When church is family: 4 ways to fuel warmth with young people

“We are family …” 

Whether they remind you of your favorite radio station or a recent wedding DJ, these are not just song lyrics. This is the real-life experience of many young people in local multicultural churches around the United States: the experience of church as family.

It was a Sunday morning and I was away from my local church in Pasadena. Right when the clock hit 12:00pm, a text popped up. I knew worship had just wrapped up back at home, and I thought, “Oh no, what went wrong? What mess do we have to clean up? Who do I need to follow up with?”

My fears were squelched when I saw it was a video message. The thumbnail showed one of the older adults in our congregation alongside one of our young adults. They had used the flower crown filter on Instagram and they both giggled their way through saying “We miss you! Wish you were here.” 

Thirty seconds was all it took for me to want to jump on the next airplane and head home. 

Expanding the meaning of family

I am a pastor of a congregation that is intergenerational, bilingual, and intercultural. And we are family. The word “family” gets used very often, and carries a world of definitions. A standard US societal definition of family might evoke images of two parents rearing their children. This definition is far too narrow for me. 

In many congregations like mine, mi familia (my family) is a combination of those who are blood related, our neighbors, those who gather with us on Sundays, lifelong friends, and yes, even our friends’ pets. In my experience, family is defined by two key words: interconnectedness and mutuality. You are stuck with me, I am stuck with you. 

I belong. You belong. We belong to each other. 

1) Interconnectedness

To be family means that there is an interconnectedness in our joys and laments. To be family means we know what keeps the other up at night and it becomes ours to hold with them. It means we know how best to care for one another when we are sick, what kind of food to bring after a long day, and how to cheer the other one up. It means showing up when it matters and holding the silence when words are not enough. 

2) Mutuality

To be family means we practice mutuality. It is a two-way street. I bring all I am to the table, you do the same, and we share all we bring. It means that in a world of vast differences, we can engage the diversity among us as gifts that equally shape one another. Mutuality means I do not try to conform others to be like me, but that I receive their uniqueness as they receive mine. Mutuality is an invitation for mutual transformation, not manipulation. 

In our research for Growing Young, we found that young people are looking for churches that embody warm community. One of the most-used phrases to describe this kind of warmth was “like family.” When we listened to young people within a dozen multicultural churches in follow-up research, we heard a different phrase: “We are family.” 

Overwhelmingly, the young people we listened to in diverse contexts emphasized the need to have church be a place where they know they belong. A church that embodies warmth. They understand they belong in these congregations because of the practices, rhythms, and points of contact they have to engage with one another. It is not another program; it is a tapestry of touchpoints marked by authenticity and vulnerability. Those who are deeply involved in their local churches point to feeling like they are part of a household.

Young people need church to be a place where they know they belong. A church that embodies warmth. A tapestry of touchpoints marked by authenticity and vulnerability. (tweet that)

Warmth in practice: No longer strangers

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” Ephesians 2:19 (NRSV)

“Así pues, ya no sois extraños ni extranjeros, sino que sois conciudadanos de los santos y sois de la familia de Dios.” Efesios 2:19 (LBLA)

In Ephesians 2:19, we are reminded that we have been invited and included into God’s household. This verse speaks to a new reality in which there are no longer foreigners, but where we are all seen as citizens in the family of God. As a Guatemalan immigrant to the United States, this line was particularly powerful to me as a young person. In God’s household, the narrative of who is in and who is out is based on who God is and not in the human-made boundaries we experience today. I am fully invited to be a citizen in the kingdom of heaven. 

One of the many gifts about being bilingual is that I get to read the Bible in both Spanish and English. What is particularly powerful about the words in Spanish used in this verse is that where in English it says “members,” in Spanish it reads “sois” which translates in English as, “you are.” In Spanish, there is a more direct implication of belonging. No red tape or application required. Sometimes the process by which someone becomes an insider is so lengthy and convoluted that we forget that we just belong. Thanks be to God. This is good news for us all. 

In declaring that I am now a citizen and a part of the household of God, I am responsible for extending that ethic to all who I am in contact with. As a part of the body of Christ and a pastor of a local church, I constantly have to be checking my posture and aligning it with this. The litmus test to see if a local congregation is practicing warmth is how many people would identify themselves as part of the household. Not just visitors that come once a week, but as full participants who help decide the color of the furniture and can advocate to change it altogether. 

The two women who sent me that video are women with whom I share a lot of my life. But here is something I have to make clear: at first glance, we have very little in common. We were all born in different countries, we had drastically different upbringings, we enjoy different kinds of music, and we are on opposite poles when it comes to politics. In fact, we don’t agree on most things. 

What we can all stack hands on is that we are committed to walking through life with one another, that we love Jesus and the church, and that red lips go with any outfit. The sense of warmth did not just appear overnight and did not come from a church program. It grew out of doing a lot of things together. Over and over again. 

That 30-second video was the result of three years of a lot of hours spent together. Those hours were spent over meals; conversations that were hard and long and some that were short and witty; walking around our neighborhoods, around grocery stores, and to and from hospital visits. Those hours held tears of unanswered prayers, of family dynamics, devastating news, and the endless frustrations we had with one another. Those hours were also inundated with different decibels of laughter. 

Though only 30 seconds, the short video they sent me that Sunday held the significance of all the time we had spent together.

Fueling a warm community with young people: 4 steps we can all take

Young people are looking for churches that do not just declare that they are “like family,” but those who put family into action. As you take a look at the ways people relate to one another in your local church, pause and think about the rhythms and practices that fill your agenda. Our first temptation will be to make warmth a program. It cannot be. This is good news, because it means you can begin to foster warmth in your congregation today—no board meetings required. 

1) Make a list of people to whom you can reach out across generations and differences.

Allow yourself to ponder these questions: 

  • Who can you ask to a meal? 
  • Who can you invite to go on a walk? 
  • Who can you be more intentional to connect with? 
  • Who would you like to learn from? 
  • Who have you always thought you would have so much in common with? 
  • Who lives a totally different reality than you do? 
  • Who looks like they might struggle to connect in your church?

As you think of who you can reach out to, pay attention to how many of those on your list are most like you. The invitation is not to form more touchpoints with more people who are like you, but to extend invitations to those who can both encourage and challenge you. 

2) Begin with extending an invitation. 

An invitation can be met with enthusiasm or rejection. If we are honest, it is the fear of rejection that keeps us from extending invitations over and over again. If that is your case, name that fear and extend when appropriate. If met with enthusiasm, follow through. If met with rejection, assess a better way to invite or think of others you can engage with. People probably do not reject invitations simply because they do not like you; the reasons are often more complex. It may not be the best season for them to engage in what you are asking for. 

3) Commit to fostering warmth. 

This will take a long time. Brace yourself for miscommunication, long games of phone tag, and last-minute cancelations. It is the commitment to this process that makes it worth it. Even when it is frustrating. 

It is so important to name that the people to whom we have an easier time committing are those who are most like us. As you continue to extend invitations, pay attention to the ones that feel most frustrating and complicated. Ask deeper questions as to why this may be happening, but do not abandon the posture and commitment. 

4) Celebrate the small wins.

When we are in the minutia of daily life, the small wins can pass us by too quickly without our recognition. Name milestones in vulnerability. Celebrate as trust is being built. Rejoice on the day you realize that you know how they take their coffee. 

I will forever save that 30-second video. It represents a milestone of warmth for me in my congregation. I look forward to hearing about your very own stories of how warmth is being built in your local church.