Two years ago, God directed our family to move to the DC area. We had known for almost a year that a move was likely, and throughout that year we prayerfully researched churches in the DC area. Early on, the Holy Spirit directed us to a church in Arlington. Alongside of church Elders and friends, we pored over Arlington Baptist Church’s statement of faith, covenant, and constitution and listened to the pastor’s sermons, all available on the church’s website. More importantly, we asked our Elders and friends in Greenville, SC to enter into prayer with us. By the time we stepped foot into Arlington Baptist Church for the first time on August 25, 2013, we had already prayerfully committed to covenanting in membership with a body of believers that we had never met before. In God’s sovereignty, that commitment protected us from ourselves and our sin.
The previous eight years had been a time of growth as God used our church family to sanctify us through love, grace, and wise teaching. We had arrived in Greenville as pregnant newlyweds. While sinfully and stubbornly clinging to the reins of my life, I, as a brand new Christian, was leading my young family towards disaster. Thankfully, God, in His mercy, intervened and placed us in a church that prayed for us, loved us, and counseled us to repentance. Eight years later, that church had become our family.
Reaching our tearful goodbye with our South Carolina church family, however, had been an eight year journey over a path that wasn’t always smoothly paved. Our church wasn’t perfect and we are definitely far from it. There were times, early on, when we felt isolated and disconnected. We felt lonely. Although constantly confronted by evidence of God’s grace through the love manifest by our church family, there were several times when we tearfully considered finding another church. It was the ultimate irony that God moved us when we didn’t want to leave our church family.
Our final Sunday in Greenville, I asked our church family to pray for us as we were sure to be homesick, lonely, and doubting God’s sovereign goodness. To be honest, I had uttered that request with more than a tinge of pride and self-sufficiency in my “maturity.” I had no idea how prescience my prayer request was and how deeply God was about to expose my sin.
Ask people who have moved to the DC area, and they’ll tell you that DC is a cold town. This isn’t an area that fosters relationships. I often tell people that San Francisco and Greenville, SC are more alike than are San Francisco and DC. Upon moving here, we felt that sense of isolation almost immediately, and we brought the accompanying emotions with us into our new church.
It didn’t take us long to begin to pine away for our old church family; our home-sickness crossed into sinful discontentment and lack of faith. There were many times when we tearfully considered finding a new church, but, thankfully, the Holy Spirit used our commitment to Arlington Baptist Church before God and our previous church family as a means of grace to protect us from ourselves. No matter how hard we tried, we could never manufacture a Biblical reason to break the covenant we had made with our new church family.
Our story is not unique; over the last few years, we have heard essentially the same tale from many different people living in many different cities. Reflecting on this with our current pastor, I mused that maybe as more churches become Gospel-saturated with a robust view of living life together in community with their church family, moving away and joining a new church will become more akin to a child leaving their parents’ house to live with their new spouse than to simply finding a new group of people who believe basically the same thing you do, shake hands with on Sunday, and with whom you share the occasional potluck dinner. But, even if the “problem” is the result of a deepening ecclesiology, that doesn’t mean that the problem isn’t real and doesn’t need real solutions.
With that in mind, I’d like to humbly offer some practical advice for both “established church members,” and “new or struggling church members.” The following advice has been gleaned from my time on both sides of the aisle, so to speak. I’ve been in both categories in two different churches – two churches that the Holy Spirit, breaking my pride, taught me to love.
(For the sake of conciseness, something I’m not very good at, I’m going to assume some definitions and categories about the Church. If you are at all curious about my ecclesiology, Dr. Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, has written The Church: The Gospel Made Visible that I highly recommend.)
The Established Church Member
Echoing the words of Jesus that “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”, the Apostle Paul, throughout his epistles, demonstrated a profound concern for the unity of the Church expressed through love. Leading up to his famous passage on love in I Corinthians 13, Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit and writing of the Church, penned the admonition about the unity of the Church so, “that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together, if one member is honored, all rejoice together”. Paul concludes chapter 12 by promising to show us “still a more excellent way” to live in unity with the Body of Christ, the Church; he then, heading straight into the famous love chapter, breaks down that “more excellent way.”
