By Eddie Pipkin

If you’re looking for the secret sauce that makes local congregations effective, the mortar that binds the ministry foundation of vital and purposeful institutions of faith, it’s relationships.  Even when churches lose their way and times are troubled, faith-based friendships preserve bonds that might otherwise crumble and collapse.  Those relationships of mutual respect, shared burden bearing, and joyful memories have carried many a congregation through to rebirth and revitalization.  That’s why healthy churches focus on frequently getting people together to jumpstart relationship building.  They cultivate a “Gathering Dimension” that leads to deep and lasting connections.

[Note: This blog is the fifth in a series outlining the new Excellence in Ministry training, “7 Dimensions: A Coaching Approach to Congregational Development: A transformational coaching approach, partnering with your congregation, to develop healthy, growing, effective ministry in your context.”]

The Christian faith is a relational faith.  As Jesus prayed for us in John 17, authentic relationships where we are . . .

  • ONE with the Father and
  • ONE with Jesus and
  • ONE with each other and
  • ONE in our witness to the world

. . . is the plan for our lives and ministry.  It’s what we’re made for.

We gather to celebrate the goodness of God, to encourage and support and build one another up, to grow into the fulness of life that Jesus modeled and intended for us, and to serve and witness to the world the depth of God’s love for all.

We most famously do this in worship, but we also do it for fellowship and service and study, even for recreation or to lend support to a common cause or just to go on an adventure together.

As the author of Hebrews puts it, “do not neglect meeting together.”  When we explore congregational development, we think about the way this ‘gathering’ dimension describes how the church encourages the development of authentic relationships through several levels of relational contexts.  A lot of this relational development is just taken for granted by most churches – it just organically happens, we assume.  It’s a natural byproduct of, you know, ministry!  Little, thought is given to actively encouraging it.  People participate in activities, they meet other like-minded folks, they form bonds over time, and relationships grow, right?  Many of us have made lifelong friends in exactly that manner.  But for some people, that magical moment of true connection never happens.  For some others, relationships are formed, but they are relationships that only get to three-quarters of authenticity.  They never make it beyond the surface.  They may involve lots of fun hanging out together, for instance, but they never take on the all-important discipleship characteristic of accountability and sacrificial support for one another.

The key for long-term congregational development is intentionality.  Thoughtful systems should be in place to get people connected and give them the tools and encouragement to develop deep, spiritually nourishing relationships.

This means that a church should have robust systems for small group development and small group multiplication.  One of the problems of natural, organic friendship development is that once church members have a core group of friends, they often double down on those relationships and (since we all have a limited amount of relational bandwidth), no new connections or relationships are formed.  Such a church eventually stagnates.  Healthy churches cross-pollinate relationships and intentionally connect unlikely partners.

Intentional systems for guest follow-up and assimilation are also vitally important.  Folks who visit a church repeatedly but don’t establish some friendships within the first two or three months are highly likely to give up and drift away.  That’s why churches should have clear processes for visitor follow-up, and not the kind of processes that send along a generic note of welcome, but friendly connections with real people who are interested in visitors and able to answer their questions and give visitors direction.

Congregational care is also a big part of the relational toolbox (and thus we’ll include it under the ‘gathering’ label for the purposes of this discussion). How do we monitor the needs of those in our church community, and how do we respond to those needs with sincere compassion?  This area is another great example of the way most churches take an ad hoc approach with no real plan or process.  Frankly, this area is one of those in which we expect professional clergy to do all the heavy lifting.  That is a very limited approach and can’t sustain growth (or even account for personal preferences in who we connect with effectively).

Once we’ve nailed down all the relational strategies for getting our own congregation members and regular attendees connected with each other, we can develop systems for helping all of those good folks connect person-to-person to the individuals they encounter in the greater community.  (This is, of course, what we used to – and still can and should – refer to as evangelism.  But rather just preaching the Gospel “at” people, we equip our good folks to witness to the power of the Gospel message by “living it” in ways that meet the needs of those they are blessed to encounter.)

Ministry leaders who are considering all of these relational possibilities, can ask themselves pointed questions which clarify how effective they have been at achieving ‘gathering’ goals:

  • How do you encourage authentic relationships within your congregation?
  • What is your process for engagement and follow-up for first time visitors, second time visitors, and regular guests to your worship?
  • How is your congregation trained to welcome guests and engage them in conversation?
  • What kind of space is available before and following worship for participants to gather and make relational connections?
  • How well does your congregational demographics mirror the surrounding community?
  • How is your congregation trained and equipped to engage people in the community?
  • What types of relational contexts does your congregation provide to support the building of authentic relationships?
  • How do you follow up with absentee members or regularly attending ministry participants you’ve been missing?

The answers to these questions can involve infrastructure (physical space conducive and freely available for gathering, communications tools to let people know the gathering is happening, or supplies to facilitate gatherings with a minimum of out-of-pocket expense to participants).  They can involve training (how exactly does one start and continue a conversation with a stranger, how does one broaden one’s boundaries to seek out relationships with people who are different, or how do you know what makes a relationship healthy and learn to strengthen those traits – and why do those things matter for individuals and the church?).  Some of those answers are found in excellent ministry support staff and empowering people to consult that support staff as needed (the expertise of starting effective small groups then multiplying them, leaders trained in conflict management, or staff members or key volunteers who are cultural outreach experts).

In the gathering / relationship dimension, there are plenty of specific tools and teachable practices that can help congregations cross the bridge from ad hoc chaos to a creatively calibrated plan.  That’s a big part of what the 7 Dimensions training is designed to do in this case: fling open the toolbox of specific tools and teachable practices:

  • Symbol timelines
  • Types of Hospitality stations
  • Congregational greeting practices
  • Visitor assimilation in worship
  • Member conversations
  • 10 foot / 3 minute rule
  • Connecting interviews
  • Explorer lunches
  • Leveraging social media feeds
  • Sharing personal testimonies
  • Practical invitational resources for congregational use.

These are just a few of many, many examples.  If you aren’t familiar with what each of them is, you should be.  And if you are familiar with some of these specific strategies but you are employing none of them, you should get your congregation started.

Again, the key is intentionality.  Most congregations don’t even talk about the Gospel call to form authentic relationships.  They don’t identify it as part of their vision.  They don’t emphasize it is a priority.  And they don’t have a well-designed and strongly supported plan for facilitating the development and sustenance of those relationships.  They should!

How does your local church do with the goal of helping people form and deepen Godly relationships with people who will inspire and support them on their lifelong journey of faith?  Do you provide specific training in healthy relationship building?  Do you offer resources that are readily available and easily accessible?  Do you celebrate lots of reasons to gather and give people a clear path to move from first-time visitor to community ambassador?

Do you emphasize the importance of RELATIONSHIPS over programs, budgets, classes, and policies?

Jesus was all about relationships.  So should we be.