While much of our conversation in the Telos Collective centers around the Church, the essential building blocks of the Church are Christian families. How do our very ordinary families participate in God’s transforming work for the good of the world? The Rev. Dr. Emily H. McGowin believes families are communities of formation in the Kingdom of God, and she offers several concrete practices to help family members grow as disciples on mission.
By Emily H. McGowin
Through its common life and witness, the Church is the primary agent of God’s mission in the world. What, then, is the role of Christian families?
Families are missional—that is, they participate in God’s work to transform the world—insofar as they are embedded in the Church and engaged in a form of life that practices the presence of God every day.
Seeing families this way requires a shift in perspective. Rather than view families as incubators for individual success, we must see families as communities of formation in the Kingdom of God for the good of the world.
The challenge is that family life is incredibly mundane, even—dare I say it?—boring. But it is the daily, boring routines of life that steadily shape us into disciples of Christ—what St. John Chrysostom called “the liturgy after the liturgy.” Just as the ballet dancer practices her tedious pliés and tendus until she is able to do tours jetés with ease, so also the Christian household practices daily rituals of faithfulness knowing they enable its members to participate in God’s Kingdom now.
I realize this is a rather daunting task when many Christian families already feel busy and overloaded. And, like local churches, individual households will embody their mission differently depending on their context. Still, there are some practices that are essential anywhere. Embedded in the communal life of a local church, a household characterized by these practices will, by the power of the Spirit, facilitate the shaping of disciples for mission.
Pray together. Whatever age we begin our walk with Christ, each of us must learn to pray. The Christian life is impossible without it. So, the Christian household must cultivate the discipline of prayer at home. This means, very practically, providing daily opportunities to pray, both individually and as a family. Personally, I rise very early to pray before we wake our children for school, usually with a cup of coffee in one hand and the Sacred Space app in the other. Then, assuming your family has at least one daily meal together, you may pray around that meal. You might choose to use the BCP’s “Daily Devotions for Families and Individuals” as a framework. Finally, if you have children, help your children pray before they go to bed at night. Prayer is fundamental to the Christian life and the only way family members will learn to pray is by actually praying.
Read the Bible together. To practice the presence of God in the world we must see ourselves within God’s story. And the only way to do that is by listening to scripture on a regular basis. A practice of household Bible reading is an extension of corporate Bible reading. When we faithfully expose ourselves to scripture on a regular basis it will, over time, soak into our bones. We will know the Bible like some of us (namely, me) know the ins and outs of the Harry Potter series. When God’s story is in our bones, we will be better able to recognize the Spirit’s presence in the world and intentionally make space for him to work. A good time to read scripture together is at the conclusion of a family meal. We do it at breakfast. Whatever form it takes for you, though, make time in your home to listen to the story of God together.
Eat together. We know eating together strongly correlates with family cohesion and the emotional and mental health of family members. For followers of Christ, though, every table can be a sacramental extension of the Eucharistic table. Around the table we learn to listen to one another, submit to one another, and be reconciled to one another. Around the table we share joys and sorrows, wise counsel, and words of encouragement. A regular practice of eating together also sets the stage for extending hospitality to those beyond your household. But, just like with prayer, we have to make time for it and pay attention to it. None of these gatherings will be perfect, especially if you have small children; but do it anyway. Eating together is a crucial formative practice of Christian community.
Practice reconciliation. Reconciliation is central to God’s work through Christ. So, the family must make the practice of reconciliation central to their daily life. What this entails is simple, but certainly not easy. We must confess our hurt or conflict, listen receptively to one another, come to some kind of an agreement, and then respond in repentance and forgiveness. The process of reconciliation will likely happen every day in a Christian household—and that is as it should be. Also, we must keep in mind that age is not a determining factor in this work. Adults and children alike must be reconciled to one another as a crucial witness to God’s reconciling work in the world. One of the most important things you ever do as a parent may be asking your 8-year-old child to forgive you.
Consume less; give more. North American culture has shaped its citizens into consumers above all else, and everything besides into consumable products. One way to resist consumerism’s powerful pull is to say no more often and learn to live with less. There are many strategies for living a simpler, less consumerist lifestyle, but I suggest starting with the tithe. For some, giving away 10% of your income is a high bar and it will take a concerted effort to get there. But it’s worth the effort for what it teaches you in the long term. And the tithe on the total household income can be applied to children in the family, too. With gentle instruction and patience, it is possible (it really is!) to teach children to be generous by having them give a portion of their gifts or allowance away. As with all the other practices described above, the key is to trust the formation such choices enact on our bodies and souls over time.
Eschew busy-ness; embrace presence. Most Christian families, especially families with children, are very busy. I encourage Christian families to ruthlessly eliminate unnecessary busy-ness while also choosing to be fully present in the places they’re called to serve and play. There is no universal standard for how many activities a family should participate in. But two good questions to ask are: 1) Does our schedule allow us to participate in the practices outlined above? 2) Does our schedule have enough flexibility to allow us to serve or extend hospitality to others? If the answer to one or both of those question is no, then you’re probably too busy. Christians should seek the flourishing of the place where they live. But in order to do that, we must resist frantic activity and choose to be fully present among our neighbors.
When it comes to the participation of the family in God’s mission, please note that I am not emphasizing conformity to an ideal form of the family, since Christian families take a variety of forms in North America today. The focus, instead, is on function: how the family does life together. Christian families participate in God’s mission primarily by leaning into the ordinary liturgy [insert link: https://www.ivpress.com/liturgy-of-the-ordinary] of their daily lives, trusting that doing so prepares them well for service in the Church and wider world.
- Why is it sometimes tempting for us to overlook the role of the family in the Kingdom of God?
- How has your family shaped you as a disciple on mission?
- Which one of these practices could you begin to implement on a regular basis?
Emily Hunter McGowin has a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton and MDiv from Truett Seminary. Her first book, Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family will be published by Fortress Press in May 2018. Her work has also appeared in Ecclesial Practices and New Blackfriars. She has been in Christian ministry for 15 years and currently serves as deacon and theologian-in-residence at Church of the Resurrection in Arvada, CO, where her husband serves as priest. She and Ron have three young children. Learn more about Emily at her website.
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