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FIRST-PERSON: Relationships: the glue that holds your church together

LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)–The importance of helping members develop friendships within your church cannot be overemphasized. Relationships are the glue that holds a church together. Friendships are the key to retaining members.

A friend once told me of a survey he took in a church. When he asked, “Why did you join this church?” 93 percent of the members said, “I joined because of the pastor.”

When he then asked, “What if the pastor leaves? Will you leave?” 93 percent said no. When he asked why they wouldn’t leave, the response was, “because I have friends here!”

Do you notice the shift in allegiance? This is normal and healthy.

Lyle Schaller has done extensive research that shows the more friendships a person has in a congregation, the less likely he is to become inactive or leave. In contrast, I once read about a survey of four hundred church drop-outs who were asked why they left their churches. Over 75 percent of the respondents said, “I didn’t feel anyone cared whether I was there or not.”

It is a myth that you must know everyone in the church in order to feel like a part of a church. The average church member knows 67 people in the congregation, whether the church has 200 or 2,000 attending. A member does not have to know everyone in the church in order to feel like it’s “my church,” but he does have to know some people.

While some relationships will spontaneously develop by chance, the friendship factor in assimilation is too crucial to leave to chance. You can’t just hope members will make friends in the church. You must encourage it, plan for it, structure for it and facilitate it.

— Think relationally.

Create as many opportunities as you can for people to meet and get to know each other. Members can walk in and out of church for a year and still never really develop any friendships.

Try to include some kind of relational activity in every congregation meeting. It may be as simple as saying, “Turn around and introduce yourself to one person and find out something interesting about them.”

Since most people have a hard time remembering names, especially in a larger church, use nametags as often as you can. Nothing is more embarrassing than not knowing the name of someone you’ve seen at church for years.

Although we’ve used all kinds of events to build relationships within our church family (supper clubs, sports, game nights, picnics, etc.), by far the most effective tool for cultivating new friendships has been our use of weekend retreats.

Consider this: The amount of time a person spends with other members at a single 48-hour retreat is greater than what they will spend together in Sunday over a year. If you’re a church planter and you want to develop relationships quickly in your church, take everybody on a retreat.

— Encourage every member to join a small group.

Another effective tool for building relationships is small groups. Not only do they help people connect with one another, they also allow your church to maintain a “small church” feeling of fellowship as it grows. Small groups can provide the personal care and attention every member deserves no matter how big the church becomes.

Develop a network of small groups, built around different purposes, interests, age groups, geography, etc. To be honest, it really doesn’t matter what rationale you use to start new groups. Just keep starting them!

It’s unlikely that very many new members will join existing small groups. New members assimilate best into new groups. You can even start new groups right out of your membership class. New members have their “newness” in common.

One of the sayings I repeat over and over to our staff and lay leaders is, “Our church must always be growing larger and smaller at the same time.” By that I mean there must be a balance between the large group celebration and the small group cells. Both are important to the health of a church.

The large group celebrations give people the feeling that they’re a part of something significant. Large group meetings are impressive to unbelievers and encouraging to your members.

But you can’t share personal prayer requests in a crowd.

Small affinity groups, on the other hand, are perfect for creating a sense of intimacy and close fellowship. It’s there that everybody knows your name. When you’re absent, people notice. You’re missed if you don’t show up.

Because Saddleback existed for 15 years without owning a building we’ve had a heavy reliance on small groups for our adult education and fellowship. Using homes allowed us to expand numerically and geographically without investing any money in buildings. Even though we now own a 120-acre campus, we will continue to use homes for our small group meetings.

In addition to being biblical, there are four benefits of using homes: they are infinitely expandable (homes are everywhere); they are unlimited geographically (you can minister to a wider area); it’s good stewardship, releasing more money for ministry (you use buildings that other people pay for!); and it facilitates closer relationships (people are more relaxed in a home setting).

— Small groups work!

The larger your church grows, the more important small groups become for handling the pastoral care functions. They provide the personal touch that everyone needs, especially in a crisis. At Saddleback we say the whole church is like a cruise ship and the small groups are the lifeboats.

I don’t have the space to give a detailed explanation of our small group strategy and structure. Let me just say this: Small groups are the most effective way of closing the back door of your church. We never worry about losing people who are connected to a small group. We know they’ve built relationships which truly make them a part of the body.
Rick Warren is pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of “The Purpose-Driven Life.”

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  • Rick Warren