By Eddie Pipkin

Is it easier to revive old friendships or to make totally new friends?  (Struggling retailers would ask a different version of this question: Is it easier to reconnect with former customers or develop a new class of customers?)  Is it easier to reignite a dormant enthusiasm or to get someone who’s never been interested in something to develop a new, heretofore unexperienced, passion.  Of course, as recipients of the Great Commission, we ministry leaders are acutely aware of our call to welcome seekers to our local flock.  But as new explorers become old hands, we also have a responsibility to walk with them on the lifelong journey of faith, even through the seasons of disengagement.

I was thinking about those issues when I helped host a joyous reunion/revival last weekend, a float trip down one of America’s great scenic wonders: a nostalgia-infused time for fun, conversation, reconnection, paddling and swimming, lying in a field and watching shooting stars, and sharing the old familiar river tales.  It was an amazing gathering of 25 people who had all, in one way or another, been connected to a certain youth group at a certain local congregation during a season of intense spiritual growth and service.  All 25 – some former youth who are now college grads and starting out their adult lives, some recent grads in the middle of the college experience, and some empty nest parents figuring out the next stage of life – had been at some point deeply involved in ministry and the life of the local church.  But looking around the room one night it struck me that, right now, I could only identify one person – the 72-year-old elder among us – who could reasonably be described as currently enthused and engaged in local church life.

This was a group of people who had been servant leaders, teachers, committee chairs, active outreach participants, generous givers, organizers, small group anchors, and dynamic voices, and yet here they were, clinging to stories of days gone by rather than sharing what was happening in their spiritual journeys in the here and now.

Granted, there are a variety of factors involved in why these formerly intense disciples have drifted into a state of the spiritual “blahs” – geographic moves, disaffection, disconnection, family changes, life changes, job disruption, school demands, etc.  Every story is unique.  And yet, that’s kind of my point.  Local churches struggle to treat people as individuals with unique individual narratives, and whenever a person diverges from the acceptable institutional narrative, they get lost in the system.  Local congregations organize their “lives” by programs, so when you fit nicely into a program – youth in a youth program, young adults or parents helping to run a youth program, for instance – you have a natural engagement with a sustaining community.  When your life situation changes, and you no longer have that natural connection, if it’s your only connection, and if there’s no obvious place to transition to or no one to guide you in the transition, you get lost.

That’s a double-edged tragedy.  It’s tragic for individuals who struggle to remember their former passion for discipleship.  It’s tragic for ministry institutions, who could benefit mightily from the expertise, experience, and resources of those who have become disaffected.

As an experiment, I asked some of my reunion mates about their current ministry status, and it was pretty easy for them to address the individual logistical issues connected to their various stories of disconnection, but there was a common theme among them that I thought provided insight into a common form of discipleship malpractice: As they dropped out of their faith communities, none of these folks could recount an in-depth conversation with a spiritual leader in which the question had been explored, “How is it with your soul?” (the first, foundational question with which John Wesley began any small group gathering).  None could describe a process by a spiritual leader had taken the time to help them chart “next steps” in their journey.

Sure, we spend many hours devising (with excellence) things in which people can participate (events, studies, worship, service opportunities) – and these are good and necessary things – but we miss the mark in engaging people in the kind of one-to-one coaching and conversation that helps them define their own story.  (It reminds me of my brother, who is incarcerated, and shares the frequent lament that he gets passed along a paperback with a chunk of pages ripped out – he’s stuck with only part of the story.)

There are some strategic approaches to closing this engagement gap.

