The Dangers of the ‘Friends and Family’ Plan (Part 2)

This post is a continuation of “The Dangers of the ‘Friends and Families’ Plan” from yesterday (Click here to see part 1)

Recently, my wife and I attended a small parish in a major city. The church was a part of our growing in faith and of our courtship. This was our first visit in over 30 years. The welcome was warm and inviting but not overly so. The priest came and introduced himself. Worship was beautiful, simple, and well within the gifts and abilities of that community. We were looking forward to coffee hour as there were people who had been there years ago and connecting would be fun. All went well until the announcement time at the end and out came the words “friends” and “family.” I thought: “uh oh!” Sure enough, twenty minutes later, after what seemed like every member of the family had spoken and given their particular announcement and spoke of their friendliness, my wife and I had long since decided not to stay and headed for the door as soon as we could. No one paid any particular attention to us once the service ended and my worst fears were confirmed: another church that believes they are friendly and a family only to discover they are less inclusive than they wish to think and more segregating than they would ever suspect. What happened? Friends and family as descriptors draw a line around an imaginary center of the parish. If you are in the family and act friendly, you understand both the locus of the center and how you connect to it. Like in families, dangerous assumptions are made about how and what the family communicates. When I celebrate Christmas with my extended family I understand the patterns, communications, and actions. When we have an “outsider” it is very clear that our rituals are mysterious and, without deliberate action to the contrary, make the guests feel as if they are outsiders. Sometimes being so excluded is comfortable and, the more introverted, perhaps the more comfortable. But remember that the research suggests most churches described above are pressed to grow and bring in new people. Most believe that what the casual church shopper wants is to be in a family and treated in a friendly manner. However, that’s not why people are choosing to show up at church these days. People show up because people want to believe and need help with unbelief. People have plenty of circles of friends. As a recovering alcoholic, I attend three meetings a week. Many of these people are also very good friends and work at friendship more deliberately and more deeply than anything that happens in church. Most of also have a family filled with health and challenges and love and conflict and so much more. Perhaps people don’t need another family. More likely what people seek is connection, community, God, hope, belonging, and faith. When a church draws the line around friendly and family, guests are immediately drawn outside the circle, confused and wondering how one enters the family. And, regardless of the words, people experience the environment as basically resistant to newcomers. Resistance is a conscious or unconscious pattern of exclusion in which a guest is repeatedly invited to press up against invisible boundaries in hopes of miraculously finding the crack that allows entry. What do we do? First, change the language. Consider deliberately dropping the use of the words friendly and family. Exchange them with words like hospitable, gracious, open, inclusive (careful here, however, as this is more than about sexual orientation) or inviting instead of friendly. Consciously choose to exchange the word family with a word like community, or connection, or parish.hands-544522_1280 Secondly, reacquaint the community with the two founding values of parish life: service and sacrifice. Both words cannot be spoken without looking outside ourselves. Research for the past four decades unanimously suggests that growing churches are those churches that place a primary focus outside themselves; looking and discovering where and how they are called to serve and in what ways they are being asked to sacrifice. More importantly, our congregations are to be porous; they are to be open to the next person who arrives at any time. That woman or man who was inspired by the Holy Spirit to get up, dress and head to our churches does so in hope of finding something different than the health club, the local coffee shop, the Sunday paper, their family and their current circle of friends; they seek Jesus not a circle of friends and family. They already have that. They seek life and love and faith; spiritual companions on the way. They bring with them a raw understanding of our purpose as a local church, the hope of the world; what will they find? 20 minutes of announcements that point out how they don’t fit? Do they hear words of friendship accompanied by actions of segregation? Descriptions of family which are code for “we have no room for you here”? Or will they find a humble community of faithful people seeking to grow in their Christian faith, to support and guide others on the same journey, and to change the world? It’s up to each and every one of us who sees herself or himself as a member of a parish community to decide. The only “cost” to being in a parish community is ourselves and our brokenness and humility and the cracks within ourselves that provide the opening for God and others to enter in and help us create the space of healing and light that seeks to envelop the next person who walks through the doors of our parish community. Jesus brought these two elements together in himself on the cross. We would see that full Jesus! The Rev. Al Johnson, Canon for Congregational Vitality and InnovationScreen Shot 2015-03-13 at 10.41.25 AM

2 thoughts on “The Dangers of the ‘Friends and Family’ Plan (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: The Dangers of the ‘Friends and Families’ Plan (Part 1) | The Forward

  2. Right on, Al! As a member of a parish which was once badly burned by this ethos, and a family whose dynamics would be disastrous to reproduce in a parish, I couldn’t agree more. ‘Friends and family’ rhetoric and practice gives most of us at Holy Cross the creeps – too many of us have families we’ve spent a long time escaping from, and ‘friends’ who make us hope for better things when we come to church. Jesus’s own experience would seem to disqualify the ‘family’ idea from the get-go (and certainly isn’t encouraging about the friends either…), but in a diocese full of ‘family- sized churches, all of us probably need the reminder that the church is not and can’t be a family or collection of ‘my pals’.

    How about ‘new creation’ as a substitute???? – a place full of people you might never have thought in a million years could come together and love each other and work like mad together, even though they are all wildly different from each other.and always glad to add even more variety to their numbers. The more different folks you include, the more places you find to serve…… It seems to work in North East!


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