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Time has not dulled the recollection of being a new member at church. My husband and I were newlyweds of just a few months when we moved back to his hometown and began the search for a church family to call home for us.
I remember asking him if we could look at several churches in the area before we landed on our church home. I was certain that we didn’t need to return to his church just because it was the pre-college fit for him as I felt we needed to explore a few other options to find the right fit for us.
When we landed on his church as our church, I had no friends that I had not merely known as acquaintances because they were friends of my husband. To be honest, being in a new city, in a new state, looking for a new church home for the first time since college, and away from my family more than a mere 100 miles for the first time in my life (the only person I knew was my husband), I was hesitant to jump into old friendships he had—for better or for worse.
Now, nearly 15 years later, I can truly say that I have become a part of the community at our church. I once was a first-time guest with little to no acquaintances, and now I would be hard-pressed to pass through the lobby without seeing several people that I know and could carry on a meaningful conversation with.
What is the secret to belonging at church? How do we go from being a guest looking in, to a member reaching out and joining hands with our sisters and brothers?
Perhaps you too have been in a church for 15 years, and you would say, that’s great Brooke, but I don’t have any friends to show for my years of attendance.
My response would be this:
There is more to belonging at church, and becoming a part of the body of believers you worship with, than merely showing up each Sunday.
Belonging and finding meaningful friendships at church means stepping out of our comfort zones, and perhaps default routines. Belonging and developing meaningful relationships involves risk. Overall, I think we can narrow finding community and friendships at church to three points:
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1. Belonging means connection in a small group. (Hebrews 10:25) The names given to small groups vary from church to church and denomination to denomination, but essentially, a small group is this: a group of people gathering together outside of the large worship service to study the Bible and experience life together. My deepest friendships at church have been formed in consistent participation in a small group. The great thing about small groups is that you aren’t married to them. Try one out, if it isn’t a fit for you, try another. But find one that fits best at your present stage and for your schedule and be all in. Learn the names and stories of the group members and be willing to share your own story. Press on through the initial uncomfortable introductions and see several studies with your group through to the end. I am confident that in so doing, you will have connected with at least one person or a group of people that you could invite to spend time with outside the weekly group studies.
2. Belonging means serving others. (1 Peter 4:10) Community and friendships are formed in small groups and solidified in service alongside one another. The functions of a church cannot be carried out simply by the paid staff. That certainly was not the intention nor the instruction of the apostles. We each have been gifted with talents and passions so that we may turn in service to our fellow Christ-followers and the communities and world in which we live. We are shaped for service. Serving can be greeting guests and members as they enter church each week, working with children or youth, being a member of the worship team, setting up or tearing down equipment each Sunday, or leading a small-group Bible study. Discovering the ministry that we are shaped for means looking to see where there is a need and then investing in the people we serve with. Friendships are formed as we serve alongside one another.
3. Belonging means being vulnerable, willing to risk, and willing to forgive. (James 1:5-6)Not all friendships that we pursue, even in a church atmosphere, work out. There have been times I have reached out in order to be a friend when the other person was non-receptive or not committed. It hurts. Being on the giving end and not receiving the friendship that we expected reciprocated can be painful; and yet, it need not be paralyzing. I have shed tears over seemingly dry seasons of friendship within my church family. Yet, I have also been overwhelmingly surprised by an act of a brother or sister that was a laying down of their time, treasure, and talents not only for the Kingdom, but practically, for my family and, or myself. More times than not, people need simply to be asked…and asked again. Ask about getting together for coffee, going to a movie or a new store. Ask about going out for lunch after church. Sometimes, we have not friendships because we ask not. Other times, true friendships form after a difficult season. Forgiveness strengthens existing friendships and opens the door to friendships we have yet to experience.
In yearning for friendships within our church, we must remember to seek out the small, serve alongside, and be willing to risk to find friendships and community. While giving of ourselves and growing alongside a few gathered each week over Bible study and prayer, we form connections and ties that will weave a tapestry of friendship and trust.
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Brooke Cooney is a pastor's wife, mother of two, and foster-mom of one. To capture the eternal in the everyday, she blogs about family, faith, and lessons along the journey at ThisTemporaryHome.com.