ABC’S “Modern Family:” Lessons for Church Membership

11 March 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Despite the fact that there was clearly no radiation involved, we used to throw around the term “nuclear family” to describe the households of yesteryear.

And there was certainly a day when the entertainment world reflected that. Our minds can easily conjure up the black-and-white nostalgia of the “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best” era. It was an era where – at least on the screen – the father would come home from a long day at the office to find his wife vacuuming the carpet in high heels and a string of pearls around her neck, pausing only long enough to retrieve her husband’s pipe and slippers so he could read the paper until the roast was ready.

That was then. This is now.

ABC’s latest hit sitcom is a show entitled “Modern Family,” a show that’s garnered impressive ratings and enjoyed favorable comparison to other successful comedies such as “The Office” and “Arrested Development.”

But you won’t find Wally and the Beave. What you find instead are step-parents. A gay couple. And adopted Vietnamese daughter. Whether or not you agree that the families on the show are making appropriate decisions, it’s hard to get around the appeal of dysfunctionality that seems to characterize the contemporary zeitgeist.

So…when we describe the church as a “family” (as many do), which image comes to mind? June Cleaver?


The contemporary church family is variegated, with a wide variety of lifestyles, traditions, beliefs and values converging under one roof – sometimes without others really even being aware of it. In short, the modern church family can be…messy.


This is why the discussion of membership is so important. There is currently a great discussion of membership posted on the 9 Marks blog, and is well worth reading for those having a vested interest in the subject.

Amidst the points of discussion is a quote from Rick Warren, who said, “A lot of people want to date the church, but they don’t want to get married. That is spiritual adultery.”

There is a great need to increase the commitment among evangelicals and the church. But fostering such commitments requires sensitivity to the needs (spiritual and otherwise) of the dynamics of the “modern family.”

Of particular concern are young adults, though the needs I identify below are hardly intrinsic to any particular generation. Given the vast number of 20-something church dropouts, there is a real need for churches to close this gap by casting a greater focus on church membership.

The question is…how? How do you “sell” membership? The answer is…you don’t. But when the church as a whole meets the needs of its people, membership can become the next step in the journey. Ed Stetzer identifies many needs in Lost and Found, as do many other authors writing on similar subjects. I distill them down to the following:

  1. Authenticity. This is more of a buzzword for rising generations, in contrast with the previous generation that prized “respectability.” Young people are okay with spirituality that’s a little messy. They find connection in small groups that allow transparency and honesty. They value leaders they can identify with as well as learn from. They value worship that goes beyond the performative dimension, but offers an experience they can connect with.Membership may admittedly seem superimposed on this type of community – but this may actually be a good thing. This means that membership isn’t an extra (and, as it is perceived, “unnecessary”) step, but merely a way of defining what’s already happening.
  2. Purpose/Mission. What’s your church “about?” Do you have a specific mission? Is it clear how to be involved in said mission? Congregations are often united around common tasks and missions. The missional church movement has been of great benefit in this regard. Team-based ministry can help connect people across social barriers and give them purpose and direction. Membership, in this sense, is the participation in working towards this common, kingdom-centered goal.
  3. Depth. One of the reasons so many flirt with church is a lack of solid teaching. Even churches with a strong missional character run the risk of alienating members out of fear (founded or not) of “losing” good, Biblical instruction. This is hard, given the diverse character of the “family” I spoke of earlier (and this topic really deserves a post of its own). The church must embrace teaching that finds its anchor in scripture but places its oars in the changing waters of culture so that they can be both faithful to the truth but sensitive to the needs of the world. This is the primary method by which much of the “messiness” of people’s lifestyles can be addressed, though it will work itself out more fully in the context of community.

This by itself does not encourage membership, but faithful teaching is a very strong reason for remaining faithful to a church body – and the reverse is quite equally true.

4. Intergenerational ministry. It’s not just for the benefit of the young – guidance is a gift whether shared or received. Young people need advice from previous generations (emphasize the word “guide” rather than “mentor” – for some reason this seems less contrived), and previous generations will be blessed in the giving forth of wisdom. This is yet another way that the “messiness” I’ve mentioned can be smoothed out, as wisdom can be passed on to enrich the lives of those within the congregation.

As with “authenticity,” the concept of membership is hardly arbitrary, but a meaningful way of defining what is already taking place.

5. Technology. Membership means nothing if there is a lack of communication. Churches that are reaching people across generational lines are using technology to the best of their ability, through websites, social networking and other tools to keep their people connected in the digital as well as real world.


There is a temptation, I suspect, to move away from demanding things from the congregation, and this light touch may even seem strategically necessary when dealing with the messiness of the American church family. But research shows that expectations may be a healthy thing.

As Thom Rainer observes in his book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, “People have no desire to be a part of something that makes no difference, that expects little.”

Indeed, membership is a way of expecting much, and offering even more.

11 March 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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