Small church as surrogate family

Small church offers a face-to-face family for those whose kin are far-away.
LEWIS A. PARKS
Lewis Center for Church Leadership

Outside my front door is the campus of a megachurch that averages 3,000 persons in worship weekly. Some parents with children have left my church for this church. They wanted a more complete Christian environment for their family — for their children to be around other children as they learned, played, came to confession of faith, and grew into adulthood. It is a compelling logic, and I never tried to argue against it.

What I have tried to do is figure out what the alternative logic might be for a small church. And I think it may be this: the small church offers a surrogate family for those whose basic family unit is dispersed or in need of wider circles of reinforcement. There are widows and widowers that fear being swallowed by their memories, regrets, and health issues. They know they need regular face-to-face and name recognition contact. They know they need their faith to be tangible and incarnate.

There are empty nesters whose grown children and fast-growing grandchildren live at a distance. These empty nesters have surplus space to care for persons to whom they are not related, except by the waters of baptism and a shared Christian worldview. She has time to be aunt to the young single mother who struggles with addiction. He has time to be uncle to the young man trying to start a new business. Together they visit those of the church family who can no longer leave their residences.

There are the young single adults who obviously are just passing through on their way to life after college, military service, or the entry-level job. For a few months they lend their enthusiasm, their gifts, their surprising preference for small church and traditional liturgy. They sit alone in the pews comfortable and confident in their youth but give themselves freely in the social exchanges through which their elders soak up their energy.

Grandparents bring their grandchildren. They are not giving up on the missing generation with its casual secularity, but they would see their children’s children exposed to religious faith. It is a gentle act of subversion. Those who thrive in large families where celebrations are frequent plan surprise birthday and anniversary celebrations for those who have no one else to remember. The well-dressed, bookish homeless man settles into the pew next to the family of five sporting the casual Hawaiian look.

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