A young pastor tossed a question my way.
“My small church is growing, and our people do not want to lose the family spirit of a small church. But how do we maintain that without becoming a clique?”
By clique he means a closed group of friends, accepting no new members.
We’ve all seen Sunday School classes where the members have been together for years and know everything there is to know about the others, and where the intimacy is deep and lasting. They know birthdays, the names of each one’s grandchildren, and they relate to one another like sisters.
Yes, sisters. It’s almost always a women’s class that does this.
But, women or men, we’re all guilty to some degree.
Let a newcomer show up in our little group of select friends one Sunday, and everything changes: the balance is threatened, conversation lessens, and the fellowship becomes more restrained.
Churches are susceptible to this affliction, too.
So, what do we tell the young pastor of the small-but-growing church? How can he help his people retain that new car smell even after putting a few thousand miles on the vehicle? (Oops. Sorry. The metaphor inserted itself.)
1. People are always going to have their best friends. It’s life.
You do that, too, pastor. When planning a cookout in your backyard, there are church members you would love to have present and others you would prefer not come. This is human nature.
In any mixture of people, there will be some you have more in common with and want to know better. Others will just not appeal to you as much.
So, don’t try to change the order of nature here, pastor. Accept this as a given.
2. Friendships tend to become ingrown in time.
Unless new people are regularly joining one’s inner circle, the relationship with the same few friends will set, will harden, will become rigid. From that time on, something in the spirits and attitudes of each member will resist change, the kind brought about with new people intruding into the relationship.
You’ve seen this happen. You befriended the new family down the block, you have them into your home or go out for activities, and some older friend of yours felt threatened.
Teenagers see it all the time. A new kid enrolls in school, a class member befriends him/her and someone else feels threatened by their inclusion and begins to withdraw.
The only way to prevent such reaction against new people is to head it off before it begins to occur within your congregation.
How to head it off, how to keep the fellowship alive and healthy and growing within the family of the Lord, that’s the issue before us. It’s one that will not be resolved in one simple step or a single activity.
3. Pastors always need to keep this before their people.
Fellowship within the congregation is a never-ending concern, something the pastor will return to again and again.
He will bring the subject up to the church leadership in one of their regular sessions. Ideally, he’ll not wait until a new family has departed for another congregation, complaining that they were never able to penetrate the walls in your church. A faithful pastor will anticipate this and be proactive.
The pastor will preach on the subject again and again, or at least refer to it in sermons. Considering all the “one another” references throughout the New Testament, he will have plenty of material from which to draw.
By the way, I suggest if your church advertises itself as “the friendliest church in town,” you stop it immediately. I can almost guarantee someone out there tried your church once and went away without being suitably welcomed, and are now scoffing at such friendliness claims by your church. Better to keep the goal before your people but let visitors decide for themselves whether your congregation lives up to that standard.
4. Church leaders will work on several fronts and continually try various tactics to change this dynamic.
Youth leaders work on this with the teens, educational leaders address it regarding Sunday School classes, women’s ministry leaders take it up in their council.
You are working against the fossilization of the fellowship within the congregation. You are resisting the hardening of the categories.
Fellowship meals, home cell groups, work teams, prayer fellowships, pictorial church directories, and ministry teams are all ways to break down the barriers to cliquishness. Oh, and let us not neglect the after-church ice cream fellowship, my favorite.
No one method, no single emphasis, no one spokesperson will end this creeping callousness. Like temptations of all kinds, kill it here and it bobs up over there.
5. Discard your perfectionism, pastor. You’ll never get this down perfectly.
Once in a while, your people will miss some newcomer or someone will accuse your congregation of being unfriendly. When it happens, don’t beat yourself up, but determine to keep the matter before your people.
I once stood before our congregation on a Sunday morning holding up two letters that had arrived that week.
The first was from a member who had moved off to another state. She said, “Oh, how I miss our wonderful church and all the friendly people. I’ve not found such friendliness out here. No one speaks to me in church.”
I said to our people, “Do we have a friendly church?” Oh yes, they assured me with bobbing heads. We certainly do.
I said, “The second letter: Dear Pastor. I was in your services last Sunday. Not a single person spoke to me. You have a most unfriendly congregation. I will not be back.”
The people were stunned. I assured them that both letters had arrived unsolicited in the mail that week.
I told them, “For my money, the authority on the fellowship within our church is the newcomer, the first-time visitor.”
And then, added, “Yes, we are friendly. Friendly to one another.”
It’s a danger ever present, one which we must always be watching for.
In the days before they entered the Promised Land, God told Israel what He was expecting from them:
If a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34). The Lord Jesus went so far as to elevate this to the Second Greatest Commandment (Matthew 22:39).
Anyone who has ever been a first-timer in a congregation knows how it feels to walk into a strange place knowing no one, feeling vulnerable, needing directions, hoping for acceptance and a warm welcome.
Therefore, pastor, take the newest members of your church and put them on the greeting committee. It’s biblical.