When I first started this blog* about a year ago, one of my main goals was to share stories. By nature, I tend to intellectualise a bit and default to sharing ideas rather than stories, but I’m becoming more and more convinced that there’s a deeper kind of learning that happens through embodied experiences and stories.
Some learning is more caught than taught: especially the kind of learning that involves character growth and worldview shifts.
So I wanted to share with you a story of how my church family taught me about family.
A few months ago, during a sermon series on the book of Ephesians, my church did a talk titled “Family” on Ephesians 6:1-4. It’s that bit where Paul addresses children, telling them to honour and obey their father and mother, and he tells fathers not to provoke their children but to nurture and raise them in the knowledge of God’s redemptive love.
Now, you can imagine the kind of apprehension I might have felt going into that sermon. As a single man who loves kids but will probably never have biological children of my own, evangelical teaching on family can bring up some strong emotions for me. Add to that growing up in an abusive family environment, and even reading Bible verses like these on my own can be deeply triggering. And that’s before the straight married man even starts preaching.
Now to be fair, I feel a lot of trust for my church family and particularly for my pastor. He’s a pretty phenomenal ally and a good friend. Intellectually, I knew he would speak about the topic in a way that was inclusive, sensitive, and faithful to the text. But that didn’t change the trepidation I felt emotionally as both the topic and the church environment conjured up strong associations with past experiences that have been much more hurtful and marginalising for people like me.
All of this is to say that as I sat there taking in the sermon that November morning, my hyper-vigilant self was pleasantly surprised. Delighted, even. Somehow, in a talk about family, I — a single, celibate gay man — felt not only seen, but included, edified, and even valued for my role in the family. I’m not going to give a recap of the talk because that’s not the point of my story (if you’re interested, you can watch a deliberately lo-fi recording of the talk here), but let me just say that I was deeply encouraged by the way my pastor spoke about family using Jesus’ definition of family, the truer reality of the spiritual family we are born [again] into. Usually evangelicals talk about church being a family as if it’s just a nice metaphor, a bit like how your cringe-worthy boss might talk about your workplace being a ‘family’ (remember Michael Scott in The Office?) or how millennials joke about having a ‘work-wife’ who they’re best friends with at work but would never actually hang out with in real life outside of office hours. We talk about church family as a nice idea, but when we get to the nitty-gritty of doing life together, it’s hard for this to feel like more than just nice imagery.
So when it got to the sermon on family, it was such an encouragement to hear ‘family’ spoken about as so much more than the ‘nuclear family’ unit. My pastor didn’t just add a token mention of single people/people without kids at the end of his sermon, but he actually opened by acknowledging that in a Christian worldview, ‘family’ means the body of Jesus – the shared community of the church. He showed us from these Bible verses that raising children in a loving and safe environment where they encounter God’s love is everyone’s responsibility in the church family – not just their legal parents.
And then in the application part of the talk, he shared two stories of people in our church family who are raising children to know God’s love … and both of those people were single people without biological kids of their own. One of them was a remarkable single woman who has had immeasurable impacts on several generations of kids through her kids ministry and her friendships, and who is now a full-time caregiver for children in the foster system. The other person was me, a celibate gay Christian man who never plans on having children who share my genes, but who is committed to investing in the kids in my church family through friendship, babysitting, kids church, and supporting their parents/caregivers.
As a single person in the congregation hearing this talk, I felt seen and spoken to: called to step up to my role of caring for the little ones in our family and making sure they grow up knowing God’s love.
In a sermon on family, naming two people who are unmarried and don’t have biological children of their own as examples of how we should aspire to be a healthy family didn’t just show how we practice family despite our singleness, but it celebrated the particular ways we invest deeply in children and families because of our calling to singleness. It declared powerfully that we all participate in family life because we are family to each other.
It seemed like a remarkable moment. But really, it wasn’t. Or it shouldn’t have been.
See, if we really believe our theological propositions about church being family, then this should be a completely unnoteworthy story. (And maybe it is, in which case I’m sorry to have bored you so far.) If we truly are going to be family to each other, then the lines between single and married, or between biological/spiritual/adoptive/fostered children should start to blur. Those relationships within the nuclear family units (while significant) should take place within the much more profound, eternal, and concrete expression of spiritual family—or what I like to call ‘True Family.’ (And when I read passages like this, I think Jesus would approve.)
Now I started by saying that some learning is more caught than taught, and here’s where things really got real for me. The sermon was great and all, but I think where things really started hitting home for me was in the embodied expressions of family outside of the formal church service that day.
