I’ve been sitting on the idea for this article for months. Whether through procrastination or providence, getting these thoughts down in writing has been delayed.
Now, however, seems an especially important moment to gather and commend these ideas to fellow pastors who, like me, find this cultural moment to be an important time to pause and reflect on the correspondence between the relational ecology of our churches and our readiness (or lack thereof) for such a time as this.
This article serves two purposes: first, I want to argue that there are at least three kinds of relationships that every church needs if they are going to thrive (practically and spiritually) in the long term.
Second, I hope the series of questions that I supply at the end can serve pastors and church leadership teams as a ministry tool to catalyze and guide a process of reflection and conversation as you together seek to discern how to develop and strengthen these essential relationships.
Relationships in a Time of Cultural Upheaval
There are three expressions of relationships that help to define our lives and shape our identities: family, friends, and neighbors. Those obviously aren’t the only kinds of relationships we have. Yet each play a disproportionate relational role in our lives. How we think, how we behave, how we perceive the world around us, the imagination we develop for who we are, what we value, and to what we aspire, are all monumentally shaped by these three crucial relationships.
If you’re not convinced, consider our current heightened state of relational awareness.
- In light of COVID-19, how many of us have willingly embraced massive disruptions to our lives for the sake of those we care about, especially out of concern for our older family members?
- In light of the ways that politics are dividing people of faith, how many of us are longing for friendships that can bear the weight of difference on account of the strength of where they find a sense of solidarity and unity?
- In light of a fresh awareness of racism deeply embedded within our society, how many of us find ourselves asking pointed questions with regard to the different assumptions and experiences of our white neighbors verses our neighbors of color on issues involving law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and the day-to-day consequences of the history of the places we live?
All this simply to say, we understand at an intuitive level, especially now, that family, friends, and neighbors are the primary fabrics woven to form the tapestry of our relational lives.
Meeting the Relational Needs of Churches
In the Bible, the most potent metaphors for the church are relational.
Whether it’s the bride of Christ, body of Christ, family, or household of God, the Bible tends to think of the church in relational terms. As such, it’s completely fitting that we ask, what are the relationships that most befit the health and vitality of churches?
The most obvious answer, ironically, poses the biggest problem.
A vibrant relationship to the triune God is an absolute necessity of the church. If this relationship falters or is displaced by any other, the church is dead in the water. Other relationships might give the appearance of life and prolong the functionality of religious activity, but the only true source of a church’s life will have been severed.
But herein lies the problem. As essential and irreplaceable as a church’s relationship with God is, we err when we suppose that it’s the only relationship a church needs. Certainly not because God is not enough. But because God himself created us—people and churches alike—to flourish in the context of a diversity of relationships. And so to ignore or reject the relational needs that God himself created us to enjoy, benefit from, and invest in is not spiritually heroic, it’s spiritually arrogant. Similar to Peter’s rebuff of Jesus when he came to wash Peter’s feet, it is like saying to Jesus, “What others may need from you, I do not.” To ignore or reject the relational needs that God himself created us to enjoy, benefit from, and invest in is not spiritually heroic, it's spiritually arrogant. Click To Tweet
Why Every Church Should Have a Family, Friends, and Neighbors
Given all this, I want to suggest that it’s spiritually wise, practically advantageous, and relationally edifying for churches to engender three primary relationships for which the typologies of family, friends, and neighbors serve well.
Churches need families.
By family I mean denomination or theological tradition. Just as God intends human beings to enjoy the blessing and accountability of a family, so too should churches enjoy these same blessings and accountabilities.
For a church to belong to a denomination or theological tradition is advisable because doing so promotes honesty and clarity about its theological convictions and a corporate sense of identity. As with any good family, belonging to a denomination or theological tradition provides systems of support and accountability, which is another expression of spiritual wisdom. For to believe we posses all the tools and resources to support ourselves and hold ourselves accountable is as foolish as any single person supposing that they have no need of others to navigate the difficult terrain of life. Additionally, having a theological family in which to ground ourselves is spiritually wise in that it casts off the pervasive individualism of Western culture in favor of the biblical admonition to cultivate unity in the body of Christ.
Families are fundamental to human flourishing and thus to the flourishing of the church as a human institution. But they also aren’t everything. Families nurture us, provide for us, and help us to understand our place within the history and future of God’s unfolding story. But as we grow and mature, taking on our own unique characteristics and interests, we must branch out, explore new ideas, see from new perspectives, and provide or receive additional kinds of support and encouragement.
Churches need friends.
Churches also need friends. I see these as social groups that while cohering around similar interests, journeys, and goals, also bring us into contact with people whose perspectives, experiences, and contexts are different from our own. They typically come in the form of trans-local networks and fellowships. They are not a replacement for our families, but an accent to them.
