Developing close friendships and meaningful relationships with other believers isn’t easy and can be quite intimidating to talk about. If it was easy, it would be happening, but unfortunately it isn’t.
You’ve all heard, and maybe even shared, the criticism that “big churches” are impersonal. You can walk in and walk out, and though you are surrounded by hundreds of people, no one knows you. So what’s the solution? To find a small church where people will see you, are more friendly, where you will be noticed, missed, and meet people. We smaller churches are always bragging about how much better it is to be part of a small church for those reasons.
Well, that hasn’t been my experience, nor is it the experience of many others. I know lots of people who attend smaller churches and feel just as alone in them as they would in a mega-church.
There are many men who feel distant from their church, who will serve if they are asked to, and have breakfast when invited, but who don’t feel close to anyone they see each week. If they were stuck on the side of the road, in the middle of the night, and needed a pickup, they might call someone from the church – but probably not. And certainly if they were falling into temptation — stumbling out of a bar, addicted to pornography, their marriage falling apart, being abused by their boss – and they needed rescue, help, prayer, and accountability, most men in the church wouldn’t even consider talking to the other men in their church.
There are many women who come week-to-week, put on their face, act friendly, wave their hands in service, make the coffee and snacks, serve in the nursery, teach Sunday school… but they don’t feel a close affinity to the women of the church. Not really. When they share, they share superficial prayer request, usually involving the health of someone else, their kids, their grand-kids – anyone other than themselves, but certainly not the true and deep struggles of their heart. They feel compelled to serve, but they feel more like a name on a list than a member of a team, let alone a valued member of the body of Christ. When they are tempted, afraid, overwhelmed, anxious, confused… they would never think to call someone from their own church! No way! What if it got around? The trust simply isn’t there.
So these men and women come to church, their small church, week after week – unless they can find an excuse not to – and they sit, and smile, and sing, and serve, and drink the coffee, eat the cookies, talk about the latest movie, or the weather, or work, or whatever, but they go home every single week feeling no closer to their fellow believers than they did the day before, the week before, the year before.
It is a deeply, tragically ironic thing to a place built on the sacrificial love of Jesus, the overwhelming grace and forgiveness of God, empowered and protected by the Holy Spirit, where each person desires to be closer to God and has a deep longing to know and be known – and it doesn’t happen. There is a serious disconnect there. Something is deeply wrong.
Close Christian Relationships Are Biblical
What’s going wrong? We are meant to. The Holy Spirit prompts us to. Jesus invites us to. God commands us to. So, why aren’t the people of God connecting to one another as they should be?
At the very birth of the church, in Acts 2, we read this:
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47 ESV)
That’s what is supposed to happen among believers. What’s going on?
In Hebrews, when the church was under attack and people were leaving because of how hard it was to be identified with Jesus, Christians are told to,
“…consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV)
We are told in Galatians 6 to
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”(Galatians 6:2 ESV)
That law is found in John 13:34-35,
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
This should be normal among Christians, so why isn’t it?
Barna: Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church
The Barna Group, probably the most famous Christian market research groups out there, completed a study a short while ago which turned into a book called “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith”. It gives six reasons, and though some of them are certainly geared to people aged 18-29, I believe many of the roots of the issues are universal and apply to anyone of any age.
I’m going to share with you the six reasons from a summary article on the Barna website, and at first, they are going to seem disconnected from what we are talking about – Developing Christian Relationships – but I believe they all point directly at it when we look deeper:
Reason 1: Churches seem overprotective.
“… much of their experience of Christianity feels stifling, fear-based and risk-averse. One-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said ‘Christians demonize everything outside of the church’…. Other perceptions in this category include ‘church ignoring the problems of the real world’ (22%) and ‘my church is too concerned that movies, music, and video games are harmful’. (18%).”
When I look at that reason what I see is simply that the church spends a lot of time talking about rules, do’s and don’ts, and not nearly enough time interacting with these people on an individual level. Instead of walking along-side these folks, building relationships with them, pointing them at Jesus, and intentionally mentoring them along a transformative, discipleship path, we set up a list of rules, some easy answers, and let them figure it out on their own. Instead of having small groups that listen to people’s hearts and meet their most basic spiritual needs, we have bible studies where people argue about semantics to avoid going deep with one another. And so the people leave because we care more for our rules and reputations than we do for them.
