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Are we doing church right?

We seem to be having trouble forming close relationships in the church these days. This is a problem that expresses itself in a number of different ways. For instance, I have had many people tell me that they feel lonely in their church despite having been involved for many years. Sometimes relationships in the church flounder because they are primarily social while lacking spiritual depth or, conversely, they are spiritual but lack vulnerability and authenticity. Sometimes a core of people in the church enjoy satisfying relationships while other members feel left out. In many of our churches, newcomers see no clear path toward real inclusion in the community fabric. I remember, sadly, hearing of one new convert who said he had not found in the church the same level of fellowship he used to experience in the local bar.

Have you ever encountered relationship problems like the ones described above? Have you, perhaps, even seen them in your own church? Worse yet, do you ever find yourself missing out on the relationships with other believers you wish you had?

In last month’s Christian Courier I suggested that the biggest key to solving the relationship dysfunctions we find in the church involves taking stock of our own attitudes and actions (“The Church of Me,” Oct. 12). However, I believe there is another major contributor to the problem. It regards how we “do” church today. I propose that the way we typically structure our churches now actually works against our ability to have meaningful relationships with one another.

I believe that if we rediscover Jesus’ original intention for the church, and see how the early Christians ordered their common life to give expression to this intention, we will see what is missing in many of our churches today. Then we will see the path toward more satisfying and God-honoring relationships.

The Church then and now
Jesus said that Christian relationships are to be characterized by love. He said our love for one another would be the primary evidence, to a watching world, that the Gospel is true (John 13:35). He demonstrated the depth of his own love by giving himself up for our sins on the cross and indicated that his sacrifice was to be the pattern of our love for one another.

In this, and other ways, the New Testament teaches us that the church is essentially relational in character. This truth is underscored repeatedly in the metaphors used to describe the church. It is called a “body,” a “fellowship” and a “family.” Even the word “church,” on the lips of early Christians, meant “people gathered together,” not a building at a particular street address.

As we all know, the New Testament presents the early church as an astounding example of Christian community (Acts 2:42-47). What many do not realize, however, is that the early Christians ordered their common life precisely to safeguard the priority of their relationships. In other words, their way of  “doing church” was also the most natural way for expressing love.

While most churches regard love as an important ideal, they do not typically structure themselves to guarantee its place of priority.

The early church organized themselves into small and large group gatherings (see Acts 5:42) with the home gathering being considered the church’s most basic unit. These home gatherings were not, as many assume, a stopgap measure being employed until the day the church could construct big buildings. Quite to the contrary, the New Testament writers assume that their way of doing church was well suited to the church’s essential purpose – love. Because early Christians were in close and regular contact they could give love practical expression. The “one another” commands sprinkled through the pages of the New Testament (“love one another,” “encourage one another,” “serve one another,” etc.) make the most sense for people who are in regular, close contact with one another.

In contrast to the early church, congregations today do not seem to regard love as a top priority or as being essential for the success of our mission in the world. While most churches regard love as an important ideal, they do not typically structure themselves to guarantee its place of priority. Instead, churches commonly organize themselves to maximize their ability to accomplish particular tasks. We have programs to instruct, to reach out and to address specific needs. We meet chiefly in large church services and for large group events that are limited in their ability to engender intimate relationships.

What the early church considered its basic building block – the household gathering – is typically reduced to a small groups program today. The message we convey is: “Small groups, anyone? It is a great optional extra to try out if you are not too exhausted after all your other church activities.”

Churches today can look more like “preaching points and activity centers” (to use Francis Schaeffer’s expression) – or at the other extreme, social clubs – rather than anything resembling a family. Is it any wonder that, in contrast with the experience of the early church, our society is not expressing with astonishment, “How they love one another!”

What can we do?
Let me make a few modest proposals about how we can nudge our churches closer to God’s ideal of community.

It is certainly important that pastors teach about the priority of love. However, churches that are serious about relationships will do many other things along with preaching. Leaders will model a commitment to community by their personal involvement in a small, church-like group. They will also safeguard the priority of relationships in the church by how they manage the church’s schedule. Leaders give a mixed message when they declare they are committed to community, but have such a full array of expectations for the flock that members are forced to decide between small group involvement and a host of other seemingly vital activities.

The practice of covenant-making can also help to establish the priority of relationships in a church. A small group that makes a covenant makes a relational commitment to one another and signals that they are not operating on a “come if you can make it” basis. When church leaders make a covenant, they are affirming that they are not just employees or decision makers. They are brothers and sisters in Christ, first of all. Besides being a constant reminder to themselves, their covenant will be a powerful statement to the whole church.

Finally, committees and teams can add a relational dimension to their work. This may not be necessary if all the members of a committee or team are already in a small group; but, where a church has few small groups, or a significant number of committee members are not in a group, this will be important. Adding a time of sharing during meetings, or get-togethers outside of meetings, can help members gain a greater sense that they truly belong in the church family.

Restoring the church to a relational footing is not just a good idea. It is imperative. Relationships of love make life a joy and are essential for our mission to the world. It is true, since we live in a fallen world, that we will never succeed in eliminating all relationship problems from the church. But we can make love our aim and remove the unnecessary obstacles that are preventing us from achieving it.

What step will you take to bring your church closer to what it should be and can be?

Author

  • Tom Baird is pastor of Bethel Community (Christian Reformed) Church in Edmonton, Alberta. Tom previously pastored churches in Kincardine and St. Thomas, Ontario before moving to Edmonton with his wife Janet in 2012.

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