Several years ago a major cell phone company developed a usage plan called “friends and family.” In early cell phone days, when people grew conscious of how many minutes were used and how much each minute cost, we sought ways to increase minutes and decrease the cost per minute. This company invited us to put a certain number of family and friends on a list and call them for less per minute than other calls. Those outside the circle of “friends and family” cost the user higher rates. Communication with people in our circle grew; outside the circle stayed the same or decreased.
The challenge of friends and family in Christianity goes back to the early days of Jesus’ ministry. Bargil Pixner, in his book With Jesus Through Galilee According to the Fifth Gospel, explores Jesus’ ministry from the perspective of geography and location. He notes that when Jesus moves from Nazareth to Capernaum to expand his circle, the main challenge he faced was with his family and whether he would minister as they wished or as he believed God was leading him.
Pixner goes on to note that Jesus eventually moved on from his family and formed a different community with his disciples. His brother James and others went their way to the Jewish based believers while Jesus himself moved outside that circle into the pagan and gentile world. The reconciliation, according to Pixner, takes place on the cross when Jesus speaks to John and says that Mary is his mother; and says to Mary that John is his son; and the two disparate groups are drawn together.
In the past four years I’ve had the chance to visit several Episcopal congregations around the country. More and more the two words these congregations use to describe themselves are the same as that cell phone package years ago and that challenged Jesus’ very ministry: friends and family.
These words tend to be the mainstay of smaller congregations with a Sunday attendance of less than 75 with anywhere from 10 to 60 families. These congregations are resilient, often having survived threats of extinction, while simultaneously being faithful and, often, hospitable. Their liturgies have become comfortable for them over the years and they appreciate some changes but only gradually introduced ones. They seem to live for four sources of connection each week: the passing of the peace, communion, announcements and coffee hour. These are sources of connection and belonging. Here, also, is where they believe they show how friendly and family-like they are; how they hope that each and every visitor will find a home with them.
Ironically, each of these churches, if surveyed, would also state as their top two goals the desire to bring in new people and to attract young families with children. One look around the worship environment and one experience of Sunday makes clear to the casual and insightful observer why that won’t happen and it’s because of two words: friends and family. These two words, more than any others, often prove to be two profoundly discriminative and painfully segregating words in our church lexicon.
The Rev. Al Johnson, Canon for Congregational Vitality and Innovation