Family Plus

Mira was reinforcing a point from The Jesus Storybook Bible to her boyfriend, Milo, at my dinner table. Mira and Milo were nominal Muslims, raised in the capital of the Central Asian country where we served on a disciple-making team. Mira came to dinner often, sometimes bringing Milo; and each time, they overheard me discipling my four children at our table after dinner.

As the head of my house and a good host, after reading the stories to my children, I’d carefully explain them to our guests in the local language, since it’s rude to talk past someone and not include them. Since Milo spoke better Russian than local, Mira would explain them a second time to him, sharing with him the beauty and goodness of Jesus (whom she hadn’t even met), without ever having to navigate the awkward social obligations that would have come with me preaching directly to them over the meal. It was kind of awesome.

This sort of nearly effortless discipleship of a young Muslim couple was only possible because Julie, a single American woman in her thirties, lived with us in our home, as part of our household. Mira was Julie’s friend long before she was ours, and it was the freedom that came with Julie’s singleness, combined with the testimony of a redeemed family and a Godward head of the house, that provided a context for Mira and Milo to have repeated, rich, textured exposures to the gospel and its effects on multiple generations of people, all at my table.

This goes way back. Jesus did this from Simon Peter’s house. Paul did it from Aquila and Priscilla’s house. In fact, Paul’s entire practical ecclesiology assumes that the church is built with oikoi (households). In Paul’s time, households included a head, his family, their extended family, employees, the family business, and the physical plant. Think FamilyPlus.

For Paul, house churches aren’t miniature versions of bigchurch, just in a house. They’re a full house being transformed, activated, and networked to fill communities with Christ. In Colossians Paul unpacks a rich Christology, then teaches us to live Christ out, not in the artificial relationships of programmed Christianity, or even in the too-tight space provided by a nuclear family, but in the more complex relationships of a household. And, in 1 Corinthians, he says to order our lives, not like Stephanas, but like his household (16:15).

“Okay, fine,” you might say. “Singles and families living together might make sense back then in Paul’s time, or ‘over there’ in a foreign culture. But it’s not practical here in the West.” I vigorously disagree. If it worked back then and it works “over there,” it probably works here and now. In fact, it may just offer an alternative story of singleness and of family life that could challenge false assumptions that have crippled the mission and the spiritual formation of the church in the West for generations.

There are obvious benefits. Singles get lonely, maybe more often than married people. Humans are social creatures, designed to live in multi-generational social groups. Because of the profoundly individualistic cultural narrative in the West, we assume lonely people need to get married. But sometimes, people aren’t lonely because they need a spouse. They’re lonely because they need a family. Some of us are called to be single, but we’re not called to be alone, or to exist in some weird limbo between the kids’ table and the grownups’. One can be single, be a contributing adult, and not be alone.

Living together in a household requires vulnerability, laying down significant freedom, and purposefully making room. These three practices, it turns out, are deeply resonant with the texture of the gospel. When we open ourselves, embrace limits, and make room every day for each other’s gifts and weakness, we model the gospel in ways that let the world experience Christ at depths we can’t explain it to them. Further, those postures can uncouple us from pursuits that run deep in our blood and counter to Jesus’ dreams for our own hearts—pursuits like clinging to life, misunderstanding liberty, and worshiping happiness.

Practically, living this way can unlock significant resources (time and money) for ministry. Having Julie in our home means that I don’t have to decide, after a long day teaching at the university, whether I’m going to go create relationships with seekers or spend time with my children. Julie can cast the line, and the family can land the fish. Sometimes, the single member(s) of a household can forego building their careers for a while to focus all their time and attention on making disciples, while the family with whom they live can play a strong supporting role, providing the context to teach people how to live in God’s family. Alternatively, everyone can work and minister, expanding the network of people the house can touch, diverting funds that would have gone to two or three house payments into worthy causes.

Sure, not every family is cut out for this, and probably no family is at every stage of life. The same is true for singles. There are ways of being unhealthy in our souls that can be healed living this way, and other kinds of unhealth for which this lifestyle is the wrong prescription. But for most of us, practicing hospitality, vulnerability, and submission to another’s needs in this way could re-activate our homes, increasing their reach in the world and diversifying the paths by which the transforming love of Jesus can penetrate the deep places of our hearts.

We can draw new maps for family and singleness if we’re willing to experiment a little. I’m convinced it will only take a few households with enough heart and moxie to strike out into waters too long forgotten, and to see how Jesus meets us there.

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