I went to Disney World the day after Thanksgiving. It was crazy busy! While waiting in long lines I saw several large families in matching T-shirts identifying themselves and their annual vacation. One families’ shirt said, “Our Dysfunctional Family Thanksgiving Vacation 2017.” I smiled and thought, “At least they’re honest!”
During the holidays our culture celebrates by gathering family members together to fellowship and eat. Although it is often a wonderful time, it can be very difficult as well. The dysfunctions in the family are brought to the surface. Issues of past hurts and unforgiveness and other problems that can be shoved down by avoiding each other during the year are now forced back into our lives by having to be together for the Holidays. What a great gift! Avoidance never leads to healing. It is only when the dysfunctions are brought to the surface that we can deal with them and let God heal them. As Jeremiah 6:14 (TLB) says, “You can’t heal a wound by saying it’s not there!”
We all know how true this is in our biological families however it is just as true in our spiritual families, the local church. The church is the family of God. We believe that and teach that. We also believe and teach that we are all sinners in the process of being transformed to Christlikeness. That means there is inevitably going to be dysfunction in every church family! Hurt people hurt people and broken people, at least occasionally, act broken. It’s weird, I know! And just think, we get to gather with this dysfunctional family all year round! Every week our church family gathers together to fellowship and eat – if not of physical food, certainly of the spiritual food of the Word and Sacrament. So, we have year-round opportunities to let hurts, unforgiveness, and other problems rise to the surface to be dealt with!
Like many clergy, I have a high desire to avoid conflict. I want everyone to be happy all the time. I had to learn it’s actually a hindrance to both mine and others spiritual growth to avoid conflict. “You can’t heal a wound by saying it’s not there!” When I was saved I wholeheartedly believed the Bible to be true. Therefore, I believed Jesus physically healed. About a month into being a believer, I stepped on a metal pipe on the beach and needed several stitches on the bottom of my foot. I prayed that God would take away the pain so I could walk. He answered the prayer immediately and I had no more pain. I then proceeded to walk around normally. The problem with this soon became evident. By walking around normally, it wasn’t allowing the large gash on the bottom of my foot to heal! In addition to learning the lesson that I should pray more specific prayers like, “Please heal the wound,” I learned that pain is a gift from God to show us what’s wrong so it can be dealt with. Pain has a purpose. And when there is pain in the family it is an indicator that there is a wound that needs to be healed either in you, the other person, or likely both. Conflicts in our dysfunctional spiritual families are opportunities to grow in love.
One of the VITAL aspects for Church Revitalization is Authentic Community (the A in VITAL). There must be genuine love for one another in the church. The first two steps to church revitalization are 1. Personal Renewal – each member’s loving Jesus first and most and, 2. Relational Renewal – the members loving one another. The church simply won’t grow if the members don’t love Jesus and each other. It’s really just applying the Great Commandment, “Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Matthew 22:37-39 (NLT)
Authentic Community does not mean the absence of conflict. Genuine love for each other means learning to love sometimes unlovable family members and work through conflict in mature ways. Then teach and model to the immature new believers you bring in to do the same. And by the way, your church will have conflict whether you’re growing or shrinking so there’s no good reason to avoid the conflict that will come by making the necessary changes for revitalization. If you’re going to have problems anyway, you might as well have growing problems!
So, give thanks for the opportunities to grow in love that the dysfunction of your church family brings. Instead of staying away from the family gatherings (worship, small groups, pot lucks etc.) to avoid the problems, continue to meet together to allow for God to show you how to love one another better. As it says in Hebrews 10: 24-25, “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.”
The Rev. Canon Mark Eldredge is Director of Church Revitalization at the American Anglican Council.