Finding Family in Others' Families
In an increasingly busy and individualistic world, and in a church culture which seems to promote nuclear family relationships over singleness, it can be challenging to build meaningful friendships within the church. It can be especially hard to build relationships with nuclear families, particularly as a childless single person. And yet Jesus calls for radical community centred around Himself and the gospel. When told that His mother and brothers were waiting for Him, He replied,
“Who are my mother and my brothers?’ Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, ’Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3: 33-35)
Counter-cultural then, this prioritisation of church relationships over biological relationships is even more controversial today! In the Acts 2 community, the early Christians ”...were together and had everything in common... They broke bread in their homes”. But this wasn’t just a cosy community; it had outward results: ”...the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” So alongside discipleship and mutual support, the goal of Biblical church community is to bring glory to God and to bring others to know Him!
Jesus understands that we all need a family-like community, especially singles. He promises that ”...no-one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age... and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10: 29-30). But how can we proactively seek out this blessing in other people’s families? Sam Allberry writes,
“If church is our family, then the boundary of our physical family life should be porous and flexible rather than fixed and inviolable.” (7 Myths about Singleness, p70).
This article focuses on how singles can build relationships with families with small children, as in my experience this is the hardest group to engage with. It can feel socially awkward for us to take the initiative in relationship-building, but the following are some proactive suggestions as to how we can build Biblical community – to the good of the whole church, not just ourselves!
Do life together
In the UK, we tend to think that hospitality means a lunch/dinner invite with the best china – and this really doesn’t work for building church family. It adds pressure to already over-stretched families and adds an unnecessary formality to the occasion. Community is most commonly built through shared experiences and by working on something together – so how about doing some DIY or gardening with a family, or offer to help with bath-time or play with the kids? Or maybe you could help get the dinner ready, or bring dinner round and cook together. Being aware of when one parent is away and offering to help with dinner and bath-times at that time could be a much-appreciated support. Perhaps the biggest challenge is starting this sort of communal living, but there’s nothing to stop singles taking the initiative! How about saying, ”I’d love to hang out with you. Is there something you’re doing this week that I could be a part of/help with?” This can be a particular blessing for those of us who would love to have children and enjoy feeling part of normal family life.
Invite people round
It takes a lot of courage to invite a family of 3, 4 or 7 round and we can often feel that the family should invite us first and then we reciprocate, but the Biblical mandate to be hospitable doesn’t just apply to nuclear families! One way to make it easier is to enlist the help of a friend or housemate who can entertain while you cook, or vice versa. It can also be really fun to involve your guests in the cooking process, or ask them to bring a salad or dessert to minimise the expense and hassle. It doesn’t have to be fancy: children have very simple tastes, so just cook something they would like for you all to eat.
Alternatively, hold a party! Any tenuous excuse will do and means you only need to put out drinks and snacks and can invite lots of people in one go. If children are coming, try to provide some toys or just some colouring pens and paper: this will help everyone relax more. I find holding parties really positive as it means I can busy getting drinks for people while all my guests talk to each other and build relationships – means I feel less in the spotlight.
Consider meeting at naturally child-free times
If you’re desperate for some adult-only time, it’s good to try to connect with the parents at times when they wouldn’t normally have the children. For example, meeting friends for lunch near where you work can be a rare opportunity for conversation. Even stay-at-home parents may have the
ability to meet for coffee or lunch and bring their small children with them. If lunch doesn’t work with your respective schedules, you may be able to go round for a chat after the children have gone to bed. Friends with many children or new babies may not be able to leave the house or plan ahead with any regularity, but may be able to have a phone conversation in the evenings. Even conversations via WhatsApp or text can go some way to build relationships. Wherever possible, seek to have meaningful conversations, e.g. about what you’re reading in the Bible, the sermon etc. as well as about daily life.
Attitude is Key
Don’t act like the child
As a single and child-free person, it’s easy to feel categorised as ”not-quite-grown-up” by people in church and to play up to that. We can feel that we can’t take the initiative, have nothing to offer and that we are the needy ones. Don’t perpetuate the stereotypes: pay your own way, contribute food to the church lunch, bring food to the family picnics. Seek out ways to serve the church and be an active member of the congregation – even if that means service in areas you wouldn’t normally enjoy, e.g. in the creche or on the tea rota.
Many of our issues as singles relating to families stem from a mutual lack of understanding about how we experience life, so we need to communicate clearly and honestly with each other. Help married friends to understand what your life looks like and seek to understand theirs. Have frank conversations with friends about what is great and hard about trying to relate to them – and find out how you can serve them – which may mean babysitting! And be up front with them about your needs and preferences. If you want a serious adult-only chat rather than time with kids, say that, and arrange accordingly. They may not be able to support you in the way you feel you need, but the dialogue is still worthwhile – and you may find you enjoy doing other things with them!
Is God in this friendship?
When building family-type friendships at church, it’s good to remember to keep God involved! Pray about the friendship and for your new friend. But also remember to talk about God together and use the friendship for mutual discipleship and accountability. Christian communities can easily become cosy and inward-looking, rather than united around our shared love for Jesus.
We need to remember that families don’t have the monopoly on contentment – and that we don’t necessarily have the ”hard part of the deal!” Family life can be incredibly hard; there are seasons such as pregnancies and having young children where it’s hard for them to look outside the home. We need to find and cultivate joy in the opportunities we do have as single Christians. Even if it’s hard and lonely, we still need to trust and obey Christ joyfully, whatever our circumstances.
Something that has helped me has been thinking about what sort of old person I want to be. Whether married or single then, I want to be known as a ”wise old saint”, saturated in the Bible and prayer, somebody people of all ages and stages can come to for counsel. A 1 Corinthians 7 person, living a life of undivided devotion to the Lord. These people are truly beautiful. But the work starts now through Bible reading, prayer and building communities and relationships which reflect the Trinitarian love of God. Not only can we find families in families, we can be family to those around us – we have something to offer, by God’s grace.
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2019 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend.