By Steve Kindle
It’s almost impossible for a congregation to spiritually thrive in America. The American ethos is constructed to oppose it at almost every turn. According to the apostle Paul and the witness of the Book Acts, New Testament churches were egalitarian societies—societies whose chief concern was the well-being of the community. Everyone looked out for the other, and suffered and rejoiced together. Power was conceived as service, and wealth was God’s blessing for the community. Quoting Exodus, Paul declared, As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’ In a later time he might have said, “All for one and one for all!”But here in the West, we acknowledge the individual as the highest form of human achievement. The ego rules, self-esteem is our pursuit, self-aggrandizement is our religion, and “It’s all about me.” When we think about others, it’s always after we’ve satisfied ourselves. We’ve elevated John Wayne to national sainthood largely due to his personal motto that “I ask nothing of anyone, and give nothing.” No wonder Robert Ringer’s book, Looking Out for #1, became a New York Times #1 best seller. (His first book, also a best seller, was Winning Through Intimidation.) Independence is our goal and anything short of it spells failure—in our own eyes and others.
Capitalism has the status of a godsend where we are taught that competition achieves the best results. We honor, even glorify winners. We look down on, if not denigrate, losers. “May the best man win,” is not restricted to boxing matches; it’s a way of life. Gordon Gecko said it all when he declared, “Greed is good.” One’s value is measured in dollars, not in worthwhileness.
Now, plunk average Americans down in a pew and what do you get? To be realistic, their main concern is for themselves and their families. The extent of their involvement is limited to how it impacts their lives and the lives of their loved ones. And why not? This is how we are expected to behave; anything else would be un-American!
Certainly it is true that our congregations are filled with people who understand the gospel and lovingly serve their neighbors, who sacrifice their time and resources for the betterment of others. But we burn these wonderful people out because they are largely left to do the meaningful work of the church by themselves. Too many others are willing to be served while sitting on the sidelines, observing, appreciative, but idle.
What needs to happen for a congregation to truly deserve the name Christian is transformation. The ethos of the West needs to be exchanged for the ethos of the servant gospel. The fact that transformation so seldom happens—congregation-wide—is a testimony to its difficulty if not its impossibility.
What you are about to read will appear to be outrageously off the mark by some and blasphemous to others. The degree of hostility will be in direct proportion to how committed to a certain form of idolatry one is.
I was raised in a pro-family home. I heard over and over again from my parents, “The only people you can truly count on are family.” Over the years I have learned that families are as untrustworthy as even the highly touted biblical families. Our biblical heroes’ families were full of intrigue (Jacob and Rachael), unfaithfulness (David), fratricide (Cain), betrayal (Aaron), and treachery (Laban), just to mention a few. There is nothing inherently superior of family over any other institution. All human institutions are flawed to one degree or another.
Of course, the church is also a human institution; yet, it is also divine. Instituted by Jesus as the principle vehicle of the Kingdom, it is ruled over by him and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Members of the church of God have a “leg up” over any of its rivals, including family. Choosing family over church is selling our birthright for a mess of pottage. It is to commit idolatry.
But, can’t we have both? Some of Jesus’ statements are true on their face, especially this one: “You cannot serve two masters.” Making a successful life is, in part, prioritizing properly. Something must come first and all else subordinated to it. What we select as our first priority will determine how well our life goes, or not.
What, exactly, is this idolatry?
It is the placing of our family over every other commitment in our lives, especially the church.
We often hear people say, “My family comes first,” or “My priorities are God, family, church, nation, society,” or some other order after family. A high commitment to our families is honorable and certainly necessary. Nothing I write here should be in any way taken to denigrate the importance of family. But the family is only well-served when it is prioritized after the church.
How is it that the family becomes an idol?
One way to answer this is when the needs of the family conflict with the needs of the church—the family wins.
- “We’d like to help out, Deacon, but Bobby has a game this Sunday and it starts at 10:00.”
- “Well, pastor, with all the running around I have to do to get the kids to their lessons, scouts, athletics, and play practice, I’m too tired to be on that committee.”
- “We’ll be fairly regular until summer. That’s when we’re spending weekends at the lake so the kids can enjoy the outdoors.”
- “Confirmation? Saturday morning interferes with Beth’s basketball league. Sorry.”
- “I won’t be able to continue as church moderator. I got a promotion and am being transferred to another state. We will miss this church, but I need to think of my family.”[i]
In each of these examples, the interests of the family take priority over the needs of the church. What are we teaching our children here? We are teaching them that the family is more important than the community of saints that cares for our bodies and souls.
“But,” you say, “my church is hardly the place I’d commit my well-being to.” Yes, poorly serving congregations are a fact. But why are they so? I believe it’s because we don’t teach and/or expect anything more from our families than what we get. After a few efforts to increase involvement, we fail and fall back on our ready-to-burn-out servants. This has to change. And it will only change when we recognize the problem. The status quo is killing congregations.
Here’s how to avoid the idolatry of family. Prioritize this way: Church, family, (the rest is up to you).
If God is indeed one’s highest priority, worshiping and serving God is how we live this out. For most Christians, this means we do so in the context of a congregation. Whereas many today think the church should be at the service of the family, in actuality, the family should be in the service of the church. The former is idolatry; the latter is discipleship. In this way we teach our children and order our own lives in such a way that seeking first the Kingdom is our highest priority.
The answer—form true community
Churches are, in part, human institutions, and suffer from human foibles. All the imperfections found in our biblical families are alive and well in the church. This can lead to the false assumption that putting the church as our first priority is misguided. I would argue that this is true because the church is not the first priority of its members. Because our commitments are to other things, we allow the church to wither. The answer is to create true community in a congregation where each member lives for the well-being of the others. This is how “the last shall become first and the first, last.” By serving one another, we are all served well.
How does your church measure up? Better still—how do you and your family measure up?
[i] This is a particularly difficult example. In this case the decision to move may very well be the right decision, but it too often is made without any consideration for the needs of the congregation. It is just assumed to be correct on its face.