The loyalty of church members to visions of an ideal family is a tragically misplaced love. Where love of parents, children, or spouse commands more commitment than love to God, the one who loves is bound to be disappointed. Love to family members and spouse can be an expression of love to God. But that is different from the kind of faith in the family found in many congregations.
The 1961 survey of Fairchild and Wynn reported an "unhealthy ultimacy" in an expectation of "complete self-fulfillment" in family life among parents of children attending Presbyterian Sunday Schools. They also found that the parents interviewed knew very little about Christian faith. This suggests that the attitudes about the family held by most adult church members are not very different from those of any other American. One difference is that members of congregations expect the church to help them achieve fulfillment in their family relationships.
There is little reason to believe that parental expectations of the church have changed much since 1961. The idea that a family can be a source of self-fulfillment has a tenacious hold among the ideals that Americans hold dear. Even if this ideal is no longer as important to Americans in general, research indicates that the life of many congregations revolves around their reputation for being "a family church."
Love of family is still a dominant loyalty in Protestant congregations. Jesus was quite clear that anyone who loved family more than they loved him would not be found among his followers (Matt. 10:34-39). This suggests that attempts to keep the loyalties of "the family pew" intact in a congregation is a tragically misplaced loyalty.
American Christians are so imbued with a subtle mixture of love of country, family, and God that it is difficult to see this as a false god. It is hard to condemn love of family or patriotism. Nevertheless, Protestants in America have been dreaming of a Christian America for two hundred years; they have known only a Christianity in which God has been identified with prosperity and family stability. The hope that God will bestow blessings on family members seems more like a form of Old Testament tribal religion than the post-Pentecost faith of Christians who "turned the world upside down."
Jesus commended the scribe who saw that to love God and neighbor above all else "is much more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Mark 12:33). The scribe recognized that preoccupation with religious traditions even those commanded by God -- can become idolatrous. When any act of faithfulness becomes so important that the activity obscures the ability of the people to know and praise the faithfulness of God to them, then they have forgotten that God is the source of all human love. "The family pew" is an American form of the ancient Hebrew tendency toward preoccupation with burnt offerings.
Whenever the people of Israel became preoccupied with religious ritual they lost their capacity to enjoy God’s love for them. Any love more important than God’s love can become an idolatrous love. Amos’s condemnation of an idolatrous form of religion is as clear today as it was at the height of Israel’s power and prosperity.
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)