Even by putting the word “success” in the title of this blog can create certain connotations for some pastors of numerical and financial growth. I am thinking this week on the topic of what makes a strong and vibrant church. The size, building, meeting place, budget, or staff do not matter in my understanding of success. I want to find my definition of success in what the Holy Spirit does to and through those who have totally submitted to the Lordship of Christ. We can look at the early church for many examples of churches that found success in God’s mission of reaching the world for him. In particular, we can look at the key passage of Acts 2:42 that states that the early believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” A key ingredient in this mix is fellowship.
In a 2013 survey by Lifeway Research, “Almost three out of every four churchgoers say they have significant relationships with people at church, but less than half are intentionally helping other believers grow in their faith.” Relationship building is crucial for effective discipleship. Do our church members have strong relationships with one another? Can we truly say our church is a loving community? Is there bitterness or unforgiveness that shows up in subtle ways in relationships and interactions? Would a new person feel loved and accepted, or do the old “groups” remind you of high school cliques? Here are some other ways that hinder deep and loving relationships in our churches:
- A failure to invest in newcomers: I have been part of churches where people got so excited about a visitor. We were about ready to sign them up to be Sunday School teachers! We did not have a strong and well-thought-out approach to welcoming visitors. Most churches claim they are friendly, but they are not visitor focused. Visitors are expected to fit in and do their part–even though they are visitors. There are many ways to invest in visitors. It begins in the parking lot. Are there parking spots for them? Do they know which entrance to use? Are there greeters? Does someone connect with them and make them feel welcome and not the center of attention? Being friendly is more than shaking their hands during “passing the peace” time. Setting up a smooth system that is genuine and not fake is needed. I have visited many churches as a missionary speaker. Even though I was the speaker, I felt very odd walking into the building. It can be intimidating. Building relationships begins with those who visit our church.
- Being unapproachable: Some people build walls around themselves. It may be for protection because they have been hurt in the past. Some pastors also build walls so that it is difficult for people to talk with them. A wall of superiority can be a real problem. Dangerous attitudes to have is that I am too busy, I am the preacher, I need to make sure the service is all ready, the celebrity mentality, and so on. Sadly, I have seen this in some large churches but it can happen even in small churches. Make it your goal that anyone and everyone can come to you with concerns, questions, and greetings. The pastor should model to the rest of the church openness, friendliness, approachability, and hospitality.
- Worship services that become performances and not engagement: We set up a difficult situation if our worship services become like a concert hall. If people just come and listen to good music that they cannot sing or don’t know or if they become spectators of those on the stage, it will be easy for them to slip in and out of the service and no one really gets to know them. I remember growing up one of our pastors encouraged everyone to hang around the sanctuary and visit. Many people hung around after the close and visited. My family would sometimes leave 45 minutes after the service. This was enough time for my friends and I to have a good basketball game in the back. Worship does not need to be a 60 minute concert but a time of fellowship and engagement with one another. Program in time for this fellowship.
- Not developing small groups or Sunday School classes: People need time when they can relax and share with one another. If the “church” only exists of the 60-90 minute “concert” and “pep talk” time, this intimate fellowship cannot take place. Even Sunday School classes can become lecture times. Teachers need to be taught how to lead engaging classes and small groups where there is opportunity to share and study the Bible. Sunday School seems to be a dying thing in some churches. Small home groups can be a helpful replacement. Some way and some how, each church, no matter the size, must develop ways where people can fellowship with one another and share their lives.
- Not promoting informal gathering after worship services: When I was young, it seemed like most Sundays, my parents either had someone over for lunch, we went out to dinner with someone, there was an “afterglow” Sunday evening, we visited someone Sunday afternoon, or something where we gathered with other people. One thing I remember about this is that our pastor encouraged this. It was part of the program of the church. This form of hospitality helped bring people together for informal times of just fellowship and sharing. A church can teach its people about this. In the modern world, we will have to work hard at informal gatherings outside of a corporate worship time. Most of us are so busy. But, we must eat, so why not share a meal together, even if it is simple?
- Not intentionally investing in the spiritual growth of other believers: Our faith has become too private. We do not show much concern about genuinely spurring one another on to love, good works, and spiritual growth (Hebrews 10:24). Few Christians intentionally disciple others. We may feel that it is their own choice. We might be afraid or shamed to ask people about their lives, how they are doing. Even more difficult is to speak into someone’s life about something the other people can do to grow and change, especially if it relates to sin. One of the clear reasons we do not do this is because we have not developed deep relationships of trust. Trust requires being vulnerable. We are not vulnerable because we are protective. Being protective can be a form of selfishness or fear. Basically, we are not loving one another unconditionally, and this keeps us from developing deep relationships with each other. These types of relationships do not hold grudges and are willing to put up with people’s “uniqueness” (quirks).
- Being cliquish with only those we know well: We may develop close friends in the church and want to catch up with them about their week’s activities. Men talk about the latest sports or cars (I am not sure what women talk about). That is all fine, but we tend to do this with the same people each week. Before you know it, we have formed a mini group that has walls that outsiders cannot breech. Others in the church, and surely visitors, cannot join in this fellowship. These relationships are good and needed but they should not be barriers to deep fellowship in the church. How can we create open bridges of friendship and fellowship to everyone, especially if we are pastors? It comes with intentionality, being aware of others, and putting ourselves in their position. We do what we need to do to be welcoming of all people.
- Relying on social media to replace face-to-face fellowship: Facebook and other social media are great ways to stay connected with people throughout the week but these cannot replace spending time with people. A “pastoral call” cannot simply be a Thumbs Up in Facebook Messenger or a quick text message. There is value in staying connected this way, but hearing the stories behind the posts and feeling the joy or pain of these stories is more important.
What would the church look like if the opposite of these were done? Can you find a church anywhere that has such deep fellowship that you just want to come back? Does the world around us see the deep love and relationships that we have with one another? Are we intentionally investing in one another in spiritual ways? Are we discipling one another in our churches? There is so much potential in what Jesus taught about being church that we are not too good at. We have lost the essence of the type of fellowship envisioned and illustrated in Acts 2:42. It is our responsibility as pastors and leaders to develop this fellowship by helping people mature in their faith and be filled and directed by the Holy Spirit.
For more pastoral reflections, click here.