Radical Kinship: When the Church Becomes More like Family and Family like Church

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What if the church can become more like a family and the family more like church by reframing and recovering the radical kinship of shared community life, where there is no us or them, but just us? I believe that family and family-like community—concepts that have been sentimentalized by some and politicized by others—can be reoriented. When we do that, we can help people experience the love of family who have never felt it before.

In the Scriptures, we read how kinship is shaped by Israel’s experience as slaves in Egypt: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut. 5:15 NRSV, cf. 15:15; 16:12; 24:18, 22). God reminds Israel not to forget their past. Because of this, space was made for the continuous revaluation of Israel’s kinship ties where the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow were welcome. Israel’s history as slaves in Egypt and the “invoking of the kinship of fellow sufferers is meant to motivate Israel to offer the kind of hospitality that she herself longed for during her exile in Egypt [cf. Deut. 10:19].” Because of this, Israel’s idea of kinship is reoriented to enfold the stranger into their house and within their gates. They were taught to welcome the stranger because they were once strangers themselves. They had to remember not to forget.

Throughout my life I try to remember not to forget. I remember the time I bought that plane ticket and moved halfway across the country. I remember the people I barely knew who gave me a roof over my head and welcomed me into their life and into their family.

Over time, Israel forgot they were strangers. The practice of a revaluated kinship that included the welcome of outsiders lessened. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene in the first century, Israel had clearly defined limits as to who was in and who was out. “A first-century Israelite would have considered any Gentile or Samaritan to be completely beyond the pale, not even registering as acceptable to God (Mark 7:24–30).”

This is the context with which Jesus brought his own message to Israel. And it got him killed. Jesus disrupted the family. For him, kinship and family ties depended on those who did the will of God (Mark 3:35). While some whole households aligned themselves with the way of Jesus like that of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, still others of Jesus’ followers left their families to become part of Jesus’ new reordered family where they “found their first kinship with Christ and with the divine Father and then with each other.”

There’s a reason why some Christians call one another born again and other Christian traditions consider the baptism as a holy symbol of new birth. Radical kinship in Jesus means that we die to our selves and our family identity and rise again in solidarity and mutual agreement with a family and community identity that is reoriented around communion with Jesus within the larger family of God.

This line of thought requires a reordering of our life. To get here, I had to live it and I had to get my own house in order. I had to wrestle with the purpose of my marriage and my home. Radical kinship isn’t just something I experienced as a twenty-something. It’s something I’m trying to live with intention every single day. It’s been twenty years since my first experiences of kinship with a family and community I barely knew, but those experiences remain instructive for my own understanding of the household. I have no other choice. Ten years into my marriage it became painfully clear that Carey and I were unlikely to have children of our own. The multiple medical consultations and procedures left us with few answers. At the time we were in the midst of our own Egypt. Our only solace was the hope of a reoriented identity around the kind of family Jesus desired to bring. We needed to learn how to care for others like family because family was what we needed most.

One evening at home after reading through the book of Ruth—another biblical story of kinship transcending blood ties—Carey put a basket outside the front door of the little brick rambler where we lived as a symbol of our emptiness. She asked the Lord to fill the basket. In the story of Ruth, Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, had lost her immediate, nuclear family and had returned from the region of Moab to the town of Bethlehem where she and her husband were raised. She asked her friends and distant relatives who were present there to refrain from calling her by her given name and to call her Mara, which translates “bitter” instead. “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:21a).

At the time, Carey and I were bitter and burned-out. In the midst of our struggle with infertility, we’d buried ourselves in the work of ministry. I was helping launch the new Fresh Expressions US movement while we were simultaneously redeveloping and pioneering new ways of being church on a college campus. We had lots of permission from our denomination but little local support. Five years into this new ministry venture, not only were we feeling empty in our personal struggle, we were feeling empty spiritually as well. If we were going to continue in what we were doing, we needed God to fill the basket.

