On a Major Obstacle to Relational Church.

Published in: Theology.

I love my church. In my mind, it’s as close to a perfect church that I’ve ever been a part of, and I feel so fortunate to be a part of it. When I try and describe it, I feel like all I have are buzzwords: real, authentic, genuine, community. But it’s true. There is a genuineness that I find so refreshing. Honest questions are welcome. Life is acknowledged as the mess that it often is. When we find ourselves without answers, we feel okay leaving it at that. Somehow, we are distanced from the trends of contemporary Christian culture. I have no idea what the prevailing popular doctrines and controversies are, and I love that.

Perhaps it’s easier to contrast what I think is the foundational characteristic of my church with what is a foundational characteristic of most churches. I have found most churches to be programs-oriented. For many churches, ministry equals programs. There’s interest in helping the homeless? Start a feed and clothe the homeless program. There’s interest in music? Start a choir program. Obviously a Sunday School program is needed. And don’t forget about Wednesday night suppers. Everything revolves around events and programs and committees that manage the programs and the people that come to the programs and the people that are sought to come to the programs.

My church is a little different: we’re relationship-oriented. We gather for each other, to encourage each other, to support each other. I don’t think of my friends from church as my “church friends.” I see them as my friends, and church is what we do together. I think this focus is wonderful. It is what allows the intimacy and vulnerability that’s needed for authenticity and community.

As we grow and mature as a church, though, there are significant obstacles that I’m wrestling with.

The major obstacle is the correlation between relationships and size. One can only have so many close friendships. Friendships take time and emotional investment, both of which are limited. Up to a certain size, we’re all friends; the church is one large group of friends. Then it gets too big, so we start breaking into small groups. But what happens when we’re all in our smaller groups, at our relational limit and visitors come? We can’t expect them to bring their own group of friends. That’s not becoming a part of a church. Our relational focus places a limit on our size, a limit that keeps out people that may fit well with us, people that could really use the authentic love we have to offer. Cliques are necessary for relational intimacy, but are detrimental to ministering to those outside of it.

I’m beginning to wonder how I should approach church on Sundays. I love my friends, but perhaps Sunday morning should be about ministering to those I don’t know. Welcoming them, introducing them to others, helping them find out how to connect with others in the church. Most of the questions people have in our church are not answered by pamphlets or informative materials, they are answered by people. It’s a symptom of our relational focus. I may have limits on my relational commitments, but I can help people connect with people. I don’t need to be close with everyone; I can help others get closer to each other.

I’m thinking the strategy is to be outwards focused on Sundays, help connect people to people, and then rest in the stability of my close friendships during the week.1 Time will tell if this is a sustainable approach to combining broad and deep community.

  1. And you, fellow church friend, do not take this as a block against our friendship. It isn’t. I would love to get to know you better. It just takes time, and time is limited.

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