On Family and Church (Part 1)

The greatest thing my parents ever did for my sister and me was this: they never claimed ownership over us.

This revelation came about some years ago, when I was 21 years old. I don’t recall the context, exactly. It was either when I talked with them about feeling called to pastoral ministry, or when I shared with them that I felt I needed to go on a mission trip to Kenya. Either way, it doesn’t matter how it happened. It only matters that it happened.

It was in a moment when I had to make a serious decision, and I clearly remember the truth that was shared with me from my parents: “We raised you and Jenn knowing that you do not belong to us – you belong to God.”

Since then, I have seen pieces here and there fall into place. Parts of my life that make more sense as I look into the past through this new lens; a lens that changes the hue of my memories just enough to make things clearer. The times I was frustrated by what was going on. The times when I was confused about certain decisions, or why my parents raised my sister and me the way they did.

Now, I know that my parents are not perfect. They’ll be the first to admit it. They made poor decisions, just like anyone else does. But there remains in my life a kernel of truth that we have begun to forget in the Western church: children do not belong to the parents.

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I am not entirely sure why it is. Perhaps it’s because of our social culture. But family has become defined as the prime community – the ultimate locus of social experience and relational intimacy. We forget, however, that as believers we are called to a family that transcends biological or legal barriers. “Blood may be thicker than water, but the bond of the spirit is greater than both.” (Can’t find who said this, but it was in a book/article I read a while ago)

Why is it, then, that family time has become a rival to church time? How has it become so easy to justify neglecting corporate worship in order to spend time sharing a meal and watching a movie together?

I distinctly remember that for most of my life my parents were exceptionally busy people. But, the one thing that could be counted on is that every week, usually at least twice a week, we would gather together and worship. We would pray, sing praise, and listen to the Word together. We would participate in ground-breaking ceremonies, witness dedications and baptisms, and celebrate in ours and other’s achievements together. We would dream, mourn, laugh, and cry together.

Church was not a mere weekly activity for us. It was a central bonding agent of our lives. It prompted discussions during our car rides. It caused us frustrations and joys. It merged us with other families and developed life-long friendships with people who are more than friends to us. And the stories… so many stories! The stories of our local church became the stories of our family. Even today when we come together we talk about church – it is the one thing to which we can all relate.

It breaks my heart to see what is happening to so many churches today. It also infuriates me. When the local church is no longer a place where the family can spend time together, we have a problem. When the local church is not viewed as that place and time where a family can join with one another in worship, we need to seriously think about what it going on. And when churches distance themselves from being the prime community into which we are called, we have lost a central aspect of our ecclesiology and have forgotten a large part of who we are as Christians.

Let us not fool ourselves, here. When families need to become absent during worship in order to spend time together, we have established the family as an idol. We tell ourselves that our biological family is more important, and so it should not surprise us when our children grow up to be apathetic towards church because we have trained them to see it as an auxiliary part of their lives. The family, then, becomes a church unto itself, with its own modes of worship, sacraments (football games, movie watching, weekly meal sharing), saints (distant relatives, grandparents), and gods (Detroit Tigers, MSU, USA). These things, in and of themselves, are not bad. But when they usurp the primacy of gathered worship of a greater community to our Lord, we throw ourselves into a subtle yet powerful confusion.

A part of this, no doubt, is due to the fact that in many churches the family simply cannot be together. Silo ministry models, where people of different ages are segregated from one another, perpetuates a culture that teaches that church is not a place for families. It is a place for family members, but not a place where families can share memories, celebrate, or worship together. And so, families are justified in their absence from church in order to spend time apart. A justification that is, itself, built on a sandy foundation.

We ought to be ashamed when families must choose between “family time” and church. We belong, ultimately, to God. And yet we are creating and perpetuating a culture that says we ultimate belong to ourselves. Is this not a tragedy? Has church simply become a purveyor of spiritual and religious goods and services; a consumable item families indulge in when convenient? Or something to partake of when, in their ‘good judgment,’ they feel it is necessary to purchase through an investment of time and non-participatory attendance? As easy to attend or abstain from as going shopping at the local mall or eating out? – Just another cog in the machine for us, no more or less significant than everything else we participate in.

My parents have been asked by co-workers and friends over the years an interesting question that comes in many forms: “What did you do to have your children turn out the way they did?”

The answer is simple: my parent’s children didn’t belong to them. They belonged to God.

Church is not a family tradition for us. It is who we are. It is greater than our family. My sister and I did not grow up being taught to serve the family. We grew up being taught to serve Christ and his Kingdom. A major facet in that was our consistent involvement in the life of our local church through all seasons of life.

 

 

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On Disconnect and Player 1

I was working on a long blog post, but my thoughts got all jumbled and I had to start over. This happens from time to time.

