Some years ago, a married couple left a church in search of Sunday sermons that would better appeal to their bored, disengaged teenage son. Sadly, it was a fool’s errand. The problem wasn’t the preaching but the parents. They were sporadic in attendance, had declined to pursue membership, and seemed happiest when their commitment level was lowest. What their son needed wasn’t entertaining preaching but engaged parents—parents who modeled committed love for a local church (imperfect preaching and all). Unsurprisingly, the new preaching at the new church failed to light a spiritual fire, and the family soon left that new church with the same old problem. The son, now in his 20s, no longer attends church.
By way of stark contrast, I spoke recently with a family in a church that averages 40 to 50 people on a Sunday morning. The parents have been members for 17 years. One of the factors that first drew them was the clear opportunity to contribute, which is exactly what they’ve done ever since arriving. They currently lead singing and help with the children’s work, and the husband is an elder. Although they’ve struggled somewhat with the lack of a youth group and the scarcity of kids their sons’ ages, their boys now participate in ministry and are friends with numerous adults in the congregation (some of whom have become mentors). These cross-generational relationships have been a source of joy for both the parents and also their sons.
Why are younger people leaving the church in droves? There are surely multiple reasons, and there’s no single, surefire strategy for keeping them. But here’s one intriguing factor demonstrated by research: most kids who leave a church have no close friendships or mentoring relationships with adults in the church. The kids who stay are much more likely to have such friendships. It turns out that inter-generational relationships are important.
That’s just one of many reasons why Lee Eclov’s Feels Like Home: How Rediscovering the Church as Family Changes Everything is an important and timely read. It’s a biblically rooted and winsomely written invitation to understand your local church primarily as a family. It’s also a practical guide for helping you make it increasingly feel and function that way. Eclov has served in pastoral ministry for more than 40 years, which means he knows the ugly aspects of Christian community. No naïveté here. But alongside a healthy dose of realism is a genuine, infectious affection for the local church. Eclov writes like an enthusiastic father urging his kids to enjoy what he enjoys. The book is chock-full of stories—some funny, some deeply moving.
Church = Home
The book is in two parts. Part 1 examines the Bible’s plan for creating “God’s household,” the family of God, the church. Drawing primarily on the Old Testament book of Ruth and the New Testament book of Philemon, Eclov calls for enduring family relationships of honesty and love within the church. He argues that conceiving of the church mainly as a home rather than an organization has a profound effect on church members and leaders. When the church is a home,
Names matter more than numbers. We invest in the high priority of loving one another as the precursor to loving the lost. We take on the inefficient responsibility of caring for individuals. We learn to leave the 99 in order to search for one lost sheep. We worship differently when we worship as a family. And leaders shepherd their flock more as parents than executives. (21)
Conceiving of the church mainly as a home rather than an organization has a profound effect on church members and leaders.
This kind of close personal engagement inevitably leads to difficult situations and relationships, as sinful, flawed people learn to live with one another (just as happens within biological families). Eclov is refreshingly candid about his own weaknesses, shortcomings, and struggles to live within the Christian family.
Make Your Church a Home
Part 2 explores how various aspects of the church’s ministry make the church a home for those part of it. Seeing and hearing one another during gathered singing, the rich mingling of older and younger believers, regular opportunities for people to share their stories, corporate prayer, the sharing of the Lord’s Supper, and grace-filled preaching—these are all means of a church remaining a family. So is a commitment to welcoming and loving guests, which includes practices such as learning newcomers’ names, inviting them into our homes, and helping them grow and connect to their spiritual siblings.
Eclov calls pastors to the “small work,” the inefficient labor, of praying for and loving individuals in the church one at a time and pursuing those who wander away. He also calls laypeople to be family for one another in small groups and mentoring relationships. Importantly, the church living as true family doesn’t shut down evangelism; it facilitates and increases it. The lonely of our world are offered a home, a place to belong. They glimpse a picture and experience a foretaste of God’s eternal family, who will gather in the new creation. For Christians, our experience of church as family gets us on our tiptoes, yearning with homesickness for an eternal home we’ve not yet visited.
For Christians, our experience of church as family gets us on our tiptoes, yearning with homesickness for an eternal home we’ve not yet visited.
I like this book not because it breaks new biblical or theological ground in understanding the church as family (it doesn’t), nor because it’s a revolutionary handbook on church practice (it isn’t), nor because it’s shown me endless things I never saw before in the Bible or other books (it hasn’t). I like it because it’s a practical, well-reasoned, generous-spirited invitation to take God at his word and to see and experience the church as family. I like it because it instructs and simultaneously inspires. It increases my desire to experience my own church as family and to lead others into that same experience.
In a day when the church is often conceived mainly as an organization to be managed, when pastors are professionals, when the younger generation feels disconnected from church and frequently leaves, when many without Christ are longing for authenticity and genuine relationships, such a book is a particular gift.