How many people do you know in your church? Of them, how many do you know well?
Even in small churches, the tendency often is to "count" the number of relationships one has by the number of people we "know," that is, whose names we know or whose faces we recognize. We "know" them because we see them occasionally or we speak with them from time to time... polite but disinterested "how ya doing?" chit-chat after the service.
We couldn’t tell you much about who their close friends are or who they spend time with in church. We couldn’t tell you important spiritual information about them… how they came to faith in Christ, what their home life was like growing up, or what their current spiritual victories or struggles are. If they serve in an obvious public way we could point that out, but we couldn’t talk intelligently about the ways that person needs to be served.
Okay... if you're in this category of folks, if there are others like this in your church, it's time for you to start praying against a church split. A split may not imminent but some of the conditions for one are present.
Every church split, by definition, involves people who are alienated in their affections toward one another. The splits occur when this alienation is hardened and seemingly intractable. But the roots of the split extend back to that time when everyone seemed to be getting along (meaning there were no obvious conflicts) but really didn’t know one another. That period is the calm before the storm. Introduce an offense, teach something that crosses someone’s pet sin or tender spot, and what appeared to be placid water begins to foam and roil until a major storm approaches the shores of the church.
As pastors I think it’s our duty to act while things are calm, to take a preventative step before these conditions for a split are aggravated. And, so far, I think one of the best antidotes to a split are wide, healthy, and spiritually encouraging relationships in the body.
We must relinquish our passive approach to friendships. That’s the bottom line. We’re too passive in cultivating meaningful affection for one another. We wait for the relationship to come to us. We want it to be “natural” and to “just flow” or “click.” I suppose there is a thing as trying too hard, but I think most of us a far from that. We try too little. We’d rather the coziness of being alone with our own thoughts, interests, and “friends” from some yesteryear like high school or college. We don’t like the toil of getting to know others and opening ourselves up (much less prying into their lives) in a substantive, transparent way.
One correction to this is an active hospitality ministry. By hospitality, I mean the cultivation of a wide network of relationships in the church through any number of invitations, engagements, and entertainments. The emphasis here is on the wideness of the relationships, not the particular activity over which you build them. Some part of our people’s time must be given over to meeting as many fellow members as possible, especially members not like them (i.e., different age, social/economic class, family backgrounds, ethnicity).
We must teach our people to open up their lives by opening up their calendars and their homes. If our churches are going to be healthy enough to survive difficulties, then our people must have enough credit with one another—drawn from the tenderness of sharing meals and meaningful conversation—to trust and assume the best. We must know one another broadly enough and deeply enough to know when someone else’s apparent anger is really deep hurt, or when someone’s resistance is masking pride, or when a brother’s disappearance from the fellowship is likely a sign of trouble with sin. And we can’t see beneath the apparent in one another’s lives if we don’t actually cultivate friendships with others. And an active hospitality ministry in the body is one way of doing that. Of course, church-wide fellowships are another. But the point is that we don’t want to “professionalize” fellowship and hospitality by reducing it to only those church-sanctioned events and failing to discourage active hospitality by/from members.
Most churches I’ve belonged to have not had active discipleship efforts in place. Some people in “natural friendships” find time to encourage one another, pray together, or have regular accountability meetings. These tend to be some of the more mature members who find their way to each other. But the majority of people are not in that kind of relationship, at least not with members of their church. They find a lot of encouragement and love from Christian friends at work or at other churches. But they find little stimulus and nurture from the people with whom they covenant together in the local church. In other words, when our main source of spiritual care (apart from sermons and public gatherings) comes from those outside our church, our affections are likely to be stronger for those outside the body than for those inside. This makes it easy for us to “quit” on others because they’re not the source of nurture and love anyway. This is why some people can easily leave the church at the first sign of trouble and find a home in a church across town. Their hearts were already there with people that they loved more than their church family.
If hospitality builds wide relationships, then discipleship builds deeper ones. Is it too much to expect that every member of the church has at least two intentional, spiritually-focused relationships in the church… a relationship with someone more mature that is building into their lives and a relationship with someone as or less mature into whom they are building? And this, I would suggest, should be in addition to those relationships formed in small groups. So add two to the number of folks in your small group.
We will be healthier if we take some responsibility for one another’s spiritual lives. The membership is to be the frontline of spiritual care. If our affections lie with another country or just with our unit (i.e., small group) then our first line of defense against splits will be easily divided and run over. The enemy will establish key beach heads, take over key forts and bridges, and lay siege to the city.
As pastors, we are called to be examples in everything. That includes hospitality and discipleship. So, we must be chief among those who serve in this way. I realize that many pastors barely have a place to call a retreat, a place to escape the pressures of the ministry. But they will never have a place of retreat among their own people if they don’t begin to push the enemy out of the camp by carrying on an active hospitality and discipleship ministries among the people.
It’s no accident that the Lord of the church includes “hospitable” among the qualifications for church leadership. Why? Well, not simply because “hospitable” is another way of saying “he’s a nice guy” or “he’s friendly.” Hospitable includes an active disposition to serve others by engaging and entertaining them. It is being generous with your self, giving yourself away to others. That tends to directly oppose the slow decay and passive approach to relationships in the church. It’s vital that we leaders model healthy relationships in the body. We must do that with fellow leaders, and we must do that with members in the body.
Sentinels and Watchmen
One concluding thought. It seems to me that some churches split because someone ignored the warning signs for far too long. They heard the fearful cries of the villagers on the outskirts of the city when the enemy first struck, but they did not sound the alarm. They could see from afar off the smoke rising from the battle, but they did not blow the horn. There are those of us who have been called to be watchmen upon the wall, and there are those among us who like sentinels are scouting the area for trouble and opportunity. We must be faithful in reporting and responding to what we see and what we find.
What do I mean? Take elders and deacons, for example. As leaders in the body, serving as “shock absorbers” is one part of our responsibility. This is a perspective I picked up from the brothers at CHBC. When a disgruntled parent in the nursery, or a member offended at a sermon, or disaffection in the ranks is first observed, do we as elders and leaders absorb that shock or do we multiply it? Do we understand that we have an opportunity to diffuse a situation before it multiplies? Do we recognize that very often a certain nod of the head, knowing sly smile, shrug of the shoulders, or raising of the brow signals to our people that we agree or approve of their actions, which tear away at the relational foundation of the church?
More damage is done with a facial expression or body language from a leader who fails to be a shock absorber than by any number of petty pains or hurts that weak or wounded sheep may express. Our job is to absorb these minor shocks to the body like a black hole, to submerge them into the deep void of forgiveness, and to work to make sure the complaint is heard, addressed appropriately (which could range from resolving a real problem to rebuking a sinning sibling), and stopped with us.
If we’re going to prevent church splits, we must be the kind of leaders who can take a hit without escalating the battle, who can diffuse issues in a godly way that actually strengthens relationships in the church. And we must be models of what it means to actively, tenaciously, intentionally, and loving pursue deep and wide relationships in the body of Christ. At her core, the church is a mass of spiritual relationships—individuals to the Lord and to one another, forming something more than the sum of her parts, forming a body. Lose these relationships and we unravel the church.
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