  • Prioritize “How Is It with Your Soul” Conversations. These conversations, held on a regular basis, should be foundational to our ministry.  We should have a formal and accountable approach, as leaders, to making sure that this kind of soul care happens.  But these conversations should not be pro forma (happening just so we can check them off of a “to do” list).  There should be pathways for following up on the things people share.  At their heart, many of the conversations recounted in the Gospels are Jesus engaging in such soul-searching exchanges.  Certainly, healthy small group structures should be based on these exchanges, but they should also be a regular part of what happens between leaders and teams.  Spiritual coaches and mentors are key.  People gifted in these conversations should be actively seeking out those who appear to have drifted away.
  • Establish Clear Transitions for Life Stages. Local churches tend to develop strong programming based around the demographics of the congregation (lots of families mean strong children and youth programs, and lots of older folks mean strong senior programs – although sometimes a strong programming commitment leads to demographic impact).  But we can have gaps, and where there are gaps, people wander away.  Empty nesters are a great example of this.  Having been fully engaged in the lives (and spiritual development) of their children, once those children have moved on to college and beyond, their parents struggle to figure out the next phase.  Some churches have addressed this need directly, focusing on communities that connect those in this age group (people who are often primed to rediscover themselves and their new roles in ministry and have the newfound time to do so).
  • Move Beyond Programmatic Thinking. Our call as ministry leaders is to “go and make disciples.”  It’s not “go and develop programs,” although the focus on events and programs is a natural outgrowth of our sincere desire to make disciples.  This approach is a logical maximization of resources, but it’s probably more of an application of modern management thinking than it is an emulation of biblical examples.  Biblical examples are about building mutually accountable and supportive communities, so that’s where our focus should be (with programs and events being organized towards support of that goal, not as an end unto themselves).   It is an exciting time to be thinking through the ways in which technology is tweaking our understanding of community.  Technological tools are making it easier to both expand our concept of geography (shrinking distance as a restriction on engagement) and to customize our style of engagement (creating new individualized opportunities for involvement).
  • Maximize Opportunities for Relationships. It’s all about relationships, and while many natural relationships thrive through program connections – for instance, a team of youth counselors who build lifetime bonds – what if we focused more on building relationships for relationships’ sake?  Mixers, service opportunities, grand gatherings (not so organized an event as to be stressful, but more low key), outings, and retreats – especially those designed to bring different kinds of people together – can lead to life changing connections.  [If you want to see an inspiring real-world setting for how a diverse community can bond together around an improbable idea in an improbable setting, check out the short documentary, The Tables.]

Friendships (particularly spiritual friendships) are powerful.  They do require an investment of time and energy.  Here’s some interesting info from an article in The Atlantic, called “How to Make Friends According to Science,” exploring the scientific evidence behind the power of deep friendships and what it takes to cultivate them:

So what should you do if your social life is lacking? Here, too, the research is instructive. To begin with, don’t dismiss the humble acquaintance. Even interacting with people with whom one has weak social ties has a meaningful influence on well-being.  Beyond that, building deeper friendships may be largely a matter of putting in time. A recent study out of the University of Kansas found that it takes about 50 hours of socializing to go from acquaintance to casual friend, an additional 40 hours to become a “real” friend, and a total of 200 hours to become a close friend.

If that sounds like too much effort, reviving dormant social ties can be especially rewarding. Reconnected friends can quickly recapture much of the trust they previously built, while offering each other a dash of novelty drawn from whatever they’ve been up to in the meantime.  And if all else fails, you could start randomly confiding in people you don’t know that well in hopes of letting the tail wag the relational dog. Self-disclosure makes us more likable, and as a bonus, we are more inclined to like those to whom we have bared our soul.

Another Atlantic article exploring the healthiness of friendships, “How Friends Become Closer,” employs a delightful metaphor:

One interesting way [researchers] use the container metaphor is this concept of “repotting” friendships to make them closer, as you might repot a succulent that has outgrown its terra-cotta cup. “Sometimes you’ve got a friend at work, and you see them every day, but the pot that plant is in at work is quite small,” Hubbard says. “It’s going to reach the size of the pot, and that’s it. If you want it to be a bigger, deeper friendship, you need to report it to a bigger context. You might need to bring them to your house. Or invite them to meet your family—that’s an even bigger pot.”

Regardless of the chosen metaphor, [the lead researcher] has some similar advice. He recommends “taking the risk to express to someone that you’d like to do something with them outside of situations where you’re required to spend time together.”

That’s what local churches should be doing, encouraging us to make our pots bigger!  Lots of folks in the local church are rootbound!  We should be emphasizing the core value of healthy and diverse relationships within communities and giving people the encouragement and tools to plant those seeds and watch them bloom.