It became real in conversations like the one I had with an elderly married woman after the service who, in a grandmotherly kind of way, approached me to encourage me in my singleness and express how much she appreciated the ways I steward this calling by investing in our church family. She told me she and her husband would love to hear more of my story and would like to support and encourage me, and asked if I would come over for dinner some time so we could talk more. She also shared about how that week she and her husband had caught up with a man they had been discipling for fifty years. FIFTY YEARS. I can’t even imagine the kind of steadfastness and long-term commitment it takes to invest in someone for that long, but hearing the enduring faithfulness of this couple made me realise how much I have to learn from older, wiser Christians who have been walking this road so much longer than me.
I need these people in my life and in my family to show me what life-long obedience looks like: relational investment that spans literally twice my lifetime. I should say as well that this was a woman from another congregation who I hardly knew at the time, so it’s not even like there was a sense of obligation to get to know each other. We weren’t friends. But we were family. She approached me from a sincere desire to invest in a much younger brother in Christ (or grandson in Christ?) for mutual edification—because that’s just what you do in a family.
Then she looked me in the eye and said “you’re like a son to me. You ARE my son.” Then she gave me a big hug.
Or there was that moment when I first walked into church that same day and had a young kid who I hadn’t seen in months spot me across the foyer and run full-pelt to where I was, launching himself into my arms in a big bear hug. This was a kid in the foster system who my friend Gemma (mentioned above) occasionally did respite care for on weekends, so it wasn’t a regular occurrence to see him at church. I wasn’t even sure he’d remember me after all these months. He was one of the kids I would read books to over Zoom during lockdown, and I’d always been deliberate about investing in getting to know him, but I know a child’s memory can fade quickly after a few months—not to mention the added instability of constantly meeting new people in the foster system. So when I arrived at church and saw that moment of recognition, seeing his eyes light up and hearing him squeal my name as he ran towards me with his arms out… it was a tremendous moment of recognition.
Let me tell you that few things have made me feel as loved or as significant as receiving that sort of sincere reaction from a three-year-old. It was a wonderful affirmation that the hours of investing in relationships, even with kids I didn’t think I’d ever see again, really mattered. It mattered to me: my life is enriched for knowing that there are children whose faces will light up when I walk into a room. And it mattered to him: after being bombarded with the social instability of foster care at such a young age, he could still step back into a community half a year later and immediately feel known, loved, and safe. When we do family well, everyone wins. By worldly standards, my friendship with this kid and his carer is bizarre and unlikely. But it’s beautiful seeing the many different forms that family can take in a community as diverse as the church.
That same day after the church service, a bunch of us went to the pub across the road for lunch as we do most weeks. This particular week I found myself sitting with another older lady I love dearly who I’ve often described to my friends as someone who I wish would adopt me as her grandson. She was in a particularly mother-hen mood that day, and she insisted on taking lunch orders from all us young folk and shouting us lunch. She insisted on paying for our food, saying it wasn’t just a generic act of generosity, but it flowed out of her maternal love. Her own biological children live overseas, she said, and she missed being able to mother them, so she said it would make her very happy if she could buy us lunch. She longed to nurture and to care for us. Then she looked me in the eye and said “you’re like a son to me. You ARE my son.” Then she gave me a big hug. Then she turned to the young man next to me and gave him a big hug too.
I teared up then, and I’m tearing up again now recalling that moment. I think what struck me at the time was that it felt so mutually encouraging: of course I felt love by her generosity (and food is my primary love language, so she found the way to my heart), but I noticed how much joy she felt by being able to mother-hen her younger friends around the table. It reminded me again that when we do family well, everyone wins. If the sermon an hour earlier had taught my brain, then this moment taught my heart. Such an embodied lesson on what it means to be family is hard to forget.
After lunch as I was leaving to go home, she called out after me assertively with a twinkle in her eye. “Goodbye! Goodbye my son. Be blessed!” It was special because I know she truly means those words. We are family.
I left that afternoon pondering these words Jesus spoke in Mark 10:
“Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘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: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)
I’d read these words a lot before. But after the things my church family taught me that day, this promise of receiving a hundredfold of brothers, sisters, mothers, and homes in the new family of God just came to life. As much as long-term singleness might feel like a loss sometimes, that day my church family showed me how much I’ve gained.
What a beautiful anticipation of things to come.
*Originally Published on Matthew Ventura’s blog Singled Out.