[This was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, on Sunday morning, September 23.]
Recently, I had two separate conversations with members of my extended family: one a believer who doesn’t attend church; the other is a non-believer who attends church.
In the conversation with the believer who doesn’t attend church, I mentioned some of the things I was going to be doing over the succeeding few days. “I’m sure that must be hard,” the family member told me. “Well, not that hard,” I started to explain. “Oh,” my family member interjected, “it must be old hat for you by now.” “No,” I said, “I mean that my work depends less on how much experience I have than it does on how much I depend on God to do it.” I think that sounded like a foreign language to my relative.
In the conversation with the non-believer who attends a church, we were talking about how people in their church helped at the church office. Looking at me, this family member said, “I guess that’s what the Church is about, isn’t it?” “Well, sort of,” I said. I wanted to recite this month’s Living Water memory verse about the Church: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27) Church life isn’t so much about being nice to each other as it is about helping each other so that we can fulfill our mission as the Church. Once again, I think I sounded like a foreigner to a family member.
Folks, Jesus commissions each of us as His people, both collectively and individually, to make disciples. First Peter tells us that you and I were bought out of our slavery to sin and death by Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection not only so that we could be saved, but so that we could help others to a saving faith in Jesus. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession,” Peter writes, “that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9) That’s our purpose.
When you and I leave worship on Sundays, we go into our own personal mission fields. They include every place we work, play, study, shop, exercise, relax, or socialize.
And the most challenging part of our personal mission fields is our families.
What makes reaching our families with the good news about Jesus so challenging? I think that it's this: Our families--spouses, children, parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles--know all about us. (Or they think they do.)
They know our imperfections.
They know our weak spots and what makes us crazy.
Our family members have built-in walls of defense against our witness for Christ.
I’m sure that many of my relatives think, when our conversations veer off into dangerously Christian territory, “There he goes again” and simply tune me out or move onto the next subject.
And yet two things are true.
First, as Thom Rainer reminds us in the fifth chapter of his book, I Am a Church Member, we are called to help our families know Christ. (I refuse to say, as Rainer does, that we lead people to Christ. We can’t lead anyone to Christ! Only the Holy Spirit can lead a person to Christ, even if the Spirit happens to use me in some way to that end!)
Secondly, it’s also true that we have no more intimate connections than the ones we have with our families. Nowhere are we able to have more opportunities to share the gospel of new and everlasting life for all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ than in our own homes, among our own kin.
The Bible says that parents have a particular responsibility to share their faith and the importance of living in the community of faith with their kids. In Deuteronomy 6, starting at verse 7, God tells Israel, the ancient proto-church that anticipates the eternal Church that Jesus would later begin: “Impress them [God’s words of law and promise] on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:7-9)
In other words, the primary place in which children are to be instructed in the faith and where they’re to see how the Church is to function as Christ’s community in the world is in their homes.
This is why Martin Luther called the family “a little church.”
It’s also why he wrote The Small Catechism to be used by families as part of worship and devotional life in their homes.
In our families, as we pray together, talk about what was discussed in worship and Sunday School, read Scripture together, and, love each other and even love and care about the people in our churches or the world who try our patience, children and parents learn together and live out together the meaning of their Christian discipleship.
It’s in our families that we learn the meaning and importance of the Church, the only agency in the world through which the Gospel of new and everlasting life for all who repent and believe in Jesus is proclaimed. Without the Church, no one would know that there is a loving God Who has acted to save us from sin, death, and darkness. The family is one of the most important places in which the work of the Church is done.
So, how can we best point our families to Christ as the only hope human beings have for life with God and to His family, the Church, as the only fellowship in which we can know and experience the truth about God?
Let me make a few suggestions.
First, our family members must see that we love Christ and His Church, including church members who have annoyed or hurt us. It’s good when, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we seek to live out what Jesus tells us about forgiveness: “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5) When our families understand from our witness and our lives that the Church is Christ’s hospital for hypocrites and we are among its life-long patients, both Christ and the central importance of the Church are authenticated.
Second, families must see that Christians don’t think that they’re better than others. If we’ve been saved by grace through faith in Christ, how can we think that we’re better than other people anyway? In one of His parables, Jesus said that a Pharisee had it wrong when he thanked God that he wasn’t a sinner like a tax collector then standing at a distance from the altar. But Jesus said that the tax collector had it right when he prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). In Ephesians, we’re told, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Third, our families must catch us being Christians. Some Christians can talk about faith with others, but the rubber hits the road in their life and witness.
I read about a rebellious teenager whose elderly Norwegian-American grandfather came to live with the family. One day, the teen walked by his grandfather’s bedroom. The door had slipped ajar and he saw the old man kneeling at his bed, praying for the salvation of his teenage grandson, tears rolling down his cheeks. That teenager later became a committed Christian and a pastor.
When our families see us praying, worshiping at church and at home, witnessing to others for Christ, and serving others in Jesus’ name, when they see us dealing with success with gratitude and failure with magnanimity, they can better see the validity of the Christian life and life in connection with Christ’s Church.
Our families are our mission fields. They are the people with whom we have the greatest influence, the ones to whom we can most readily show that Christ is the way and the truth and the life and that it’s only in the fellowship of the Church that we can know Christ and be part of His mission in the world.
Finally, I want to say a word to you who have family members who, like those family members of mine I mentioned, presently have no apparent connection to Christ and His Church: Don’t lose hope!
Even if your family members are today ignoring their need for Christ and His eternal family, you can still pray in Jesus’ name.
You can continue to share your witness for Jesus with them.
You can tell them that, while you are an imperfect sinner deserving of death and judgment, you’ve been made alive by God in your Baptism and given new and everlasting life by your trust in the Savior Who died and rose for sinful human beings.
You can let them see how much this church family means to you.
Trust that God will use your prayers and witness and the prayers and witness of other Christians to give that spiritually disconnected family member every chance to know and follow Christ into life with God. Even after we’re dead and gone, God will still hear our prayers and find ways to answer them. Our call is simply to be faithful and leave everything else to the God Who washes sinners clean and raises the dead.
May the Holy Spirit use us to point our families to Christ and His Church. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]