Bruce Feiler - whom you might know for his books on Abraham and The Five Books of Moses – has written a good book about families that challenges some of common expectations of what makes a good family.
For example, most sociologists laud the benefits of “family dinner” but Feiler says that eating dinner together every night isn’t nearly as important as what we talk about when we eat dinner or drive the kids to school or fold laundry. He’s all about family rituals. He encourages sharing family stories (“Do you know where your grandparents grew up?”) He claims – and I agree – that sharing an “oscillating family narrative” makes for a resilient, healthy family.
And so it is with church – whether we consider our church family as a “real family” or not. Feiler’s suggestions for happy families also work for churches:
Institutionalized rituals can feed souls and make good memories. There’s a difference between:
- Annualizing church events for the sake of adding programs or promoting a specific ministry or church group (“Let’s do the Deacons’ Chili Dinner every year!”) and
- Cherishing practices that connect people spiritually. There’s a men’s group in one church that carves individual Christmas ornaments every year for the children of the church (one year a camel, another year a donkey.) The children receive them at the Christmas Eve service. Another church pairs teenagers and older members together for projects, creating memorable intergenerational relationships that don’t usually happen in the secular world.
Meaningful rituals are neither a burden nor a chore. If family rituals – in either a nuclear or a church context – don’t bring comfort and wholeness, why are we doing them?
The church’s story highlights both the highs and lows of life together. Think about the stories of a nuclear family.
- Some family stories are primarily ascending: We came to this country with nothing. We worked hard. It paid off.
- Some family stories are primarily descending: We had it all but we lost it.
- The healthiest narrative expresses the reality of ups and downs: Grandma and Grandpa eloped during the war. They lived for a while at the beach. Grandpa got sick. Aunt Kathy had a baby. Dad lost his job. But then he started his own company.
Imagine a church story in which the basic narrative is ascending: We started the church with 20 people and now we have 2000.
Imagine if the story is descending: We used to be THE church in town, but now our roof is leaking and the people are gone and we’ve depleted the endowment.
Imagine a church that’s able to note both the ups and downs of a normal life cycle: We built this sanctuary. There was a fire in the 1970s. We rebuilt and added a kitchen to feed the homeless. The pastor left abruptly. But we called a great new pastor.
Whether we consider our faith communities to be like a nuclear family or not, Feiler’s book is informative for churches. It has a Sabbath in the Suburbs feel that inspires us to do better in terms of loving each other in community, whether that community lives under the same roof every day or the community gathers in the same sanctuary every week.