As we prayed about whether or not to make our exit, the Lord sent us a couple of Ruths—two twenty-­somethings named Faith and Luke—who pledged to be in the struggle with us. They were from a charismatic Christian background and gave us what they believed to be a word from the Lord. They told us that they felt we would be spiritual parents on the college campus and for young people in our city. This is not a word they took lightly. Over the next few years, that word would unfold before our very eyes.

We loved our little brick rambler. It was just a mile and a half from the university, but we’d longed to live closer so we could better integrate the rhythms of the collegiate community into the rhythms of home. After lots of searching and multiple meetings with our Realtor, we’d cast that bread upon the water. After resolving to stay in the rambler and a couple of years after their word, we found a house a block from campus and across the street from several of the college students and young adults in our budding church community. We renovated the attic of our new home and soon it became lodging for Haley, first as a graduate student and later as a first-year high school teacher. When Haley got married and moved out, she and her husband leased a nearby apartment big enough to share with one of their single friends.

The nature of our household and neighborhood community life might be too radical for some and not nearly radical enough for others, but it’s significant for my calling to a different understanding of the household. For us, we have no other choice than for our home to be a place of openness and welcome, a place of grace in the midst of devastation. Otherwise, our marriage might have turned in on itself. Along the way, kinship ties and spiritual children we didn’t plan have cropped up because we were running on empty and we asked the Lord to fill the basket.

The older I get, I realize the beauty and limits of my own partiality. When I was young, I was taught I could do or be just about anything. While I’m not one to give up on dreams, the fact is I will never be lots of things. I can only be who I am. So rather than focusing on what or who I’m not, I try to stay focused on who I am in light of who God is. It may sound simplistic, but so is the nature of the radical kinship to which I aspire. It’s not rocket science and I can’t say exactly how it might take shape in your own life. All I can say is that by accepting my limits, I’ve found a clearer path toward a very old way of following Jesus alongside others of similarly limited abilities who are trying to do the same.

I choose to live this way because it helps me remember where I’ve come from. I remember the way I was raised by parents courageous enough not to stop me from buying that plane ticket from Houston to Washington, DC. I remember that when that plane touched the ground, I was a stranger in a strange land who had hospitality extended to me over and over again. I remember being enfolded into a family who was different from my own. I remember the joys and pains of singleness and childlessness, and every day I try to remember not to forget.

Questions for Reflection

  • Do you feel loved? If so, how do you share your experience of love with others? If not, how might an experience of shared community help with this?
  • What do you need to let go of to open yourself more fully to God’s love?
  • How are you learning to acknowledge the distinct gifts and abilities that you and others bring into your experience of community? How might you allow those in your community to call you beyond yourself into a fuller Jesus-shaped identity?
  • Unity in distinction means acknowledging our limits. How does acknowledging your limits help you live a richer, fuller life?

In a day of statistical decline in church participation, what if we imagined marriages as little churches and households as living demonstrations of the way that God’s love is reoriented around Jesus? Bringing Church Home: How the Family of God Makes Us a Little More Human invites readers are invited into a kind of radical kinship rooted in family-community love. In his first book, author Gannon Sims shows how our homes can become hubs for mission pointing toward our true home where we—no matter our previous experiences of family or home or love—can find kinship in God.

Perfect for:

  • Leaders adapting to new cultural realities
  • Churches engaged in mission
  • Small groups focused on neighborhoods
  • Church planting groups

In these pages you’ll:

  • Learn how and why the church as God’s family forms disciples
  • Be encouraged to engage in mission for homes, neighborhoods, and cities
  • Discover the family household as a hub for reaching the lost with the gospel

Order the book from our store here.

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Gannon Sims (MDiv, Duke Divinity School) is director of ministry formation and a founding team member of Fresh Expressions US, a movement seeking to bring the church Jesus loves closer to the people Jesus loves. He lives with his wife, Carey, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where they direct the Center for Faith and Leadership, a training and equipping hub for university students and young leaders and the Center Community.

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