Over the last decade or so we have entered into a new reality in community life. The nuclear family has blossomed into the extended family, even the overlapping extended family, or clan, as the second generation of community folks have sometimes married one another and started having children of their own. The ‘grandkid’ link ties those first generation folks together with family-, as well as community-ties. Some of us are also being called upon to care for aging parents or relatives, drawing us into deeper relationship with the ‘pre-first’ generation! This is a wonderful development. In the past we have invested in building intentional community together in no small part because of the loss of more natural community in our culture. Now we are experiencing the most natural of community structures, the extended family, growing up right in our midst. What a blessing! What a multiplication of dinners, birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, exchange of life on every level through these family networks.
Ah, but there lies a bit of a rub. ‘Natural community’ competes with ‘intentional community’ for time, energy, resources. In the early days of our community we resolved this potential conflict by largely withholding ourselves from investment in our families of origin. As we were building a new set of relationships together rooted in Christ, participation in community activities almost always took precedence. We have become far less intense in our time commitment over the years, of course, but the number of places where community and family intersect has actually increased with the emergence of interwoven family connections. There might be less community ‘stuff’, but there is a lot more family ‘stuff’!
What do we make of this and how can we walk out this new reality fruitfully? I am sure that the Lord has a lot to show us still, but here are a couple of thoughts. Let’s keep seeking the Lord and talking about this together:
1. Family is very important to God & it must be to us
Family is important enough to God that it makes it into the ‘Top Ten’ of his commandments. Ephesians 3 speaks of every family on earth being connected to the Fatherhood of God. Much can be said on this point, but it is clear that there is a significant, holy, spiritual reality about family. As a community we must not disparage or diminish family by viewing it as ‘competition’ to ‘real’ community. We should find ways to encourage and build up families as they seek to understand how to engage with God.
2. Family is not and end in itself but is part of the fabric of the Kingdom
Just as we as individuals are called to ‘lay down our lives, take up our cross and follow’ when we enter into being disciples of Jesus, so families do not exist solely for their own benefit but must lay down their (corporate) life, take up their cross, and follow. It is the wonderful pastoral challenge of ‘patriarchs & matriarchs’ to instill this Gospel ethic into the culture of their families. We have plenty of models and experience with fleshly or worldly extended family life. Let’s help one another grow into a Kingdom-centered culture of extended family life. Hopefully this is a place the rest of the community can provide support and encouragement.
3. There is a powerful mission / Kingdom potential in community-embedded extended families
Family life is in tatters in American culture. This has not gotten better in the 40 years we have been together, it has gotten far worse. The witness of healthy, Christ-centered extended families who are not living for themselves but are engaged with God’s broader people can be huge. One response people in the culture make to the family fiasco is to try to ‘cocoon’, to draw Mom, Dad and 1.75 children into an isolated family haven. This is doomed. Interacting with vital family networks that which also have living connection to others can give a whole new vision and provide a place of life to emerge from the cocoon.
In addition, in almost all our extended family networks, there are those who are not walking with Christ, or who do not really have him at the center of their lives. Healthy, loving connections to their broader family which has an authentic Christ-centered culture provide a bridge ‘back home’ for these loved ones. Sometimes, though, they need interaction with someone outside their immediate family, but who knows and loves both them and their family. This is where the community connection can help with the mission to the extended family’s skeptical members.
These are just a few thoughts, and many of you, especially those in our ‘clans’, probably have more. The bottom line is that we should embrace this new era that the Lord has brought us into, viewing it from a broad Kingdom perspective, not as a ‘problem’ it raises for ‘our way of doing things’. God is restoring something to his people – extended families in mutual partnership with broader community life sharing together in the Kingdom mission to reconcile the world to himself. Challenging, exciting, wonderful.