The Family and the Corporate Gathering

on-the-way-to-church

It always a little difficult for me to disagree with my heroes in the faith. But I’ve concluded that it really is okay to do so. In fact, it’s inevitable. I’m thankful for Romans 14 which gives me guidance and “permission” to think differently than others who are also pursuing Christ in their daily lives. I agree with the person who said that on the non-essentials, there’s liberty!

I came across a blog post by a well-known author and pastor that strongly encouraged (too strongly, in my opinion) the philosophy that children should always be a part of corporate worship, sitting with their parents or type of guardian. It’s not the first of its kind of article for sure. I’ve read the many opinions through the years and, honestly, many of the reasons given have not convinced me that scripture is clear on the subject. As I’ve pondered this thought for years now, I’ve tried to consider all the passages about family worship in the gathered setting – which, by the way, are few and far between and mostly found in the Old Testament. I have often wondered if there was only one way to be biblical in the approach to how families should worship in the larger gathering. To this point in my search for what’s bestI don’t find there is enough scriptural evidence to conclude that there’s only one right way to “be in church” as a family.

I’m willing to concede that maybe I didn’t understand the message that has been sent to us as Christian parents. It’s possible that what was meant to be communicated was that there’s room for different approaches within our churches, and that they are all considered to be good ones as long as the gospel is the focus. Maybe those who promote this philosophy mean to say that it’s great when families grow in the gospel by worshiping together on Sundays, but that what’s most important is that parents and children are receiving gospel-centered teaching and are experiencing gospel-centered community, whether together or separately.

My heart is always stirred at the scene of a family sitting together in church with opened bibles, eager to learn from the pastor; and of families singing the songs together with joy; and of seeing older siblings pass the offering plate to younger ones and then on to their parents, aware that Dad and Mom are experiencing financial hardships but are practicing giving in front of their children to teach them about faith in God. These are such high and holy moments for me.

So why do I push back from this idea being for everyone all the time? It’s really for one main reason: The church should be a place where those who walk in the door feel valued and welcomed, no matter what family circumstance they find themselves. We want them to feel that way so that they will stay to see and hear the gospel proclaimed. I believe that a biblically-based gathering of worshipers is a place where everyone has an opportunity to hear the gospel sung and preached, and where they are genuinely cared for by others (Acts 2 & 4, I Cor 11-14, I Tim 5 all give us some examples of the gatherings). I’m sure that many Christ followers approach the structure of the corporate worship time differently. But I think most of us, even those who believe that the weekly corporate worship should be designed for only believers, recognize that Christians of all kinds are represented each week in our service. While the OT clearly reflects a patriarchal atmosphere in godly families/communities, and the NT certainly encourages male leadership in the home and church, I believe that present-day culture should be considered when navigating the corporate worship experience. We never allow the culture to dictate how we respond or prepare, but I think we can allow it to provide insight into how we can best provide an environment where families are genuinely engaged in the gospel message. Why would we ever not want to do that?

Even though it’s not God’s ideal, families are broken. And when families are broken, the body of Christ should be open and willing to invite them in and minister to them. I am not comfortable creating a corporate worship atmosphere that appears to those who walk in (and are in those broken places) that we are an exclusive group of people all clumped together in family units. I believe it can be an overwhelming and negative experience to those who come from backgrounds different from our own when they sense right from the start that there’s no place for them. My heart desires to provide an opportunity for that single parent who has worked long and hard hours all week and has barely made it to church with kids and all their clothes, to be able to come in and sit down in a seat next to a friend and not have the distractions of needy little ones climbing on them throughout the sermon.
I know from experience the relief I feel when I have the confidence that our foster kids (who have no comprehension of how to “behave” in church) will get to know Jesus in an environment created just for them. There’s a sigh in my soul when I can actually listen to the sermon and close my eyes to pray without fearing that when I open them I’ll see my kids suddenly hanging from the balcony. Uh, seriously.

If the gospel message is one to broken people, we must prepare to have them in the service. Because of that, I don’t believe that offering an environment for younger children is an unbiblical approach to the corporate gathering. If we are challenging and encouraging the people of Jesus to care for orphans, to reach out to single parents, to build relationships with families that have never been in church, then it’s only natural we would desire to provide opportunities for them to engage with the message of hope without the distraction of a demanding child. I personally believe that it’s biblical to preach and teach and demonstrate a love for orphans and children by serving them through a children’s ministry, even if that means some families will be separated during the corporate gathering.

I have been graced to be raised in a family that went to church together from my birth. We even prepared for church the Saturday night before! We talked about who Jesus was and about how He lived and died and was raised. We talked about how that truth could change our daily lives. We prayed together and read the bible together consistently. Because my parents participated in leadership roles during the Sunday services (through music and preaching), we didn’t always get to sit together. In fact, we rarely did. But I always knew we’d talk about what we learned at church. I knew we’d talk about our Sunday School lesson and share prayer requests of others. My parents would recount to us the joy they felt about the baptisms and decisions that were made by people who wanted to become followers of Jesus. I never had a doubt who the “priest” of our home was because our dad lived the gospel in front of us constantly. I learned early on to love the local church and the people who attended it. I’ve always desired to be a part of it because I have known it to be a gathering of God’s people – all from different backgrounds and life experiences.

I don’t think it’s wrong to sit together as a family on Sundays. In fact, I think it’s a beautiful picture of gospel grace. I also think that families should look around at who may be alone and invite them to join them. That too is a picture of gospel grace. AND I think that it is right to provide alternative environments where generous-hearted volunteers demonstrate their heart for kids to learn about Jesus in a more kid-friendly way so their parents are able to learn about Jesus without the distraction of bored, disengaged, and often disruptive children. I believe this is also a beautiful picture of gospel grace.

[PS – There’s more discussion to be had regarding the model for families in corporate worship. For example, students sitting together -rather than with their families – in the front rows of the church, engaged in worship through singing songs and praising God, and by actively participating in the message by taking notes, is also a wonderful and visible expression of gospel grace!]

 

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