Earlier this week I wrote about some of the reasons it is so difficult to build community in Baton Rouge. In that, I wrote about four relationships that can, at times, take priority over the local church: (1) their immediate and extended family, (2) the friends they grew up with, (3) their old church friends (but not at their current local church), and (4) their kids’ school relationships.
One friend (who moved here as a young married having now grown up here) commented on the original post, saying, “People are very friendly and welcoming, but it oftentimes didn’t move past surface level.”
Is that wrong? How deep can the relationships in our churches here in Baton Rouge realistically be? Do we need to be in a constant state of gaining new relationships and sustaining them to a level of depth (which, over time, leads to dozens and dozens of friendships)? Larry Osborne (pastor in California) actually wrote about this idea in one of his books, Sticky Church. In that, he opines (yes, I said “opines”),
I think of people like Legos. We all have a limited number of connectors. Introverts have a few. Some extroverts have dozens. But either way, once they’re full, they’re full. And when that happens, we tend to be friendly but to not connect. It’s what happens when you move to a new town and are excited by everyone’s friendliness, only to be discouraged three months later that you haven’t connected with anyone. (p. 79)
Osborne uses this concept of connectedness not to chastise churches for being hard to get into but to simply explain why it is the way that it is—over time, people’s ability to keep and sustain relationships hits some type of temperament-dependent capacity. To a degree, I think this is true. At some point in time, we run out of an ability to add on new and deep relationships.
I’m not suggesting (though I have in the past with some folks and have thus learned how dumb it was) that we abolish all non-church friendships. However, if our local church family is important, how do we give priority to our local church?
For Church Leaders: Have Environments Where Being New Isn’t Weird
This one seems simple but is hard to balance between freak-you-the-heck-out with newcomer enthusiasm vs. having you feel comfortable being somewhere AND being new. However, environments geared toward the newcomer or disconnected are definitely important. Further, new people want to get to know people well (not just that surface-level friendliness), and other new people are great to connect them with. In both places I have lived as an adult (Dallas and Baton Rouge), I’ve made the best and closest friends by diving in deeply with other new folks right away. Many of those relationships I still maintain for one reason or another. A few ideas:
- Create low-bar environments to know the church: We’ll soon be having a newcomers lunch, but you can also employ some easy ways that new folks can interact (classes, short-lived small groups, etc.) that make it easy to check something out.
- Launch groups full of newcomers: This requires recruiting some (a) committed but tenured people and asking them to look for newer folks or, (b) grab a newer person (or persons) and have them lead a small group for new folks.
- Start new things with some regularity: Unfortunately, in church life, we get into ruts. “What works” actually often “works for us” but might have no bearing on if it works for someone else. Shutting down and re-launching ministry programs might be really helpful.
For Church Members: Be Intentional With Your Relationships
This one is likely the hardest to do, because it requires some boundaries. When I say ‘be intentional,’ I mean I want you to consider the people you spend time with and why. How many of them know Jesus? How many of them don’t? How many of them know Jesus, are in town, but are going full-on at another local church? I have a few suggestions that might help (disclaimer: level of helpfulness has not been fully tested):
- Try to sync up as many relationships as you can into the same rhythm: How many people from your local church are also people you have history with? Maybe your kids are in the same school. Maybe you are in a study together. Where you can, double up—even triple up. Why? I don’t believe quality time comes without significant quantity. If you increase the quantity of time you are with people at your church, the quality makes its way in. Otherwise, you are potentially trying to maintain an insane number of so-so relationships.
- Be willing to let people who have found a new church invest fully in that church: This one might be the least-liked, but I also think would be one of the more important ones. If someone has joined another local church, encourage them to invest fully in that church or encourage them not to leave their current one (I am a fan of the latter). I’ve seen the church cycle happen enough now to know that there are four or five churches in town that are similar to my own that people will float in and out of. However, trying to maintain those relationships can be a lot of work and it actually hinders investing more fully in either local church. I had a friend come into my office one time and tell me he was leaving the church (it was a fine reason, I understood) and then tried to soften it a bit by saying we’ll still keep up with each other. I essentially said, “Man, we don’t have to do that. I need to invest at The Oaks where I am, and you need to invest fully where you are. I love you, but we don’t need to be hombres like that.” (Note for historians: use of “hombres” was likely not in original conversation). I don’t find that harsh; I find it necessary. Cross-church unity is certainly essential, but when it comes to maximizing our local church brothers and sisters, something has to give here.
- Know your key relationships: I made this up Wednesday at lunch with a friend, but consider knowing who these key relationships are in your life and try to make numbers 2, 3, and maybe 4 be at your local church. (1) People who don’t know Jesus you are praying for and serving. (2) People you are pouring yourself into to help develop them as disciples. (3) People who are pouring into you to help you be a more faithful disciple. (4) People who know you really well, can call you on your crap, and you can go super deep with.
For The Newcomer: Don’t Lose Heart
It can be really hard being in Baton Rouge. You can get discouraged trying to learn the handshake and find out how to get more involved. Don’t lose heart. But also, talk to your church leadership and offer yourself to them to lead a new small group, create an environment for newcomers, and keep at it. It takes time—like anything—but the time will be worth it.
But nothing will change unless we all take up the charge to live out our faith in our local church—together.