Spent Sunday at the church pastored by my good friend, Terry. It’s a “mature” congregation–one that’s been around awhile, and many who attend there have been too. I’ve been to several such churches and I know there are thousands more out there. Now don’t get me wrong, every head wasn’t gray. There were a dozen or so teenagers, many riding high after a camp experience the week before. There were families and little children, and…well, it felt like a church.
But there was something about this group that stood out from my normal experience in such places. When the service ended, nobody left. No, the service didn’t end early. I was the preacher on this day and I made sure of that 🙂 In fact, the final amen didn’t sound until five minutes past noon, but still they didn’t leave.
Instead, the people collected together in conversations throughout the sanctuary. People found other people to talk to. I stood back and watched as a congregation proved that they like being together. In fact, by 12:45 a few had moved their conversations outside, but nearly everyone was STILL THERE!
Okay, it’s not NFL season yet and maybe the prospect of an afternoon in the 100 degree heat made the air conditioning preferable. But there was more to it than that. These friends were…friends!
That’s a good sign. If people rapidly flee your property each week, you may have a relationship problem in your church. In strong churches, people find friends that they want to spend time with. They hang around after services, meet up at local ice cream places, and just enjoy growing in Christ together.
Of course, we don’t just want to see our people gather in cliques. We want their friendship circles to be open and available to the “walk-ins” we meet, but we want our people to build deep friendships in the body of Christ. Those relationships become like glue, keeping people together and a part of the church as we help them grow. No friends means no reason to be there.
If you don’t see this kind of relational strength in your church, here’s a few ideas. First, model it. If you rush home after service or hide out in the church office, don’t expect your congregation to prioritize relationships. Modeling means engaging people in conversation, spending time with them, and making your building a friendship place–not just a worship place.
Second, make room for it. Some churches have very little conversation space. They have virtually no vestibule (that’s King James for lobby). And in many places the sanctuary pews run all the way to the back wall, leaving no space back there. If the fellowship hall is downstairs, where will people gather to talk. Sacrificing a couple of back pews or removing some of the table displays in the entrance area may create some conversation space. Wherever you want them to gather, put the coffeepot nearby and watch the relationships evolve.
Third, okay this one may be hard for some. If you insist on people not bring coffee or other liquids in the sanctuary, make sure there is somewhere that’s coffee-friendly. No, not just classrooms, but conversation space for those people who don’t come to your Sunday school classes is important. Remember, people want to be where their friends are so anything you can do to encourage relationships will also encourage attendance.
Finally, make relationships a priority at your church. Fellowship isn’t just something we occasionally do over a pot luck dinner. It’s not an afterthought, after we’ve done all the important stuff. Fellowship is a critical function of the church. Yes, we must plan ways to reach out to those beyond our walls–that’s critical if you’re going to have a healthy church. But we must also provide opportunities for the people already inside the walls to know each other too. Plan a few events for that purpose alone–canoe trips, shopping outings, golf, museums, concerts–there’s probably a lot of stuff you could do together as friends.
Raise the relational meter and keep widening the open door of friendship in your church. Your church will be more healthy–and it’ll be more fun too!