What Makes a Church a Family?

I wasn’t there when a group of worshipers met in tiny Boring, Oregon, to form the Hood View Church in 1965. In fact, I wasn’t even born. But when my father moved our family from Florida to pastor this church 11 years later, I became one of the youngest members of a congregation that was more family than church.

And when that church family held its 40-year reunion last May, I spent the day mesmerized by reminders of the years I’ve spent as part of this, my church family.

I remembered Henry Gephart, who braved the frigid east winds of a January Sunday to help my family move into a new home. He stayed later than anyone else and quickly built a set of stairs to the front door—stairs so solid that they weren’t replaced for 20 years.

There was Marie Schaffer, the picture-perfect grandma for every youngster in our church. She sat alone that Sabbath, but I still remember church camp outs at the beach when she was joined by her husband, Otto, who wore a bright orange windbreaker and an even brighter smile. I miss Otto.

The Jubergs, Mort and Lorraine, were there too—older, no doubt, but just as lively as when Lorraine taught my primary Sabbath School lessons. My grade school physical education teacher, Jim Dixon, still exhibited the ageless fitness he portrayed years ago when I made up as many excuses as possible to avoid his class.

During our potluck lunch, our family reunion spilled out of the fellowship hall and onto a sun-drenched lawn, where my kids explored the surrounding rhododendrons and squealed in delight as older kids showed them spiders, flowers and abandoned feathers. Their amusements left me free to chat with people who had returned to Hood View especially for this reunion—like two of my chums from the neighboring grade school where we once endured polyester gym uniforms, stressful achievement tests, and, in my case, the occasional visit to the principal’s office.

As we separated for the afternoon, I thought of times past when we gathered as a church family for outdoor recreation under sunny skies. Outdoor church was held each summer on Mt. Hood’s flanks. Driving there, we passed the stalwart church athletes who opted to grind up the hills on their bicycles for a special worship amid lawn chairs, towering fir trees and the harmonic plucking of Terry Williamson’s banjo.

Just like in my own family, some of the best church memories are these outdoor adventures—picnic suppers and evening worships overlooking the Cascades when I was a Pathfinder, blistered toes hiking down Larch Mountain to Multnomah Falls, and camping at Ft. Stevens on the Oregon coast each fall.

During an evening vespers at our church reunion, a slide show reviewed the special moments we’ve shared as a church family. We laughed at 1970s-vintage wedding photos and rejoiced in the unique ministries our church has pursued through the years—from guitar lessons and health seminars to cycling clubs and fishing trips. This was the scrapbook of a family, just as treasured as the albums filling my bookcase at home.

Like all families, our church has weathered its fair share of scandals, disagreements and hurt feelings. Family feuds and estrangements are always difficult, but somehow those associated with a church family are made all the worse by the expectations we all hold of a certain perfection in a spiritual home.

No matter that our church family is made up of sinful humans, I still cling to the ideal that somehow we can escape the politics, slander, gossip and cruelty that plague the real world and real families. When we don’t, I weep.

As I looked around at our church reunion, I was as aware of those missing as those who were there. Some we’ve lost—for now—to death’s call. But I know others are gone because of schisms, misunderstandings and outright hostility. Do they know I miss them, that I wish I would find them filling their favorite pew once again?

Even as our membership fluxes, Hood View remains for me an anchor, a common denominator that runs throughout the majority of my life. In this church family, I grew from a pig-tailed toddler into a craft-building Pathfinder. Here I made it through the flirtations of youth and brought home my college friends. In this spiritual home, my church family gathered as I wed my husband.

This special family welcomed our twins for their first visit to church and prayed with us as we dedicated them to the Lord. When the twins celebrated their first birthday at Sabbath School, they sat on the exact same birthday chair that held my younger brother on his first birthday more than a quarter century ago.

Now I’ve come full circle, from the 3-year-old pastor’s daughter to bringing my own 3-year-olds to a church that has sheltered and loved me through all of it. Now it’s their turn to create the memories they’ll be cherishing when Hood View celebrates it’s 70th anniversary.

In the end, our church is so much more than theology and a set of doctrines. Following Christ’s example with His disciples, we pray together, eat together, and celebrate together. We face lonely nights in the garden together and bring our children to the temple together. And when one of our own disowns us, together we cry … and pray for his or her return. These are the utterly human moments, centered always on a divine Father, that make a church a family.

January 01, 2006 / Feature