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  • Writer's pictureMarco Inniss

7 Tips for Cultivating Deeper Relationships at Church

It’s Hard to Make Friends

Every now and then, I’ll be talking with a newer member at Trinity Church, and they’ll express disappointment that they’ve been attending for several months but have only a few friendships developing. I want to respond, “That’s a great start. It will take about a decade.”

Why? Because we have so many factors working against our ability to cultivate deep relationships at church. In brief, (1) we are isolated from the relationships we most need; (2) we are lonelier than we realize; (3) and as a result, we feel busy, overwhelmed, and disconnected; (4) and it’s harder than it should be to form meaningful friendships and non-superficial relationships.

Friends, you have a lot working against you. You’re not crazy. There’s not something wrong with you. It’s hard to make and keep friends in a society like this—even in the church. But the answer is not to lower your expectations and prepare for heartbreak. The answer is to move toward the challenge, reject the isolation and division of our times, and embrace authentic, vulnerable, face-to-face relationships together. We can do this.

Consider these seven tips for cultivating deeper relationships at church.

1. Embrace your need for others.

All human beings are creatures of need. While we might use the phrase “needy people” as a slight, the truth is that we are all needy people. We have biological needs: air, food, water, and sleep. We have emotional needs: affirmation, a place to belong. And of course, we have relational needs: friendships, family, and spiritual community.

As relational beings made in the image of the triune God, we need one another. And to be spiritually healthy and whole, we need friends that share our love for God and our convictions around faith and church. Quite simply, we need church friends.

Our need for others is not something to be ashamed of, and it’s not a result of sin. When Adam was alone with God in the garden, he still lacked genuine human companionship. The world’s first problem was loneliness. So God gave Eve to him, and he celebrated. Of course, our greatest need is to know and be known by God. But to be human is to also need friendship and community.

2. Discover God’s heart for your belonging.

Belonging has deep roots in the biblical story and Christian theology. There are three expressions of belonging in the Scriptures: (1) We belong to God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; (2) we no longer belong to ourselves or the world; and (3) we belong to one another in the church.

Belonging is much deeper than fitting in and it’s much more satisfying than merely having other people around. To belong is one of our deepest human needs. Apart from belonging to God and one another, we’ll continually be tempted to seek our identity in our performance, popularity, and social status. But putting our identity in such earthly things has tragic effects. As Tim Keller has said, “Anything except Jesus will desert you in the end and disappoint you along the way.”

What is true belonging? True belonging is being fully known and fully loved—by God and by your community.

Indeed, only belonging to God—and through him, to one another in the church—can offer this secure position. When we are secure in Christ, we will be established and rooted in how he has made us, and we will belong to him and each other in the church. Given the challenges in relationship-building in the church, we must remember God’s heart for our belonging.

3. Remember your community needs you (to have friends).

But we also need church friends to become kinder, more selfless people. Harvard researcher Robert Putnam, author of the landmark book Bowling Alone, has studied why religious people are kinder and better neighbors in their communities than non-religious people. After sorting through a number of factors that don’t relate to more selfless behavior, including denominational tradition and intensity of beliefs, Putnam settled on one factor—friendships within the church. His research shows that people with the strongest relationships within their own faith community are the kindest, most selfless people toward those outside their faith community.

Putnam writes that of all relationships that correlate with well-being and selfless behavior toward others, “church friends seem super-charged. . . . The power of church friends, our data show, is more than the sum of being religious and having friends.”

While many social groups these days are identified by what they’re against, healthy Christian communities share a connection around what we’re here for. We exist to glorify and enjoy God, to be formed in the image of Christ, and to grow in Christ through the presence of others. Without church friends, we’ll languish in our Christlikeness and struggle to love those outside the church.

4. Reorient your schedule for relationships.

Our entire society draws us away from biblical community and toward social isolation, radical individualism, and self-centeredness. To push back on this constant force, we’re going to have to live remarkably different lives from our non-Christian peers and neighbors. We must reorient our lives around community.

To cultivate deep relationships at church, we will have to slow down and resist the culture of hurry around us. We may not be able to work late into the evening or on weekends. We need to plan to make time for friends, to participate in a weekly small group or Bible study, or serve with others in the community.

A deep, connected life with others requires a new set of a priorities and a new set of life rhythms. But it is so worth it.

In fact, that’s exactly what Jesus did in his earthly life and ministry. His life demonstrates a radical orientation around relationships. He was absolutely devoted to his closest friends, his disciples. He went to weddings, funerals, and cultural events. He spent his time around dinner tables with friends, seekers, and skeptics. He intentionally pursued the most isolated and disconnected community members. He engaged people of other cultures with generosity and patience.

If this is how the Son of God ordered his life on this earth, what would it look like for us to follow in his ways? To not only play the host, but join people where they are? To pursue those outside the fold? To attend gatherings and events with intentionality and a sense of mission?