The thing is, I’m not currently writing to Christians who fail at loving their church and fellow church members, that’s a completely different post; I’m writing to those Believers who do love their church and do seek to express their love for Jesus through their love for their church family. Unfortunately, because as finite humans who are still living in a world under the curse of Genesis 3, even as we seek to love our churches and live life together in ways that promote unity in the Body, edify our fellow Believers, and bring glory and honor to God, there are pitfalls that we can stumble into, many times unwittingly, and, sadly, end up alienating new or hurting church members. One of these pitfalls is cliques.
I want to be careful, but I also want to be clear; let me begin by stating that the presence of cliques does not necessarily indicate things like coldness, pride, or snobbery in the life of a church.
Cliques may very well be an indicator that those sins are present in the life of a church, but those aren’t the types of cliques that I want to discuss. Rather, my interest is in those organic groups of friends that can be perceived, from the outside, as closed. And that, unfortunately, can blind the established church member to the loneliness and pain of others
Most of us are drawn to particular types of people. Often our close friends share interests, seasons of life, backgrounds, etc. with us, and that’s understandable. My wife and I, as a couple, tend to be close friends with other couples whose children are close in ages to our children. As individuals, of course, our close friends tend to reflect our personalities and interests. On some level, I think most people understand and accept that. At our church in South Carolina, I would frequently hang out with a group of guys who all enjoyed discussing theology and philosophy; those times were enjoyable, edifying, and good.
But, there were times when the Holy Spirit would show me that I had become too sequestered within my own circle of friends, and that I was failing to build relationships with others in my church family. I failed often, but, in His kindness, God extended grace and helped me build relationships with those outside of my comfort zone.
Paraphrasing Mark Dever, I don’t necessarily have a problem with cliques in the life of a church; I want those cliques to grow and to continue to grow.
Reaching out to new or hurting and lonely church members isn’t easy for most of us. Here are some practical suggestions, in no specific order:
- Volunteer to Be a Greeter/Usher
Technically, if I believed in such things, I’m an introvert. I don’t necessarily enjoy walking up to strangers with my hand stuck out and the words, “hi, I’m John,” on my lips. Being a greeter forced me to do just that. Breaking that introductory ice has proven to be a great way to begin the process of building relationships with those of my church family whom I’m not naturally drawn to.
- Pray Through Your Church’s Membership Directory
We should all be doing this anyway. For one thing, this will help you remember names. For another, it will force you to get to know people better. In order to better pray for them, you’ll need to begin the process of building a relationship with them, finding out their struggles and victories; unless, that is, you’re ok with praying the same thing for multiple people. Most importantly, we’re commanded to pray for each other in passages like Ephesians 6:18 and James 5:16.
- Be Aware That Your Friendly Circle of Friends May Not Appear So Friendly to Others
You may not think that your group is closed, but there will be many on the outside that will perceive it as exactly that – an impenetrable clique. This was shamefully driven home to me one Sunday when I casually asked a fellow church member why he never came to my get-togethers. “I didn’t know that I was invited,” was his painful reply. Obvious lesson: make sure people know that they are invited to get-togethers. If there are people who are not invited, you may want to rethink why you’re having your get-togethers.
- Church Isn’t Your Private Party
This is connected to number three. Keep in mind that as you get to know people better, becoming more involved in each other’s lives, which is a good thing, you will develop what will seem, to many, a somewhat secret language with hidden social cues, private idioms, and inside jokes that can make new or struggling members feel like they’ve crashed a party that they weren’t invited to. Well, none other than the Holy Spirit invited them into fellowship with you; it’s not your party to begin with. Help people feel welcome, even if that means that you and your friends need to surrender your rights.
- Insert Yourself into People’s Lives
Our kids will often ask to go over to friends’ houses; we always gently remind them that they can’t go over unless invited. Of course that’s true, but children often struggle to submit that social expectation. Their struggle is a better response, I think, than the isolation in which many adults choose to live.
As adults, we have the privilege of inviting people over if we want. And that’s something that we should want. Open up your home and ask people to come over, and not just your friends; keep an eye out for new members or hurting members. Being able to break bread and enjoy fellowship with fellow church members can be a huge blessing and encouragement to new or hurting church members.
