Here is my article for this coming month’s church newsletter, the Courant:
Let’s be Friends
If there’s one thing that continues to surprise me, no matter how long I’ve been a minister, it’s the fact that “Church” is so hard. Have you ever thought about that? It shouldn’t be.
Most American congregations aren’t particularly diverse ethnically, or culturally, or linguistically, or economically, or educationally, or theologically. (Sure, there are exceptions, but most are not.) Indeed, most are made up of people who are remarkably similar. Many, especially small congregations, are dominated by just a few families who make up a huge percentage of the membership (thus, ensuring that many congregations aren’t even all that diverse genetically!)
Yet, for some reasons, this whole “Church” thing turns out to be incredibly difficult. It’s hard to keep people engaged and cared for. It’s hard to makes sure people are heard and valued. It’s hard to get over old hurts and ongoing mistrust. It’s hard to admit the wrongs we do (and forgive the wrongs done to us).
Which raises the question: Why?
If we aren’t separated by the big things (see above), why is it so difficult?
I’m sure there are many reasons, but two rise to the surface as I think about it: (1) we’re so close, we fight like family, and (2) we’re so close, we propagate a culture of status quo.
We’re so close, we fight like family.
Every relationship eventually has to deal with conflict. Sometimes it’s conflict over little things (“what kind of pizza to order?”); sometimes it’s conflict over bigger things (“what kind of end-of-life care do we chose for a loved one?”). Conflict is inevitable in every relationship. There’s nothing wrong with that. The question is how we engage it.
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s that friends are often far better at engaging conflict than families (even conflict over big issues). Friends tend to give each other the benefit of the doubt (families often don’t). Friends tend to fight fairly (families often don’t). Friends often overlook little slights understanding that some things just aren’t worth fighting about (families regularly argue intensely over things that are, quite frankly, utterly insignificant). Friends frequently seek harmony in the midst of difference (family often demands unanimity). Friends always know that a relationship could disintegrate (families usually [wrongly] assume that’s an impossibility).
I’m not a big fan of using the “family” metaphor for congregations and this is partly why. What if, instead of assuming we’re family, we actually worked at being friends? I’ve never met a church-goer who complained about their congregation being too friendly. On the other hand, I cannot even begin to list the times “family-like arguments” have infected congregations to a point where reconciliation seems almost impossible.
Friendship can be particularly difficult when so many of us actually are family (or at least have limited real diversity to overcome), but it is possible. Perhaps it is even necessary.
We’re so close, we propagate a culture of status quo.
As crazy as it may sound, the fact that congregations are often made up of people who are so similar, creates a context where change is disincentivized. One might be tempted to think that our like-ness would make us more affirming of each other’s growth and development, but the exact opposite is often the case. Why? It’s simple: the more we’re like someone, the more their change suggests we might need to change too.
Put bluntly, in contexts where true diversity is limited, an individual’s decision to change is, inherently (albeit perhaps unintentionally), a judgment on the groups norms.
This can be a good thing for some groups. It can facilitate stability and limit change just “for the sake of change.” On the other hand, the Church is an entity that’s almost all about change. Congregations don’t exist to help people stay what they are; congregations exist to help people become what they can be (in order, of course, to increasingly glorify God).
What an incredible irony it is: one of the primary reasons churches exist is to facilitate change, yet many congregations make true change almost impossible.
Again, the metaphor of “family” is less helpful than that of “friends.” Families usually experience change as condemnation; friends, more often, see change as opportunities for growth and development.
Let’s be friends.
I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a place for “family” language in the Church. (It is, after all, a biblical metaphor and sometimes helpful.) What if we put it on the back burner for a while though, and started replacing it with “friendship” language. Or better yet, what if we started actually being friends?! Not because we have to, but because we can. Not because we’re so much alike, but because we’re committed to being together even (perhaps especially) when we differ.