One hears it like a mantra today: “Family is more important than church.” It is said with such tendentious frequency that we rarely stop to ask whether or not it is true.
In a sense it feels a little bit like saying, “The Father is more important than the Son,” or “The Son is more important than the Holy Spirit.” It is contrived and unnecessary categorization. The family, after all, is merely a temporary expression of an eternal reality; the local congregation is the imperfect and visible manifestation of that eternal reality. We are parents only momentarily, in the same way that we marry and are given in marriage only momentarily (Mark 12:25); but if our children are appointed for eternal life and so believe in the finished work of Christ, then they will join the eternal family of the people of God.
In truth, balancing “church” and “family” is not unlike pastors balancing warning and assurance of salvation. Some have grown presumptuous in their faith and so need to be warned that they will not inherit the kingdom of God apart from genuine repentance (cf. Hebrews 6:4-6). Others, however, grow discouraged by the raging war between flesh and Spirit and so need to be assured that nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ (cf. Romans 8:28-30).
In the same way, some neglect their families because they are so busy with church activities that they cannot find the time to instruct and train their children in the riches of grace. Men and women like this need to remember that the family is an expression of the church, that they are responsible to impress the truth of God on their children (cf. Deuteronomy 6:7-9; Ephesians 6:4). These are men and women after Eli’s heart, and they can expect to reap a similar reward (1 Samuel 2:12-25). Others, however, have made idols of their children, equating physical proximity with loving engagement, rejecting the primacy and authority of the church—and ultimately God—in the life of the family. Jesus had hard words for people like this, reminding them that we cannot be disciples unless we “hate” even our own children by granting God the first place in our lives—and thus our family’s schedules (Luke 14:26).
Perhaps the balance would be easier to strike if we more clearly defined what we mean by “family” and “church.” I suspect we could eliminate much of the confusion by focusing passionately on our commission, making disciples. Our primary focus in participating in church activities (cf. Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Peter 2:9; 1 Corinthians 12-14) and spending time with our children (cf. Deuteronomy 6:7-9; Ephesians 6:4) is making disciples of all people—whether in the church or at home. Now we have a criterion by which to judge what we do in both spheres, to determine which is really more important at any given moment: is what I am doing going to make disciples, or is it mere activity in an occasionally holy place?
Consider: Could you miss one of your child’s many cross-country meets—especially considering she is also involved in volleyball, ballet, musical theater, and pep club—in order to attend a training session on relational disciple-making at church? Should your child skip his small group in the church’s youth group, where the bulk of relational disciple-making takes place, because his coach told him he had to play club soccer in order to make the school team in the spring (and even though you both know full well he won’t play soccer once he graduates)? Or, conversely, would it be wise to skip the church’s Family Fun Night in order to spend some concentrated time discussing with your daughter Christian response to the interpersonal conflict she is involved in at school—including an extended time of prayer afterwards? Might you even routinely miss your thirteen-year-old son’s Bible Club because it is the only time you can meet together for your father/son Bible study on Proverbs?
You get the point. Blanket statements about prioritizing family ahead of church (or vice versa) probably reflect priorities skewed away from our commission anyway. It would be far better to consider both family and church as vitally important, and then to make individual decisions in the Spirit as you face them. Mere attendance at family and church functions is never enough, and so thorough, prayerful consideration of each activity—especially in our idolatrously over-scheduled Western world—is an absolute necessity.
May God grant us Paul’s wisdom, in understanding well the overlap between church and family, and his fervency, in making disciples as passionately as parents invest in their children (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-12).
 I have heard some argue that God is first in their lives, but church activity is far down the list of priorities. All that is well and good, so long as we still separate out disciple-making from mere church activity (see below). Can you really have a thriving relationship with God—that is, are you loving him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength—if you are not actively loving your neighbor by making disciples? Shouldn’t we categorize disciple-making as part of our relationship with God?