5. Create space for those on the outside.

I’ve heard countless people over my years of ministry say that they don’t feel connected or that people haven’t reached out to them. I always begin by lamenting that and grieving with them. But I also remind them that those with the deepest connections are typically those who take the initiative and create space for others. It’s perhaps counter-intuitive, but if you take initiative and create space for others, over time, your relationships will be overflowing.

Hospitality is the distinctively Christian practice of creating space for others. It is not just opening our homes; it’s the Christ-like pattern of opening our hearts and lives as well. Hospitality, in a biblical sense, includes creating space in our homes for our brothers and sisters in Christ, creating space in our schedules and hearts for those who don’t know the Lord, creating space in our groups for our neighbors and co-workers, and creating space in our lives for the poor and marginalized.

Just as Christ came to us and welcomed us who were once outsiders, so the church can open its heart and doors to welcome those who don’t know him (Rom. 15:7). In Paul’s instructions for the church to embrace self-giving love for each other, he includes a strong exhortation to “show hospitality” (Rom. 12:13). Although this is a timeless practice for every generation of believers, hospitality is uniquely important in an isolated society.

Every one of us has been the recipient of the hospitality of others, and now we extend that same hospitable spirit to the next generation of church visitors—and to our own neighbors, co-workers, and friends. This vision of hospitality is more than mere entertaining of course. Entertaining includes setting out our best food, showing off our home, and inviting our most attractive guests; it puts the focus on us. Hospitality, on the other hand, puts the focus on the other. Our role as Christians is to create space for those on the outside, demonstrating the welcoming embrace of Jesus himself.

6. Pray together.

This may seem simple, even assumed, but to cultivate true Christian community, we will be wise to prioritize prayer together. If we are to be a truly spiritual community, and not just another social club or friend clique, we must pursue and enjoy God’s presence together. In the past two decades, nearly every Christian book on community I’ve read has used the phrase “do life together.” And I’m one of them. I’ve said this countless times. “It’s not enough to just go to church and community group; we can and should be doing life together.” And I do believe that.

But I also believe that doing life together is not enough.

Anyone can do life together and be unchanged by it—still just as impatient, unfriendly, greedy, or angry as before. Our goal as Christians is to glorify God through our conformity to Christ, to be gradually formed toward his character, love for others, and way of life. Thus, our relationships can and should do spiritual life together. As a result, praying together is an essential habit of Christlike relationships.

If you want to grow closer to another believer, pray with them. Pray together in formal settings (a prayer meeting or small group) or in informal times. It might seem odd at first to be talking to a friend and stop and say, “Can I actually just pray with you right now?” But I can guarantee you that very rarely will they say no, and very rarely will you regret taking a few minutes to slow down and pray with a friend.

7. Stay, even when it’s hard.

One of the sneaky challenges in our current age is the transience of our work culture. I’m not against an upward mobility that elevates individuals and families out of poverty, but when we commit ourselves to upward mobility, no matter the cost, something significant is lost again and again. If we are moving cities and communities every two to four years, it will be almost impossible to develop and maintain deep relationships. Similarly, if we are remaining in the same city but changing church communities every few years, the same loss may be felt.

Early church scholar Joseph Hellerman puts it well in When the Church Was a Family:

Spiritual formation occurs primarily in the context of community. People who remain connected with their brothers and sisters in the local church almost invariably grow in self-understanding. . . . Long-term interpersonal relationships are the crucible of genuine progress in the Christian life. People who stay grow.

Indeed, I have found this observation to be remarkably true: Those who stay grow. Sure, it will be harder and require seasons of patience and struggle. It may involve working through conflict with friends and others in your community. It might even mean passing up a promotion or raise. But it will be worth it in the long run. Stability is one of the most important elements in a growing, thriving spiritual life.

Resisting Isolation

As a pastor, I attend and officiate funerals on a semi-regular basis. Although every memorial service is a time of deep sadness, they also serve as rare moments of clarity. They remind us of what’s really important in life.

I’ve been to memorial services where there were no more than eight people, and few had anything significant to say about the deceased person. It was brief and awkward. It was tragic.

And I’ve been to memorial services with hundreds, even thousands, of people. I’ve seen person after person stand up and say, “This person was my best friend. She loved God and she loved me.” These funerals are incredible. The grief of the loss is joined by the celebration of a life well lived—with others, in powerful relationships.

The memorial service of a Christian man or woman with hundreds of friends is a remarkable testimony to the power of the gospel in a lonely age.

We don’t have to give in to the isolation and loneliness of our world. Another kind of life is available. Christ has welcomed us to himself, and he now invites us to welcome one another into deep, meaningful, non-superficial relationships.

These relationships are possible, but they will take time and intentional effort. One day we’ll be able to look back on our life and see a vast family of people who know us and love us—and who feel known and loved by us. In Christ, true belonging is available. Through intentional pursuit and prayer, deep relationship is possible.

Of course, our greatest need is to know and be known by God. But to be human is to also need friendship and community.

Jeremy Linneman is the author of Why Do We Feel Lonely at Church?

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