Your family might be Baptist, Wesleyan, Reformed, Anglican, or Restorationist, but it’s unlikely to provide all the answers or resources when it comes to your church’s desire to explore what it means to be multicultural, or to go deep into the work of community development, or to start and run a school, or to launch expressions of social enterprise, or to deeply explore ancient paths of spiritual formation, just to name a few examples. It may (hopefully) be that you find some forms of support and encouragement within your family system for those sorts of endeavors. More likely, however, you need to find friends who share those passions and who have a well of experience and wisdom from which you are invited to draw.
As a father of three young children, I hope and pray that I have something to contribute to the sort of interests and longings that they develop over the years, but how foolish would it be for me and my wife to assume that we can give them everything they need to step into any of the possible worlds ahead of them? Worse, how awful would it be if we, as parents, sought to confine their imaginations to the narrow world of possibilities that we could personally resource? For all these reasons and more, every local church, grounded as they are in some denominational or theological family, should earnestly seek out friendships with other like-minded churches, networks, and movements that provide a sense of missional expertise and spiritual camaraderie within a diverse cross-section of relationships.
Churches need neighbors.
Denominations and networks play a key role in the relational ecology of local churches, but since they are geographically-distributed associations, churches also need neighbors. These are other local churches and ministries that are part of the same social context, breathing the same air, facing the same local issues, and ideally, dreaming complementary dreams for their shared space.
In my experience, though these relationships are the most proximate, they can often be the hardest to cultivate. There’s more risk involved in trying to build relationships with those you will continue to bump into whether it goes well or not. However, if we believe that “trust is the greatest resource in human society,” and more poignantly, that Jesus was serious about others recognizing us as his followers based on the loving unity the body of Christ is committed to pursuing, then this risk pales in comparison to the potential benefit.
Neighbors familiarize us with stories and perspectives that we wouldn’t know otherwise. Neighbors help to ground us, to feel more connected to the social fabric of our communities and its needs. Whereas we may opt in or out of relationships with denominations and networks, our neighbors are chosen for us by virtue of our place. In that way, cultivating neighborly relationships can even be a discipline for resisting ex-carnational modes of existence in favor of in-carnational ones.
Of course there’s far more to say on this subject and about each of these relationships. At minimum, however, I hope this helps us begin to see that just as human beings were designed to live in interdependent relationships with family, friends, and neighbors, so too are analogous relationships essential to healthy church life. Just as human beings were designed to live in interdependent relationships with family, friends, and neighbors, so too are analogous relationships essential to healthy church life. Click To Tweet
Here is a series of questions that my wife and I, as new co-lead pastors of a 210-year old church that is discerning God’s future in a tumultuous time such as this, are using to assess our church’s relational needs. Regardless of the specific circumstances in which your church finds itself, I believe these are worth asking, whether to invite further conversation and discernment or simply to arrive at a renewed sense of clarity.
General Diagnostic Questions:
- Which of these relationships are strongest for us and what difference does it make?
- Which of these relationships are weakest for us and what difference does it make?
- Are any of these relationships non-existent for us? If so, why is that the case?
Thinking about our family:
- Who is our family—the tribe or tradition from which we derive a sense of identity and to whom we look for support, accountability, and guidance when it comes to issues of polity, doctrine, and theological practice?
- Is our “family of origin” still the right family for us given our sense of God’s work in our midst?
- If we find ourselves without a family, what are the distinctives and priorities that would help us determine what sort of family would provide the best adoptive context?
Thinking about our friends:
- As we consider the nature of our context and the sense of mission that God has given us, what networks, movements, and/or associations might be good friends for us to pursue?
- Among which groups of friends do we think we have something to offer given God’s work among us?
- Are there friendships that we are clinging to that simply don’t make as much sense as they once did?
Thinking about our neighbors:
- Which neighbor churches and ministries are like-hearted and like-minded enough that we should pursue stronger forms to togetherness and collaboration?
- Which neighbor churches and ministries are different enough from us that we should go out of our way to get to know them better such that we might advance our own learning in the pursuit of Christian unity?
- How might we demonstrate our desire to be a better neighbor to churches and ministries in our community?
The crises we are facing medically, racially, and politically are exposing many vulnerabilities in our lives. One of the most important, I believe, is the lack or shallowness of relationships that God intends for our benefit and joy as churches. The crises we are facing medically, racially, and politically are exposing many things. One of the most important, I believe, is the lack or shallowness of relationships that God intends for our benefit and joy as churches. Click To Tweet
I pray these questions serve as a basis for your personal reflection and as a catalyst for helpful conversation among your church teams.