If you do not have that desire, repent of your sin, and then pray for the grace of the Holy Spirit to provide you the desire. Don’t want for the feeling/desire; begin inviting your church family into your life and home right away.
The New or Hurting Church Member
Having been the lonely new guy in two different churches, I understand your pain. But, before I get to the practical suggestions, let me encourage those of you who are struggling to feel connected with your church family to sit down with the leaders of your church and let them know that you’re struggling. Before doing that, however, pray for the grace to respond with wisdom and humility to their response. It’s not easy to be confronted with our own failings, but God has ordained the church as one of the means for our sanctification as we grow in grace and in the knowledge of King Jesus. Be honest and open to the reality that your struggle may be a product of sin that you are fostering in your heart. However, I recognized that not every instance of feeling unconnected is indicative of serious heart issues.
Once again, these suggestions are in no particular order.
- Volunteer to Serve
Whenever someone says, “I don’t feel connected to my church,” one of the first questions that should be asked of that individual is, “How are you serving the church family?” In serving, not only will you meet and get to know other people, but, and more importantly, we’re commanded to serve the body. That’s one of the Apostle Paul’s main points in I Corinthians 12 and 13; chapter 12 is where we read about spiritual gifts and one body with many members. If you’re not serving the body, of course you’re going to feel unconnected.
- Join a Small Group
Most churches have some type of small group; whether the small groups are official mid-week meetings or book/Bible studies that meet at a variety of times during the week isn’t relevant. What is relevant is that you get plugged into the life of your church in the ways that your church lives life together. It’s going to be hard to do that if you’re sequestering yourself from the avenues your church has provided. On a personal note, my wife and I have found that many of the most meaningful relationships that we have developed over the years began in small groups.
- Stop Comparing Your New Church to Your Old Church
I will shamefully yet freely admit that I am a hypocrite and am preaching to myself with every single one of these. This one, however, can enter your thought process far more subtly than many of the others on this list. I know for my wife and I, we struggled with this, and it was a sign of lack of faith and immaturity.
Your new church has wonderful strengths that your old church does not, and vice versa. You will find this to be true in every church you try, no matter how often you church hop. Instead of comparing, assume that God, in His infinite wisdom, knows perfectly well that the strengths of the church He’s placed you in are exactly what you need to help you become more like Jesus.
Much farther down on the scale of importance, it’s not human nature to want to hang out with someone who is always talking about how much better their old friends are. Maybe, just maybe, you’re not making any new friends because you’re not any fun to be around. (By no means does that excuse the “old” church members from doing the hard work of engaging that type of individual. We’re called to love each other, no exceptions.)
- Find Your Identity in Christ
Churches, like people, will always fail us from time to time; King Jesus will not. If you’re a Christian, not only is your identity in Christ, your sufficiency is, too. With His sinless life that we can’t accomplish, substitutionary death on the cross taking the punishment for our sins upon Himself, and His resurrection, conquering sin and death, King Jesus accomplished everything; and, if we, in Holy Spirit given faith and repentance, bow the knee and submit to King Jesus and the fact that His life, death, and resurrection is the only way we can make things right with God, we are in Christ and are full heirs with Him to all the promises of God. That’s where your joy should be found, not in how many text messages throughout the week you get from fellow church members.
- Insert Yourself into People’s Lives
Don’t wait to be invited over; start inviting people to your house. Have you ever considered that maybe more people feel like you than you realize? If needed, be the one to get the ball rolling on hospitality in your church. If people don’t talk to you at church, talk to them. If no one asks you how they can pray for you, ask others how you can pray for them. Remember, you’re a member of your church, too, whatever problems characterize your church, those problems are your fault, too.
No church is perfect because none of its members, including you, is perfect. Thankfully, King Jesus still loves us. Whether you’re an “established church member” or a “new or struggling church member,” pray for the humility and grace to be thankful for the church family that God has given you, and seek ways to serve and love one another.
 At the time it was called Grace Baptist Church of Arlington. The story behind the name change gives evidence to God’s kindness and blessing, but, for the sake of space, that story is going to need to remain untold in this post
 John 13:35, ESV.
 I Corinthians 12:25-26, ESV.
 I Corinthians 12:31, ESV.
 Obviously there will be variables that will help determine the appropriateness of open invitations.