Reason 2: [Their] experience of Christianity is shallow.
“A second reason that young people depart church as young adults is that something is lacking in their experience of church. One-third said ‘church is boring’ (31%). One-quarter of these young adults said that ‘faith is not relevant to my career or interests’ (24%) or that ‘the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough’ (23%). Sadly, one-fifth of these young adults who attended a church as a teenager said that ‘God seems missing from my experience of church’ (20%).”
Now someone might argue that this means we need to jazz up our churches, get better music, blame the preachers for not being interesting enough. I don’t believe that’s what this is saying. People will see something as boring when they don’t understand what’s going on, when it has no meaning to them, and there is no connection to their lives.
I can sit and enjoy watching curling because I used to curl and I know the game. I can enjoy watching hockey because I understand the rules. But if I don’t know a broom from a button, or why the referee keeps blowing his whistle every time the puck crosses the little red line, I’m going to lose interest quickly.
I believe it’s the same in church – it has far more to do with understanding what’s going on and seeing the meaning and value behind it than how fancy and modern the production is. And how do people learn what’s going on? How do they learn the meaning of what they are experiencing? How do they find value in the experience of church? It’s not just what happens on Sunday morning, but throughout the week.
I will worship God better on Sunday when I am comfortable and feel close to the people I’m worshiping with – even if I don’t like the style, I can love the musician, the singer, and the people in the pew, which makes it meaningful. I will listen to the sermon better, and get more out of God’s word if I know that I will have a chance to ask questions of a trusted mentor later, will be held accountable to it, and be able to practice the application with the support of my friends and fellow believers. I will volunteer to serve more, and get more out of serving others, and meet God in my serving, when I know the needs of the people around me, how I can help them, know I am valuable to them, and that they will serve me and love me back – not that they are using me because I’m willing.
Reason #3: Churches come across antagonistic to science.
“One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is ‘Christians are too confident they know all the answers’ (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that ‘churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in’ (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that ‘Christianity is anti-science’ (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have ‘been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.’”
You may think that this isn’t relationship based, but listen to what they said. These people look around at the smug Christians who think they have all the answers and don’t want to be a part of that group. This is a group that hasn’t shared their doubts. The relationships among that group are not free enough, and there is no permission, for people to share their fears, their doubts, their faith struggles, their unanswered prayers… they feel they must put up the show, have the pat-answer, and project confidence. What they are not seeing are authentic Christians who struggle with the same problems they do.
They’ve been “turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate” not because they don’t value debate… but because of the unkindness, arrogance, militant nature of how Christians are doing it! They do not see loving people who are pursuing the truth and graciously defending the scriptures, they see angry fundamentalists who are more interested in talking than listening.
This is a relational issue. We all need to have a place where we can come and feel safe enough to share our struggles, our fears, our hurts, our doubts, and know we are not going to get pat-answers, but be surrounded by people who will say “I’ve struggled with that too… here’s my story.” Or “I am struggling with that… can we work together to figure it out?”
Reason #4: Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
“With unfettered access to digital pornography and immersed in a culture that values hyper-sexuality over wholeness, teen and twentysometing Christians are struggling with how to live meaningful lives in terms of sex and sexuality [and so are many men and women who are much older than twentysomething]. One of the significant tensions for many young believers is how to live up to the church’s expectations of chastity and sexual purity in this culture…. Research indicates that most young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian peers, even though they are more conservative in their attitudes about sexuality. One-sixth of young Christians (17%) said they ‘have made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.’”
What you are reading here is not as much about the changes in societal mores (which is certainly true and a cause of some of this tension) as it us the shame people feel when they are around other Christians. When they come to church and “have made mistakes” who do you think makes them “feel judged in church”? Certainly some of it is the Spirit of God working in their heart to move them towards repentance, but it’s also the eyes of everyone around them.
Why? Because they have no idea that anyone else is struggling with sexual sin too. They’ve never talked to another man about sexual temptation. They’ve never talked to another woman about their sexuality. They feel alone, and the only people talking about it, the only ones who make them feel normal are outside the church telling them that everything they do is okay as long as it is between two consensual adults. They feel in their heart that something is wrong with that, but when they look around at church, who are they going to talk to about it?
Who won’t judge them? Who won’t tell them to pray about it and then walk away? Who can they trust won’t gossip about it? Who will meet with them over and over and over as they fumble and fall, never letting them go, being patient with them, helping them?
