26 May 2023

Do you have friends in your church?

Christians tend to go to church for five reasons.

  • MUSIC. We love music, and the church has good music. It’s like going to a weekly rock concert! And if we never help fund the church, it’s free!
  • TEACHING. We wanna learn about God, Christianity, and the bible. We want a good informative sermon. We want good informative bible studies. We wanna know more.
  • SERVICE. We feel a great personal reward in ministering to the needy, and the church has some ways to do that, and encourages us in it.
  • SACRAMENT. We gotta stay connected with God, and what helps are the rituals we can only do as a group. Like praising together, praying together, holy communion, and so forth.
  • FELLOWSHIP. We wanna see our friends.

Churches tend to focus primarily on sacrament, sermon, or music. Today I’m gonna bring up the fellowship thing. It’s a way bigger deal than a lot of Christians realize.

Well, some of us already realize it’s a big deal. It’s why certain churches structure things so people can interact a lot. They have a lot of small groups, and promote ’em constantly. They have a “meet ’n greet time” in the middle of the service, which can go on for as many as ten minutes. (I used to take advantage of my church’s meet ’n greet time to go get another cup of coffee.) They have potlucks and pizza parties and movie nights and other social functions—sometimes monthly, sometimes weekly. And they refuse to create a church café, ’cause they know the way people tend to run ’em, it’ll ultimately discourage fellowship.

This fellowship activity isn’t for any ulterior motive. That’s the motive. They want the people of their church to make friends with one another. Jesus ordered us to love one another; Jn 15.12 they’re trying to make it happen. You’re not gonna love one another when you don’t know one another. You’re not gonna make friends with your fellow Christians when they’re nothing more than the other people who go to your church.

Yeah, there are fringe benefits to the people in your church making friends with one another: They’re gonna come to church to see their friends. Or, to put it shorter, they’re gonna come to church.

That’s what got me coming to church, back in my young-hypocrite years: My friends were there. I could do without the church services themselves: The music sucked. The sermons were shallow. (Coincidentally, I and my faith were also sucky and shallow, so more likely this was just me.) I would’ve had no problem with sleeping in Sunday mornings, like every other pagan. But I looked forward to sitting in the back of the church auditorium, quietly goofing off with my buds, whether it was Sunday morning or Thursday night youth group.

I grew out of the hypocrisy, but it’s still true: Lotta times I don’t feel like going to church. But if I have friends there, and I wanna see them, I go. If I find out my friends are gonna be absent—they gotta work, they’re on vacation, they’re out sick, and so forth—there goes my motivation to attend.

or they’re on vacation, or otherwise won’t attend—sometimes I’ll attend anyway, and sometimes I won’t. And I’m far from the only one.

In fact one church I went to, I had really spotty attendance because all my friends left. I used to have lots of friends at that church, including some of the pastors. Some left for work-related reasons, some for ministry-related reasons. Lots because they were college students and graduated. Some because they just decided they were done with that church. My final year there, before I moved away, I had no friends there. Just acquaintances. Nice people, but not friends. So some weeks, when I felt like going to Noah’s Bagels instead of church, that’s precisely what I did.

Later I moved, it was time to go church-shopping, so I visited one church—we’ll call it “Mars Hill.” Went to the morning services; went to the evening services; said hi to loads of people. One evening, about a month in, the head pastor finally said hi, and we chatted a bit. He was the only one who bothered to chat a bit. He was also, sad to say, going through a severe health crisis at the time, so he couldn’t make any other time for me. But none of Mars Hill’s other leaders bothered to fill in for him, and none of Mars Hill’s other people cared to venture outside their cliques. I really patiently hung around three months, but just didn’t make connections. So I didn’t stay.

The next church: Made friends immediately. Guess where I did stay.

Are you feeling the love?

Churches are meant to be the Christian’s support system. ’Cause a lot of times it’s not easy to be a Christian. It’s good to know we can turn to the people of our churches for moral support, emotional support, and even physical and financial support: They can help us find resources, find work, or even pitch in themselves. I’ve lost count of how many Christians I’ve helped move from one place to another. (But I’ll never forget how many bodies I’ve buried… KIDDING. Laugh with me!)

