By Rick Chromey
It’s Sunday morning in America.
In cities and towns everywhere, the church gathers to worship, learn, commune, and participate in prayers, offerings, Eucharist, and baptisms. It’s a beautiful opportunity to connect as a faith community.
And yet there is a growing disconnect.
People are coming but they’re not communing. Our parking lots empty as fast as they fill. We sit for an hour looking at the back of people’s heads. We shake a few hands and head home. It’s like the church has forgotten how to make friends in an age of “social” media.
We’ve lost the fine art of community.
Last April I launched a “life” group with six people. We now attract 15 to 20 regularly. Friendships have sprouted. Couples connect outside of group meetings. We have a joyous buzz when we gather. It’s as close to Acts 2:42-47 that I’ve experienced. My life group got me thinking about friendships. How do they grow? What stalls or kills them? And what can the corporate church do to better create and nurture community?
Actually, there’s a process for friendships. It’s possible to grow any group, anywhere at any time, if we follow the rhythms for how relationships mature.
Let’s review the first two stages for social development and outline how they play out in the typical church experience.
Connections: Shared Space
We share space with people in stores or theaters, at ballgames or on flights. These infantile relational moments are accidental or coincidental, although they can sometimes be orchestrated (like a blind date or coffee shop meeting).
However, unless there’s reason to go deeper, these tender connections can quickly dissipate once outside of “shared space” interactions. We “meet and greet” (and leave). Our innate relational walls naturally repel and reject. Sometimes it’s due to previous wounding, abuse, or abandonment. But usually it’s because we’re too busy, preoccupied, tired, or anxious to dive deeper. Shared space connections are tender, tenuous, and temporary.
Sharing “space” is like taping two cats’ tails together. We might create unity, but it’s hardly community. Our social model should be Jesus, who specialized in ironic interactions (connecting rich and poor, male and female, young and old, priest and prostitute, Jew and Gentile).
My job (and a church’s) is to initiate introductions and spark potential friendships. It’s intentional matchmaking that introduces people and connects their stories. It’s more than simply saying “hello.”
Friendships: Shared Time
Once connection happens, then curious interactions follow.
Human beings are naturally interactive when interested. We ask questions, share ideas, tell stories, offer thoughts, and relate news. It’s called “friendliness” and it blossoms when “connected” people spend more time together.
Jesus used homes, temple porticos, boats, hillsides, and roadways to encourage friendly curiosity, whether from a rich young ruler or Samaritan woman. The church has a captive audience on Sunday morning. People are in the house. People are bumping into each other. But are they given time to move beyond just shared space? Are they allowed, even encouraged, to be interested?
It’s critical to recognize that few friendships grow beyond these casual acquaintances. In fact, unless there’s intentional time investments and mutual desire for additional interaction, physical separation quickly ends these budding relationships. People go home and detach. If disconnection lasts long enough, then these temporary connections evaporate (and names are forgotten). That’s why healthy communities continually re-connect people through curious and enjoyable interactions that deepen friendships (for example, small groups, social activities).
We must create interest (curiosity) to magnetize interaction and inspire desire for additional richer connections. People want to be known.
Because when we do, lasting friendships are conceived.
And everything changes.