Anyways, I had an interesting interaction earlier this week between a couple students and myself after one of my Formation groups got out. After group was dismissed, two of my students came up to me and we talked for a good hour or so. We talked about some interesting stuff; the practice of prophecy in the Old Testament, the nature of God throughout the Bible, different genres of music, and one thing that really caught me off-guard. One of my students is an avid Zelda fan! I was pretty psyched to share my favorite childhood experience with a like-minded individual. It was a unique experience that made my week. It also led to a conversation with a good friend of mine this morning.

We were having our weekly breakfast time, and the topic of expectations came up. To be honest, I am not sure what exactly we were saying, but the conversation got to the point where I expressed my frustration with how I am viewed when I bring up my affinity for gaming. It has seemed, throughout my life, that when I bring up my hobby of gaming that I am viewed as immature, or at least childish in some way. It’s as if gaming is something you eventually grow out of. I believed this idea for a long time. Before I came to Olivet I sold all of my gaming devices and games except my Gameboy and N64 (you can’t toss the classics), because I believed that I was not a grown-up and would develop a more sophisticated hobby. What I have found, however, is that I had to eventually come to a defining decision, and it happened last year: I admitted that I am a gamer.

Hanin' with Navi

It’s true, I love to game! I love talking about game theory (philosophical messages of games, timelines, characterizations, themes, etc.), playing all kinds of games (FPS, RTS, Tabletop, card games, MMO, RPG, and recently I have gotten into MOBA’s), and interacting with other gamers. What I have found, once I owned up to the fact that I am a gamer for life, is that the gaming community is very disrespected by people who are outside of it. For instance, the Olivet newspaper came out with an article that talked about how there is a League of Legends team forming at Olivet and will attempt to compete with other teams in the area. When I mentioned this to my professor, he laughed at the notion that gaming could be a sport (because people who form these teams compete in E-sports tournaments). I looked at him and in all seriousness started talking about how difficult these types of games are; they require strong teamwork, quick reflexes, incredible strategizing, impeccable micromanaging and macromanaging skills, and a lot of dedication. Whenever I bring up stories about my gaming escapades, like how I started pwning the Hearthstone ladder with my constructed Druid and Paladin decks, or played some old school Pharaoh, I am usually met with sideways glances, smiles that say, “you’re kind of pathetic,” or an outright laugh. At best, gaming is seen as an inefficient use of time by most non-gamers.

What many people fail to realize is that the gaming community is an extremely close-knit group, and it is largely non-Christian. Not only is it non-Christian, but it is violently so. Go onto any gaming forum and mention anything about God, the Church, Jesus, the Bible and you will be met with an incredibly aggressive response. In internet terms, such conversations end up being “flame wars;” massive arguments that burn everyone who comes in contact with it. But, contrary to popular belief, gamers are very social… with each other. If you become a part of a gaming community, then you basically become a part of a tribe. It has its own language, social expectations, allies and enemies, and belief system (this is hard to explain if you don’t game). I know this because I grew up in it. Ever since I was a kid I have been connected with this community. It’s because of these reasons that I mentioned to my breakfast buddy that I cannot give up gaming.

I feel called to this largely unchurched community. Does this mean that I will become an internet pastor? No, it just means that my ties to gaming won’t end just because I take on a church. I grew up in this community, I know what these people are like, and I know how they think. How could I reject such a community of people who, in many cases, are socially exclusive to their gaming brothers and sisters? If people can develop sports programs in churches to reach people, then why not gaming teams? Why not start a Pathfinder society in our church, or an ESO guild, or a Final Fantasy Fan club? Granted, not many people in the churches I go to even know what an RTS is. I bring this up because I really want to do this in my church. I want to have my church serve as a place where like-minded people can gather and enjoy something together that we all love. Of all the places to gather, should the church not be the best place? What an incredible opportunity for relationship building and evangelism – you are a gamer, and that is okay. Honestly, most of the classmates I met during my time at ITT-Tech would never step foot in a church or listen to anyone who mentioned “God.” But you bring up the topic of gaming and suddenly they’re hooked in the conversation.

I think we need to stop making gaming out to be a waste of time and something that the church has no place participating in. Gaming is a hobby, like anything else. It’s an incredibly social activity. Plus, it’s freaking fun! I don’t know how many other gamers have wrestled with this idea that they are somehow less of an adult for gaming, or less of a Christian for doing so, but I would imagine that it is a good number. I do know that this is something that took me until I was 25 to accept.

To my fellow Zelda-loving student and all my closet-gamer Christians out there: enjoying video games doesn’t require being sent back to Kokiri Forest, so take the Master Sword out of the pedestal and game on!