Problem is, a lot of churches aren’t this support system. They exist for the three other reasons I listed at the top: People go there to rock out to Jesus music. Or learn tons of stuff from someone they believe to be a brilliant bible scholar (and sometimes they really are). Or because they know we can’t worship Jesus alone, so they go to church to worship together. But do they care about any of the folks they worship with, learn with, sing with? Well… they don’t hate them. If anything they think positive thoughts about ’em. But more often they think nothing about ’em beyond Sunday morning services.

And that’s a dysfunctional church. ’Cause it’s not a support system. It may be doing just fine on the “Love God” command of Jesus’s top two, but the “love your neighbor” part is getting ignored. Mk 12.29-31 And as John pointed out, how can you legitimately claim to love God when you don’t love your Christian sisters and brothers? 1Jn 4.20

If we have no relationships with anyone at our churches, we don’t know if they’re our support. They might be. They might be longing to be. They might be loving, accepting, helpful, encouraging—everything we should find in fellow Christians. We won’t know till we get to know them, and they us.

When we have true friends, we know we have their support. When we think of them as church friends, we tend to feel we have the church’s support. ’Cause they’re part of the church, right? Plus, the human brain tends to assume what’s true of the part is true of the whole. So if we have one church friend’s support, even though they’re hardly the whole church, it feels like the church’s support. Our friends’ love is the church’s love.

Gotta point out though: It’s a false feeling.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but it is. It’s what logic calls the fallacy of composition—assuming what’s true of the part is true of the whole. If the first bite of bread tastes like mold, it doesn’t mean the whole thing’s moldy, but that’s what we think, and stop eating. Same with churches. Make one friend, and the whole church feels friendly. Make an enemy, and the whole church feels evil. Get abused by just the wrong Christian and people quit Christianity forever. No, it’s not logical thinking—but whoever said humans are logical?

Still, that’s a good strong feeling. Sometimes it’s the whole difference between whether we’ll stay in a church no matter what, and whether we’ll quit immediately. All it takes is one person in that church. One person we’ve seriously bonded with. Some people need to bond with several. Either way, when there are friends in your church, you’re gonna feel the love, and want to go to church.

And when there are none—when you have no one, and no one is making an effort—you’re more likely to leave. Like I did. Unlike me, not all of them will go check out another church. Some of ’em will assume all churches are standoffish and cold like that, and Christianity is too; and since you gotta go to church sometime, they might be back for Easter and Christmas. Other times they just won’t return. Nothing kept ’em there.

When I moved away, it was too easy to leave. No friends; no connections. No tearful good-byes. Nobody made a fuss; nobody really cared. The pastor wished me well. And that was that. And that’s not good.

Make friends!

This is why various churches encourage their members to interact. The Christianese word for interaction would be “fellowship”: Get to know your fellow Christians. Make friendly. Establish relationships. Firm ’em up. Make ’em solid and supportive. Make it crystal clear someone at this church has your back. ’Cause once people know that, they’ll stay. And if they never know it, they’ll vanish one week, and if you’re lucky you’ll find out they’re going to some other church. (But hopefully not a heretic one.)

We mustn’t just leave it to the people of our churches to make friends with us. Friendship works in two directions. Sometimes we gotta make the effort. Push.

There’s the old cliché about “the country-club church”: The Christians who turn their church into a great big clique, and don’t want any new people joining, and upsetting the status quo. (Usually they’re not following Jesus either, ’cause you know how he constantly upsets the status quo. Dude keeps insisting on spiritual growth!) I’ve visited probably one of these in my whole life: A ridiculously small congregation, where everyone turned out to be related to another. Not friendly. Bit cultish. Didn’t return.

If you grew up in a country-club church, you’d never notice. But everybody else on the planet will immediately realize something’s just not right there. So if you’re not sure whether your church fits this box, simple test: Have a Christian friend, who doesn’t go to your church, visit. They’ll be sure.

If the people of your church just aren’t outgoing, I’m not saying you have to quit that church and go find a friendlier one. You can be the friendly one. Greet the visitors. (Hopefully your church still has visitors!) Befriend the new people. They’re looking for a friendly church anyway, and you get to be their new friend. All in all, not a bad thing for both you and your church.

Or you can do as I’ve often done: Bring existing friends to church. I get hold of those friends who aren’t going to any church anyway, and talk ’em into going with me. After all, they can’t use the excuse, “I don’t know anyone there”: They know me. And through me, they can get to know, and befriend, the other folks at my church. Nothing connects a new person to a church like someone who’s already in it.

The only thing stopping us from having no friends at church, is us. That’s something we need to do something about. So get cracking.