Is the Church Responsible to Find People Friends?

Growing up, I had friends who I liked being with. In elementary school, it was Mitch, who shared my passion for sports. When I was in middle school, I hung out with my basketball team. In high school, I dated Emily, who is now my wife. When I was in college, it was the guys in my dorm. After college, I built friendships with people I either worked with or volunteered with. And later, my friends were the people on my staff team.

I’m sharing these life snippets to prove I’m capable of making friends without the church’s help. Because of that, I’ve always been intrigued by the church’s apparent need to organize friendships. In every other area of our lives, we find friends just fine. But when it comes to church, we think the church needs to find us a friend. Churches organize Sunday school classes, small groups and various ministries. We create events and gatherings to help Christians meet fellow Christians. In the end, people eat, sleep, parent, work and meet with other Christians multiple times each week. That becomes the model for living out our faith, but we’ve unintentionally made people reliant on the church for putting them in relationships and for “growing them” in their faith. We’ve also pulled people into relationships with other Christians at the expense of their friends who need Jesus.

 Isn’t it odd? Most people are very capable of finding friends outside the church. If the church created the right framework for relationships to happen, would people find their own friends? If we create the right environments, will people take that step on their own?

What would happen if we put less attention on organizing relationships and more attention on something people will organize around? For example, what if we focused on serving opportunities? Would people naturally gather around those initiatives to serve others? What if we focused on the content we were generating to help people better understand the Bible and its life-application? Would people naturally organize around that content for conversations together? And what if we embraced social networking to encourage people to find their own friends … like they’re already doing? Would people initiate their own relational connections?

I’m not recommending churches completely eliminate small groups. There are times when small groups can provide a healthy environment for spiritual growth, particularly for new believers. And there are instances when people gather around a topic for growth or support in a particular season of life.

Generally speaking, Christ-followers (and therefore churches) may be healthier if people were connected in serving roles rather than in small groups. People would still get into relationships with other believers, but it would be in the context of serving others. People would have a built-in affinity by serving on the same team with other believers who share their gifts and passions.

Additionally, serving groups would provide a natural leadership and accountability structure since most churches already have the leadership structure to support serving teams. Finally, they offer a place for people who are more mature in their faith to encourage others.

The push-back is that, for many churches, small groups are the primary way churches care for their people. When tragedy strikes or challenges arise, the small group is the first place people turn to for support. However, I’ve seen the same thing happen with serving teams. If ministry teams are effective in both carrying out tasks and building relationships, then those teammates will be the first to respond.

Another argument for small groups is that they’re a critical environment for helping people study the Bible. This could be true for new believers. Generally speaking, though, people tend to rely on Sunday’s teaching when they really need encouragement and training to study the Bible on their own. Then, beyond that, people should implement the principles they’re reading about in Scripture. Rather than just absorbing knowledge, people need to be impacting the lives of others. Part of that may be in serving and part of that may be in discipling other believers. That means the church must be intentional about helping people fulfill the Great Commission. Rather than the church organizing people into discipleship relationships, people need to embrace their calling to disciple other believers.

Whether it’s encouraging people to move into serving roles or discipling other believers, it’s our calling as pastors and teachers. Paul said, “our responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12, NLT). What if we focused more on equipping people to fulfill that purpose?

We must decentralize the way people connect relationally while keeping the Gospel and a biblical leadership structure central to how we organize as churches. When people have the freedom to gather in community without relying on the church to place them, that’s when the Gospel will spread like a virus. When people can focus less on the church serving them and more on being the Church, then transformation will take place.

It’s clear God designed us for community. We need the encouragement, accountability and support of other people in our lives. We need to share life with others. The question isn’t whether we need community—it’s whether the church needs to help people find community.

 

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Neue

5 Comments

Jon Mertz

5

Jon Mertz commented…

Very interesting article. I have never thought of churches being required to finding friends for me, but it is a natural place for community. Having the church create the environment in which a community can flourish and connections be made seems to be a natural fit. Church leaders, I believe, need to reinforce the message of members being open to new people and encourage deeper connections than just the Sunday service. Not only does this foster community, it facilitates an expanded network of people engaging in Christ-centered conversations and interactions.

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Anonymous commented…

Interesting article here, Tony. I appreciate your willingness to tackle a subject that may definitely be construed by some as stepping on toes.

What I wonder is: Could the answer to your lead question be Yes, and? In other words, the either/or approach may sell short the churchs abilityand responsibilityto model biblical relationship building. Absent this, we come up with some decidedly un-friendly either/ors:

- Either the church can create meaningful time and space for Christians to find like-minded friends, or they can organize around a common event or activity, like serving.
- Either a church can use small groups to help disciple believers or they can teach believers to be discipling on their own.
- Either the church can help create relationships or people can create their ownand the Gospel explodes.

Yes, lets distinguish between the roles of the church and of the individual. Very important. But the modeling dimension of Christian life, I suggest, leads to a both/and construction rather than an either/or one. Assuming that the church is being led by people who are becoming comprehensively mature in their faith, their job, as you rightly point out, is to equip the believers under their care to also become comprehensively mature.

So, I wonder, can we affirm both sides of the coin? Can we affirm that the church should be connecting people and also prompting them to reach out to unbelievers? Can we affirm that the church should be setting up relationships for discipleship while simultaneously prompting members to seek to disciple others even without the church leaders direct intervention? Can we affirm the value of both the spiritual depth found in studying the Word, and also the importance of letting that affect the way we live our lives?

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CoolGirl commented…

Awesome essay! Amen!

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ATX commented…

I am not saying that serving groups are not important. But as a young adult living right now, I find my life very transient in the fact that superficiality seems to be shoved down my throat by mainstream media. It doesn't help that I have lived in three different cities in the past four years. It seems that there are a good percentage of young people that have this in common.

I have found that I can blend much better into the small group 'living room' type setting to get spiritually nurished. I feel that if I am comfortable with a pastor that I would be comfortable with a small group meeting from that church, and in a sense, relying on the church to provide meaningful relationships in my life. A well lead small group can allow someone to spend only a short time there before becoming vulnerable to the others by finding safety/trust in the hands of other Christ followers.

Lastly, with the current state of the church and economy, I think it's fitting that we as young people begin to understand the small group setting as a means for reaching our world. I'm 29, and I feel the separation of Church and State is eminent and close, at least within my lifetime. If that happens, and certain religious tax provisions cease, some churches will not be able to afford to keep a building and must adapt. Probably, to small groups who meet in living rooms. I am not afraid of that time but excited to see the Holy Spirit lead us in creative ways to gather as the Body.

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Alicia commented…

When I was in high school and not a Christian, I started going to youth group because a friend invited me. I kept going because the relationships I made there were more fulfilling than those I made in other ways. You are idealistic in thinking that friendships outside of church don't pull people into negative things. Particularly in my college years when there was a lot of negativity involved, friendship was the thing that made me keep coming. Community is important. Maybe you are good enough not to need help, but not everyone shares your view of self-sufficiency. Small groups have made huge impact in my life - some I've loved and some are tedious, but all have changed me for the better. Maybe you are trying to find ways to be around people you enjoy who will build your ego instead of going through the sharpening experience of being in community wand loving those who are hard to love and might see things differently?

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