experienced. Indeed, whenever the Apostle Paul writes about the Christian family it is, in most cases, after a sustained, in-depth, theological examination of the church. For example, in Ephesians 4, Paul speaks of the church in organic terms, likening it to a body whose head is Christ. “He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love” (Ephesians 4:16 NLT). Just one chapter later, Paul reflects upon the Christian household, speaking, for example, of the mutual, self-sacrificial love that defines marriage: “Be subject to one another,” he writes to the husbands and wives, “out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21 NRSV). Clearly, Paul’s theology of the church and Paul’s theology of the family are not in competition with one another. Rather, the latter is established upon the former. The church that the New Testament speaks of is a life-giving community. This life-giving community is made up, not only of individual people, but of individual families- families that ought to be strengthened by their active involvement in the life of the church rather than drained by it.
So where did we go wrong? Answering this question could take a Ph.D. dissertation. However, I will offer a suggestion: Perhaps our mistake was making the church into just another human institution. Institutions are complex structures with countless needs: buildings that need maintenance, staff that need to be paid, expensive programs that need to be properly planned and executed. Far from giving life, the church as an institution feeds off of it- demanding from us ever more time, ever more energy and ever more commitment. The more time we spend sitting at committee meetings and church governance boards, the more time we spend organizing fundraisers to pay heating bills, the less time we are spending with our family members. In the end, not only do we find ourselves isolated from our families but also from the very members of our church community! Perhaps we may even grow resentful of our fellow churchgoers, blaming them for the endless infractions on our time.
Perhaps its time to begin dreaming of an alternative. Imagine if we were to think of the church, not as a harsh and demanding task-master, but as a life-giving mother. Imagine if we were to think of the church- not as an institution with buildings, budgets, staff and programs- but as a organic body made up of many members- individuals and families, the married and the celibate, single parents, widows, widowers and divorcees. There would still be work for us to do but that work, far from alienating us from our families and one another, would enliven us and draw us together. The work would be this: to love one another as Christ loved us; to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ self-sacrificially. Our work would also consist of extending that same divine love beyond the boundaries of our Christian community and into the hurting world that exists beyond our walls. Living such a life together would certainly be hard (Christlike love is, after all, self-sacrificial). However, it would bring life and vitality, not only to us as individuals, but to our families. If there were such a church as this, I would feel no need to protect my wife and son from it.
Do you agree with the idea that the church can be overly demanding- taking us away from the people we love most? If so, what can we do to remedy the situation? I invite your comments below.
By Terence Chandra