Sunday, October 24, 2010

Understanding West Virginia Culture: "Family" Churches

Because many churches in West Virginia develop within closed communities, they develop intensive family relationships within the church body.  Please do not think that I refer to the consanguineous stereotypes that West Virginians have been falsely stuck with over the years.  What I refer to is the simple fact that within rural, closed communities, different families are more likely to intermarry, often at several different points within the families, creating a larger family.  This larger family then intermarries another larger family, creating an even larger family.  Genograms of these family relationships can be very complicated.  Within these larger families exist all the problems and benefits that all families possess.  I discuss the problem of how families and churches within closed communities handle problems in this post.

But I want to consider a problem that I have observed over the years.  Is it possible that churches comprised of several deeply intertwined families have an inadequate understanding of what church life is supposed to be like?  Is it possible that their church life is more informed by family life than the Spirit or the Word of God?   Some thoughts--

  1. I have noticed that these types of churches seem most comfortable with and among their own.  They do not tend to engage in serious evangelistic outreach.  They are what they are, and do not see much need to change for the sake of outreach to the larger community.
  2. I have noticed that when members of the church community have needs, those needs are typically met by families within the church rather than by the church acting as a church.  Those who are not a part of the family can easily feel left out of church life.
  3. Sometimes I have wondered--if the church did not exist, would the relationships between these families be any different than they already are?   The same needs might still be met the same ways.  It seems possible that the existence of the church might not really be making much of a difference.  
  4. I have noted that some of the older generation hold much sway over the younger generation, even over younger adults that ought to be coming into leadership and influence within the congregation.  In some ways, the younger generation tends to view the church as their parents' church, and as long as their parents are still in the picture, they are content to let their parents dictate the nature of life in the church.  This means that these churches are less likely to reach out using methods that are more accessible to younger generations.  The church is stuck in the past and unable to outreach into the present or the future. 
  5. Among these older generations there tend to be a few heads of household that hold entire congregations (read "intertwined families") hostage.  Their opinions are stated with authority and the expectation that most others will simply go along with them.  The price of going against a family head within a family is too costly to the family relationships. Families do not often handle problems by dealing with problems.  The tend to try to get past problems in a way that keeps the family peace.  After all, "that is just how Uncle So-and-So is; there is little we can do about it without creating an uproar." Therefore the price of going against a family head within a church is also too great. 
  6. Visitors to these congregations can sense the family bonds.  Over time, these bonds become more obvious as they get to know the congregants.  These can and do alienate visitors quickly, leaving them to feel as if they are on the outside, unable to break into the family cliques.   Those who have not been exposed to closed communities can view these congregations as strange and aberrant.  
I am focusing on negatives, but I am sure there are also some positives, although the negatives might tend to overshadow the positives sometimes.  For instance, the family is intended by God to be an analogy of Christian love and church life.  It seems then that there ought to be something positive about churches with large intertwined families at least in the form of an earthly analogy to spiritual church life.  These families are very efficient at meeting one another's needs.  They also obviously care for one another deeply, show real, deep concern for each other's problems, and guard each other lives and reputations with fierce family loyalty.  

Is it possible to accentuate the positives and overcome the negatives to produce a church that is not just a mere family but rather a family of God? 

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