Small Church as Surrogate Family

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Lewis A. Parks, author of Small on Purpose, says the small church offers a surrogate family for those whose basic family unit is dispersed or in need of wider circles of reinforcement. Smaller congregations today are not unlike the house churches in the New Testament era, he says, which redefined familial relationships around the bonds of faith.


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.

Small churches have a quiet but diffuse witness to share with congregations of all sizes. It is a witness to the worth of being a place where everyone knows your name and all together we can call upon the name of the Lord and thereby experience more abundant life.

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.

The surrogate family of Jesus

Sometimes it occurs to me that I am witnessing the last stages of decay of a once vibrant organism, the leftovers of the heyday of nuclear families of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the church on its way down. I counter those gloomy thoughts by remembering some other churches on their way up, the house churches of the New Testament and first two centuries. The persons in those small churches, so to speak, come from broken homes. They answer the call to exclusive, ultimate loyalty to Jesus as Lord.

In the new surrogate family of Jesus, some of the established family patterns and practices of the ancient Mediterranean are left behind such as exclusion by bloodline, firm hierarchical relations, and the limited roll assigned to women. Other patterns and practices, such as sibling solidarity, fellowship around the table, and worship, are kept but reminted to fit the members of the new surrogate family. In the Gospels Jesus builds that first surrogate community precursor to the church.

The drama of the loss of biological ties and traditional family ties and the gain of new faith-based and future-oriented family ties saturates the pages of the New Testament. It is a narrative of collapse and restoration ignited by the example and lordship of Jesus Christ. It is a staple of the soul care that can be replicated in the small-church setting.

The worth and witness of the small church

The decline of mainline churches has brought the nature and mission of the church front and center. Some see small churches as part of the problem. They judge their size as a business enterprise that never quite took off; small churches have not carried their weight. I prefer to see the small church as part of the solution. These “failed enterprises” have been around a long time. They have replenished themselves with new players and new services for decades, and in some cases centuries. That’s a durability worth pondering.

Small churches have a quiet but diffuse witness to share with congregations of all sizes. It is a witness to the value of maintaining focus over the long run, of being thrown again and again on the Spirit for buoyancy and gifts, of being shrewd in dire circumstances. It is a witness to the worth of being a place where everyone knows your name and all together we can call upon the name of the Lord and thereby experience more abundant life.


Cover for Small on PurposeThis article is excerpted from Small on Purpose: Life in a Significant Church (Abingdon Press, 2017) by Lewis A. Parks. Used by Permission. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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About Author

Dr. Lew Parks has served churches of all sizes as a United Methodist pastor and superintendent. As he continues to direct the Doctor of Ministry program at Wesley Theological Seminary and teach, he is pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church in Lemoyne, Pennsylvania. He also assists denominational leaders around vitality in small membership churches and is author of Preaching in the Small Membership Church (Abingdon Press, 2009) and Small on Purpose: Life in a Significant Church (Abingdon Press, 2017) [Cokesbury | Amazon].


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