In the churches I've pastored, all of which have been small or smaller, have liked to think of themselves as family. Of course, we have always been rather dysfunctional families! Still, we like the idea of being family, because it speaks of intimacy and support. But is this a good image for the church? Does it portend something that undermines the purpose of the Church?
Tony Robinson has written a piece for Duke Divinity School's Call & Response blog that calls into question this idea that the church is family. Entitled "Quit Thinking of the Church as Family," Robinson notes that there are a number of reasons why this image runs contrary to the purpose of the church to be a community that is transformative of people and the broader community to be more Christlike. He writes:
Many of the congregations that claim “We’re a family,” lose sight of larger transformative purposes and settle, instead, for the comfort and satisfaction of their members. The core purpose of a congregation -- growing people of faith and helping people and communities move from despair to hope -- gives way to lesser and even contrary purposes like keeping people happy. While it may not be a necessary outcome of the use of the family image, many congregations that gravitate towards it seem to make member comfort and satisfaction their de facto purpose.
He goes on to say that if we feel the need to use the idea of family it would be helpful to remember that Jesus subverted the typical idea of family:
If we must use “family,” we should be aware of the way that Jesus, while using “family,” also subverts conventional understandings of family and challenges their usual boundaries with a thoroughly new vision of “family.”
I would add that the image of family can be excluding. Robinson mentions the message sent to the unmarried or those without children that the church is there for "families," and if one doesn't fit that category then one is less than welcome. I would push this a bit further to note that families focus on blood. It's not easy to break into a family. There are certain family traits, secrets, etc. that are not easily shared. Thus families, by their very nature are focused on maintaining boundaries.
Other images, such as People of God, Body of Christ, even Household of God, may in the end be better terms that will allow us to fulfill our calling to be a transformative agent in the world.