They look around, in pain, in confusion, feeling dirty – knowing God will forgive, but also knowing they will do the same thing again – and feeling defeated, and they can’t see any Christian they are close enough to tell. So they go to the world.
Reason #5: They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
“Younger Americans have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance. Today’s youth and young adults also are the most eclectic generation in American history in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, technological tools and sources of authority. Most young adults want to find areas of common ground with each other, sometimes even if that means glossing over real differences. Three out of ten young Christians (29%) said ‘churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths’ and an identical proportion felt they are ‘forced to choose between my faith and my friends.’ One-fifth of young adults with a Christian background said ‘church is like a country club, only for insiders’ (22%).”
Again, this is all relational language. They are willing to look over huge diversity in order to have relationships with each other – and they come to church and find clique after clique. They gloss over differences so they can be together – and yet they have a hard time finding a mature Christian who will accept them for who they are. They see how we treat one another, how we talk about other belief systems, and they don’t hear kindness, gentleness, self-control, and love, they hear fear – and fear is not attractive to anyone.
Christians, who have been in church, raised in church, say that it’s “like a country club, only for insiders.” Do you know what I hear there? That they never felt like an insider while they were at church. They never got inside. They always felt outside. Or, they were on the inside, but when they brought someone they cared about to church, they were never really allowed in. They looked at their peer group and said “I like you guys, but you’d never fit in with the group of Christians I hang out with on Sunday.” So for a while they kept their Christian group separate from their other group, until the day they realized they felt closer and more loved by the non-Christians than the Christians. At that moment they thought, “I’m not an insider anymore… maybe I never was…” and they turned their backs and walked towards the people who really cared about them.
Reason #6: The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
“Young adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense. In addition, many feel that the church’s response to doubt is trivial. Some of the perceptions in this regard include not being able ‘to ask my most pressing life questions in church” (36%) and having ‘significant intellectual doubts about my faith’ (23%). In a related theme of how churches struggle to help young adults who feel marginalized, about one out of every six young adults with a Christian background said their faith ‘does not help with depression or other emotional problems’ they experience (18%).”
Could this be any more clear? This is all about relationships within the church! These people don’t feel safe. They feel as though they are being trivialized. They feel shut out from asking hard questions. They have no connection between their knowledge of the gospel, and how that translates into being something that transforms their lives – and the reason is because they are not in close relationships to people who are modeling that for them, and there is no one around who is admitting they have the same problems. The stigma of depression and emotional pain should not be present in the body of Christ. Every one of us has a story to tell about this. Every one of us has the ability to help others bear their burdens.
We cannot be like this! This must not be true here. Yes, I know we are busy people, we are being entertained into oblivion, we don’t know where to start, we have no practice, our house is dirty, our schedule is full, we’ve been let down before, we are afraid of any kind of intimacy or sharing on deep levels because of scars in our past.
I know, and it takes great courage, tenacity, and a miracle of God to change that – but we serve a God who works miracles. We serve a living saviour who gives us what we need to do what we must, and that includes deepen ourselves through relationships to one another.
We cannot be the superficial group where no one grows. We cannot be the church where people are afraid to speak. Women and men of the church are encouraged and commanded to get into one another lives. Throughout scripture we are taught to pass along our faith and practice to the next generation of believers. This isn’t meant to be something that is arduous and life-sucking, but something that builds you up, opens your heart, helps you grow in faith, and know you are useful to the kingdom and the Father.
Titus 2 commands older women to mentor the younger women. 2 Timothy 2 commands men to mentor young men. We are reminded throughout scripture to be intentional about passing along our faith and life, and so just as I encouraged you last week to pursue your Christian leaders, this week I encourage you to pour your faith and life into someone else.
The main point of last week’s message was to give you a little push towards being intentional about your spiritual life and getting out of your comfort zone to ask someone to speak into your life. This week I encourage you to do something that might be much harder – to get out of your comfort zone and have the courage to speak into someone else’s life. Be a mentor, be a good Christian friend. Be the one who builds that relationship that you wish you had when you were young in the faith. Take the risk to open up your life and go deep with the younger believers around you.
And if you are a younger believer – or feel like one – God still wants you to be an encouragement and a help to others along their faith journey. Listen to the Spirit of God and speak the messages He gives you.