A funny thing has been happening the last couple of years. People come up to me and tell me they are envious of our family. They want what we have—namely, the apparent closeness we have with our kids. It’s true—our offspring choose to hang around us. They can often be found having serious conversation with us. We laugh together. A lot.
We do not force this on them. We have not held their tuition bills or their cell phone contract renewals as hostages in filial negotiations. It just happened somewhere along the way. We like each other.
This is quite a jump from a mere ten years ago, when friends (and random strangers) would let me know our kids ought to be the stars of Monkey Thieves, and they had to tell me (as a Christian kindness) that the two oldest would likely end up in the state prison system before they were twenty-five.
And they would probably not even put me on the visitor list.
No one aspired to a family like ours ten years ago. But it appears many do now. What happened?
Most of the time, I smile and thank these people. But sometimes, sometimes, I want to make eye contact, get their attention, and say, “You have no idea.”
Because we fought for this family. Hard. Every member—all five of us—fought like those monkeys for what we have. Hurt happened. Searing pain was forgiven. Those who nearly got left behind were picked up and carried. Sometimes kicking and screaming. Love hung on by its fingernails, and the hard work of repentance and restoration was undertaken.
Implosion averted. But not by much. It took tough slogging by five people in armpit-deep mud to pull it all out.
And now we look (and are) so happy to be together. We take genuine, deep joy in one another. It came at a price, because genuine deep joy always does.
That’s what I sometimes want to tell people who want the joy but don’t really want the struggle. You don’t become real family until you’ve been through that mud and come out of it with no man left behind.
Church is the same way. In case you didn’t know I was getting to that.
28% of people surveyed leave a church because they don’t feel “fed” spiritually.
21% go because they don’t feel connected.
20% look elsewhere because they don’t believe they are doing meaningful work.
30% don’t like the leadership or other members.
42% leave because another church appears more attractive.
Hear me on this—there are valid reasons to leave a church. Churches that cause pain are prevalent, and too often collective repentance is not. However—this list implies we are thinking along a fault line. Our criteria list for remaining a part of a family is not about the family at all. It is about us. Our reasons point to personal fulfillment as the goal of churchgoing. We have lost the notion that gathering is for the purpose of supporting, empowering, and growing the family.
We are not willing to slog through the mud to fight for our family. Yet we still want the smiling picture in the hallway.
Fighting for our family is counter-cultural. We live in a culture that accepts relationships as functional props rather than permanent pillars in our lives. When one’s optimal use is over, we move on. We unfriend. We go shopping for new family as easily as we shop for a new purse. The old has lost its use to us. Or maybe its attractiveness.
Fighting has to be a new word in our vocabulary. A new concept in our retinue.
Why do we fight? We fight because we see what we’re fighting for. We know the end we’ve been promised.
“After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7.9).
A family together, from every nationality, language, color, political party, and denomination. Can you put that picture in your mind’s eye—the tapestry of beauty God will see surrounding his throne? It’s what he wants to see. It’s what he will see. But he would prefer to see it now, as a sort of prequel.
Like Star Wars and The Hobbit, the prequel will not be nearly as awesome as what it leads up to; nevertheless, it’s worth blowing the budget on, in this case.
Because we know what will be, we fight for what can be. We get down in the mud and muck and go through, not around. It’s much easier to go around, but it does not create a family.
How does a family fight? In our church family, we know we have differences. We know they could blow us up. So we talk about them. We get them out. We disagree and discuss and speak our truth in love relentlessly. We can, because we know the bedrock holding us up is Jesus’ declaration that we are together on this journey, and we have agreed we will leave no man behind. (I wrote a little about how this has gone down here.)
A family looks you in the eye and promises not to give up on you.
A family pledges to do whatever it takes to get you through.
A family refuses to let personal annoyances, arguments, or offenses keep them from standing side by side in kingdom work.
A family says I will sacrifice, I will swallow offense, I will agree to disagree, I will see your heart and your burdens before I see your mistakes. I will always give you the benefit of doubt.
A family says I will love you as I would love myself.
Even if it means mud and blood and tears. Jesus is well-acquainted with all three.
One thing more. The world will notice a family like that.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.