We are in the middle of a series called SEEDS. Today I talked about the place and role of extended family for discipleship and mission.
Saturday lunchtime. Our home is full. Packed lunches everywhere, small groups praying and conversations about what God is saying.
7.30am Tuesday, Skype. Praying for each other as we enter the mission field of the day ahead.
A weekend walk. A couple coming the other way stop to let us pass, waiting longer than expected, they said “That’s a big family!” They were right.
Welcome to our extended family.
We are 10 different biological families: 22 adults, 5 teenagers, 12 children and 3 babies. Some are married and some are single.
The family is under pressure
The family is under pressure like never before. We have all seen the statistics but who needs them? Just looking around we can see it everywhere. More people are living alone, and loneliness is a disease of epidemic proportions that’s having a massive impact on our nation’s health.
We can hardly disagree with one of the earliest statements in the Bible which says, “It is not good for man to be alone.”1 We all have a craving to belong. It’s how we’ve been created.
The last 100 years have been described as a ‘failed experiment’ in the nuclear family. Unlike many parts of the world, we have raised up the nuclear family as the ideal that would bring us to a relational utopia. With industrialisation young couples were, for the first time, economically able to live independently. A huge social change began which would split the extended family. The term ‘nuclear family’ first entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1925.
The demise of the extended family has placed huge pressure on the nuclear family to provide our core relational needs. It’s a pressure that it has been increasingly unable to bear. Family breakdown continues to accelerate at a huge cost to our society’s ‘health.’ Furthermore, if you are not in a nuclear family, and fewer and fewer people are, then you are effectively left with no family of your own at all.
Much to learn
A few years ago I had the privilege of spending time in Mozambique with a group of successful business leaders. As part of a Samaritan’s Purse trip, we spent our time several hours drive outside Maputo. The maps detail nothing of this area but in fact tens of thousands of people are living in unrecorded mud-hut villages and communities. After I preached at the Sunday service our group walked out into the bright sunlight to be greeted by crowds of happy, joyful people waiting to meet us. I remember asking the question “Why are these people so happy?” They had nothing. Their daily struggle to survive was immense. The contrast between our lives and theirs was acute. So my question lingered in the air, “How come they are so happy?” I will never forget how one of our group responded. “That’s the wrong question,” he said “The real question is ‘why are we so sad?’” It was a penetrating analysis. Here I was with a group of people who were very successful, people at the top of their game who had everything that life could offer, but it was the joy of those who had nothing that was palpable. I have thought about that moment often. I have only one conclusion. It was the quality of their relationships. It was their strong stable network – their extended family – that held them together and gave them huge resilience to the hardships of life that they faced and offered their lives such value and meaning despite those hardships.
Visiting places like Mozambique and being a local pastor in the UK for nearly 20 years, I have come to appreciate that if we are serious about supporting families, and cultivating a society where relationships are more stable, we need to rediscover the extended family. This is true for us as much as it is for those living off the map outside Maputo.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I love the nuclear family – I’ve been married to Ceri for 22 years, we have four children and there are few things in life as precious as the time we spend together. Yet beyond that there is a relational richness that we have discovered by inviting others into our family space. We are stronger, richer and healthier because of it.
Sociologists remind us of the need to be relationally engaged in different relational spaces.2 We need close relationships like marriage or close friends, but we also need a wider network of people that we are sharing our lives with. Our hard wiring for this is frequently seen in contemporary culture. Think of the many successful soaps, or chart topping series like Friends. They are all based around extended families. The award-winning Wal-Mart commercial for Coke captured an average twenty something introducing his extended family.3 A few weeks ago I took my son to see Fast & Furious 6.4 It is, as you would imagine, a testosterone fuelled journey of fighting and fast cars but unmistakably the greatest power of the film is that of extended family.
The strength of society seen the world over is where nuclear families are supported and reinforced by the extended family. As the final line in About a Boy declares, “every family needs backup.”5 If a marriage is under pressure or a parent-child relationship is strained then in a sole-nuclear family usually no-one knows. Everything is behind closed doors. It can often be too late before help arrives. In an extended family, where the door of your nuclear family is left much more open, then a marriage, a relationship, a work stress, a health scare is quickly known, shared and ‘experienced’ by the wider family. Such support is often crucial for a healthy outcome. More positively we have discovered a richness in the vulnerability of sharing our family life. To have our children ‘learn’ from being close to other adults, to have our own family life challenged and stretched by the good we get to see in others and to see inter-generational bonds growing offers us all a foundation and stability from which we can flourish. Not to mention, it’s enormous fun too!
The extended family makes a lot of sense economically. The New Testament church learnt this quickly with its common purse.6 Again, it was in Mozambique that I saw the power of this. By working together as an extended family, people were able to sustain a small livelihood business, raising chickens for example, that would not have been possible or sustainable as individuals. As Samaritan’s Purse Executive Director, Simon Barrington, puts it, “God designed the family to be the supportive network in which a difference can be made.”7 I am equally convinced that a more wholesome life would be ours in the UK if we recaptured the value of shared resources in our communities.
In thinking about extended family we are recapturing what the Bible has always taught. The extended family is central to the story of God and the mission of Jesus. The Bible is full of extended families (households).8 The first Passover so crucial to the history of the Old Testament gathered people in extended families as the angel of death passed over. It was in the extended family that they would meet and celebrate God’s deliverance throughout their history.
Jesus himself created an extended family at the inception of his ministry.9 For Jesus this ‘family’ was the context for both mission and discipleship. It was the extended family that became the relational building block that saw the church grow from 1,000 to over 33 million in 300 hundred years.10 Most of the New Testament letters were written to churches that were a collection of extended families.11 The western church has largely lost sight of this dynamic, emphasizing larger gatherings over and above developing authentic community around the extended family.12 In my mind this is an essential rediscovery. It is in our extended family that our children are learning to pray and hear God speak. It is here that people are finding encouragement and accountability for the mission that God has called them to. It is here that people receive strength for the journey and a constant stirring up of the gift that is within them.13
We can all do it
We can all build these relationships. For many of us there is a natural beginning. For Ceri and I it was the team that ministers with us within our church. It might though be a group of mums at the school gate, some work colleagues or the ‘gang’ that meets at the local club. We have found that simply doing just one or two things regularly makes an exponential difference. A monthly meal, or walk, an activity or sport. You don’t need anything new. Just invite people to share in what you are already doing. They’ll love it, and so will you. We were made to belong. ‘God sets the lonely in families’14 and you will be creating a family where that can happen.
- Genesis 2:18
- Edward T Hall The Hidden Dimension (Anchor Books/Doubleday 1966, 1982). Mike Breen & Alex Absalom Launching Missional Communities (2010) explores the implication of this for churches.
- Fast and Furious 6 (2013) directed by Justin Lin starring Vin Diesel
- About a Boy (2002) directed by Chris Weitz & Paul Weitz starring Hugh Grant
- Acts 2:44-45
- Simon Barrington speaking at the launch of Raising Families at the Christian Resources Exhibition May 2013 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5J5mWYySVyY&feature=player_embedded
- There is no word for ‘nuclear family’ in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. The word family always means extended family which includes blood relatives and others
- Mark 3:13-14. “He called them to be with him.” (emphasis mine)
- Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (Harper Collins 1997)
- Romans 16 The word ‘household’ is a translation of the Greek word ‘oikos’ which describes an extended family
- There is a rediscovery of the power of extended family for discipleship and mission resourced by networks like 3DM (http://weare3dm.co.uk) and Verge (http://www.vergenetwork.org).
- 2 Timothy 1:6
- Psalm 68:6