I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
(John 13:34–35, NRSV)
When my wife and I moved to Toronto two years ago, for the first time in our married lives we found ourselves looking for a church as parishioners. This proved to be far more difficult than we ever could have imagined. Staying in our denomination was a given, but after that we made a list of things we hoped to find in a new home congregation. These included size, style of worship, presence of children and friendliness to name a few. Each week we came home and struck another item from our list. Finally, after months of searching, we settled on the least unfriendly church. Two years later, we are very happy with our choice and it has become much friendlier. But our efforts mirrored the experience many have as they look for a new church. This does not even touch the next significant challenge of real relationship in a Christian community. Friendliness is important, but friendliness is not enough.
Natural Church Development, a process to measure congregational health (in use in over 70,000 congregations in 72 countries), identifies loving relationships as one of eight principles that set healthy churches apart from unhealthy churches regardless of size, denomination, location or any other factor. In spite of this, many congregations, perhaps even most congregations, find deep, loving relationships elusive except for a very few.
As I consider why this might be, it seems to me that there are a number of barriers to loving relationships in our churches.
The first and perhaps most significant barrier is that we are often too busy “doing” church to “be” church. In my work with Natural Church Development, when asked whether the activities of their small groups are relevant to them, the most likely answer is, “not so much.” When we come to church, we obviously come for a reason: worship, Bible study, a meeting or an event. Typically the agenda of the gathering takes priority over the needs of the attendees. So, if I come with a burden, I leave with a burden. Often there is no time to simply share and if there is time, sharing rarely moves beyond the superficial. Another way to consider this is to ask, “When do people share their faith, their cares or their needs in my church?” It is important to note that, for the most part, loving relationships evolve in small groups, so we need to be intentional about making sure the opportunity exists for people to gather in small groups and to plan for this nurture to take place.
Loving relationships don’t just happen, nor can they be forced. However, there are things we can do to encourage them. A big part of this should be about creating an environment where loving relationships can evolve. A good start is to pay attention to the basics. Hospitality, friendliness, and genuine care are the foundation stones upon which loving relationships are built. In this respect it is critical to pay attention to the courtesies: Are we truly welcoming? Are we friendly? Is this church accessible? I don’t just mean physically accessible, but is it well signed? Is it clean? Is it bright? Does it smell nice? All these things work together to send the message that people are valued and that people are welcome.
I was talking to a friend not long ago about a struggle he was having with his children. I asked him if he had brought his needs to the prayer chain. He burst out, “I would never take a concern to our prayer chain. They are the worst gossips in the church!” Obviously not all prayer chains are gossips but loving relationships can only develop in an atmosphere of safety and trust. If people believe that “anything you say can and will be used against you,” or if they discover that trust is broken through gossip or careless use of information, loving relationships will not develop. In all aspects of church life, leaders—not just paid leaders but elders or their equivalent—must model the change they hope to bring about. Nowhere is this more important than modeling trustworthiness and safety. We live in an age where the news reminds us daily that churches can be very unsafe places emotionally, spiritually and physically. Not only must we model appropriate Christian behavior, but we must demand it in others as well.
The final consideration for nurturing loving relationships is to consider the outcome of our efforts. The last church that I served was far from our family and friends. Our experience in that church was of tremendous loneliness. We had very few friends. It wasn’t that people were unfriendly; it was just that they already had enough friends. It is hard to make friends, especially if you are past having young children to make them for you at soccer practice or at swimming lessons. As I reflected on this, I realized that one reason for people’s difficulty in nurturing loving relationships is that they assume the outcome should be friendship–and they have enough friends. The outcome of love is not friendship but community. We cannot be friends with everyone in our church; nor should we expect to be. We cannot make a friend of every new person who comes through our doors, nor should we have to. We can however bear one another’s burdens, pray for one another, minister to one another and love one another, not as friends but as community, brothers and sisters in Christ. If we become friends, that is an added bonus but removing the burden of friendship may free us up to become authentic community.
It takes intentional time and intentional space to create loving relationships. It takes churches that are safe and leaders who are both trustworthy and willing to take the first step in sharing their own lives. Loving relationships are not a machine to be built, rather they are a garden to be planted and nurtured, knowing that the flowers and the fruit and the fragrance will change the whole church forever.
John-Peter Smit is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Canada, where he has been a part of the Natural Church Development project. He is married to Tori, a diaconal minister and they live in Toronto. They have two grown children.