Ed: You experienced a significant paradigm shift when you began to see your church as family. What were the implications for you personally and pastorally?
Lee: I had always intuitively thought of the church as family and viewed my role more as a parent than as a leader, even though I don’t remember hearing that emphasis from others.
It seems like the books geared toward pastors at the front of sales displays are about leadership, management by objectives, mission statements, alignment, and the like. They always fit me as poorly as Saul’s armor fit David! I truly tried to follow these models but found that I couldn’t pastor that way very well. I always felt like I was failing even though our elders consistently felt that God was pleased with the health of our congregation.
When I realized the biblical philosophy of ministry was centered on our church’s environment rather than her enterprise, and that this environment is family—a home—it was a huge relief.
Personally, I felt like the organizational monkey was off my back. Pastorally, I was energized by recalibrating our efforts to this approach. I was like a new parent. It seemed so natural. Our elders embraced the idea immediately with a kind of “Of course!”response. We reworked the language of our core values to reflect this perspective. We didn’t really change our values, just the way we expressed them.
Ed: What are the dangers of viewing the church primarily as an organization?
Lee: It’s tricky because the church is an organization, of course, but it shouldn’t be seen primarily as an organization any more than a family should.
We must have structures, calendars, leaders, and the like, but when we view the church primarily as an organization, we spend our leadership efforts doing what organizations do—especially trying to get bigger and pursuing other metrics we can measure.
The Bible focuses on qualities that can’t be counted: holiness and love for one another counted as chief. I think we run the risk David ran when he disobeyed God and counted his troops. It’s a false security, a counterfeit strength.
I love what Dallas Willard said, “Pastors need to redefine success. The popular model of success involves the ABCs—attendance, buildings, and cash. Instead of counting Christians, we need to weigh them. We weigh them by focusing on the most important kind of growth… fruit in keeping with the gospel and the kingdom.” [Leadership Journal, Summer ‘05].
Ed: What is the extraordinary design for “God’s household” in Scripture?
Lee: God’s household, especially as portrayed in the New Testament, is stunningly counterintuitive. First of all, there is the radical idea that people unrelated by blood should be regarded as our brothers and sisters. This was unheard of! It changed the paradigm of what a family is for a Christian. Our church family becomes our first family.
Another radical idea was that this was a family without any of the usual parameters. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” [Gal. 3:28].
This sounds wonderful until you try to work it out. Only in practice do we see that it is a flat-out miracle of love. Jesus commanded us three times in John 13:34-35, “Love one another,” each time with a different point.
Ed: How does church fellowship truly become a holy family? What are practical steps for forming deep Christian bonds?
Lee: There are the obvious basic building blocks—the preaching of the Word, worship together, serving together, and fellowship times. In all these, we must see each other and know each other. Beyond those basics, we must see and befriend visitors. We must learn names. Names matter more than music, believe it or not. Pastors must invest in personal care, what I call the “inefficient imperative.”
Another very significant step is when God brings us through a trial together. It could be the loss of a pastor or the deaths of beloved members, a financial fright or some community resistance. When we share these things and pray them through together, we become a holy family.
We must have environments where vulnerability is possible and leaders who go first in that. Usually these are small groups. As a pastor, I must let my flock see my weaknesses. This is not emotional dumping, but candor about my struggles with obedience, faith, prayer and love. God gives discretion.
Perhaps nothing is so important or difficult as praying together regularly.
Ed: What does it look like for church leaders to exercise their shepherding and parental roles?
Lee: We must give time to our organizational duties, of course, but the church thinks of herself as family when elders know people personally and care for them with a parent’s concern. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 2 that he was like both a nursing mother and a father. Look up those verses to see why.
Right now, each of our elders is writing to three households in our church each month. We’ve become more purposeful about calling our people and looking for opportunities to pray for them. We established a separate meeting time to primarily pray together for our flock.
Let me sum up: When Christians look for a church, they are looking for a home. They don’t just need a place where they like the music or preaching, or where their kids are happy. They might settle for those things, but what they truly need is a home, because Christian discovery and growth can’t happen without one. The Bible knows nothing of Christians disconnected from other believers. Jesus’ people are a family, “the household of God.”