I never get used to people leaving. I realize that we live in a transient world in which people come and go. But after nearly two decades in local church ministry, I’m still saddened every time someone leaves. Don’t get me wrong, there are legitimate reasons to leave. But too often it seems like people just want a change—something new to try.
One of the refrains I’ve heard over the years goes something like this: “We just don’t feel connected here.” This sentiment sounds just substantive enough to not arouse questions. Who doesn’t want to feel connected? The problem, however, is that it places the responsibility for connection solely on the church and not at all on the person experiencing the feelings. The decision to leave implies that you people are the problem. This church is the reason I don’t feel connected. Perhaps the next group of people will change the way I feel.
If this way of thinking prevails, the connection problem will inevitably show up again at the next church. Leaving a problem never solves it. Nothing happens here that doesn’t happen there. Perhaps your feelings of disconnection indicate a need to grow in grace rather than a need to leave. What if God is trying to grow you where you are?
Let’s face it, relationships are hard. As if dealing with our own self-centeredness isn’t enough, relationships insert us right into the middle of other peoples’ messes. There’s not a person among us who hasn’t felt relational pain; there’s also not a person among us who hasn’t distributed relational pain. It may be tempting to conclude, “Why bother?” But thankfully, God doesn’t give us that option.
Assuming someone wants to take my advice and stay put, what would it look like to grow in this area? What practical advice is available for someone who desires to connect more deeply at a particular church? Below are five wise principles that I would recommend to anyone struggling to connect at church.
Crucify Your Dreams
First, crucify your dreams about the church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together, “Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter.” According to Bonhoeffer, genuine Christian community will never be experienced if one is critically comparing the actual community of which one is a member to the ideal community of one’s imagination.
Dreams are always abstractions. When we imagine the ideal Christian community in the abstract, we eliminate any possibility of loving and being loved. Follow me here: If I enter a particular community, expecting that community to fulfill my dream of what a community should be, then people become abstract props in my dream. I am not serving them. I am not committed to them. I do not love them. I am expecting them to play their parts in my dream. If they fail to meet my expectations, I drop them and continue my search for the dream community—one that I will likely never find. The language being used may sound spiritually mature as the seeker expresses criticisms over lack of “love” and “fellowship,” but the only hindrance to said love and fellowship is the dreamer.
Trust the Bible Over Appearances
Second, commit to believing the truth over appearances. Every week when the church gathers to worship, a battle rages in my mind between what my Bible says about the church versus what my eyes are prone to see when I look around. My Bible describes the manifold wisdom of God being revealed to the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10), but my eyes see napping congregants and rowdy toddlers. The Bible describes an assembly of saints being sanctified by the Word, but my eyes see a conglomeration of sinners being distracted by the world. When this inner conflict arises, we must remember that we live by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). The mysterious work of the Holy Spirit is often hidden from the naked eye. I know he’s working, not because I always see him, but because his word assures me he’s working.
What does Jesus see when he looks at the church? Thankfully, we don’t have to imagine that answer. The apostle Paul tells us that the church “is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). Christ refuses to consider himself complete apart from the church. Later in the same letter, Paul tells us that Christ sees the church as his bride and that he is committed to sanctifying her until she holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:26-27).
Commit in Order to Belong
Third, realize that belonging follows committing, not the other way around. You will never feel like you belong with a people until you have committed to those people. In Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, Jayber settles in the small farming town of Port William, Kentucky, as the town’s barber. As an outsider in a small town, he’s looked upon with a fair amount of suspicion until he proves his intention to commit to the barbershop (and the community) for the long haul.
In a revealing quote, Jayber says, “To feel at home in a place, you have to have some prospect of staying there.” To fit our church culture, Jayber’s wise statement can be altered a bit: “To experience the love and fellowship of a particular church, you must first commit yourself to the people of that particular church.”
Several times, I’ve listened as disillusioned churchgoers lament the absence of a feeling of belonging. Often, their decision to commit is made dependent upon this ever-elusive feeling. But you cannot experience belonging without actually belonging, and belonging only follows commitment. If you enter a community with qualifications, half-heartedly and hesitatingly, you will never truly belong. The hindrance in this instance is the individual, not the community.
To be loved one must be open to being loved. Any hint of suspicion in the heart towards the community will drown out whatever overtures of love and service the community makes toward the individual. Suspicion is detrimental to true community formation. Suspicion is easily perceived by those in the community and will ensure that one remains in the position of an outsider. Commitment is hard because it requires vulnerability and trust, but have you ever built a meaningful relationship without those characteristics?
Fourth, transformation follows personal responsibility. None of the biblical commands to the church are written in the passive voice. In other words, God never instructs us to, “Be loved,” “Be served,” or “Be encouraged.” All of God’s commands to us come in the active voice. Love one another. Serve one another. Encourage one another. Sitting around waiting for others to initiate the relationship is not a Christ-centered position. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
So often our complaints about the church reveal a passively self-centered mindset. We complain because no one called when we were sick. We sulk because no one greeted us when we came in. We too easily assume the worst about people. From one perspective, this tendency makes perfect sense. If I can form a narrative about an unloving church, I won’t ever have to do the hard work of loving. As long as the problem is them and not me, I can walk away with a clear conscience and not have to bother with the hard work of changing.
Obey Christ, Not Feelings
Finally, feelings follow action. C.S. Lewis wrote insightfully in Mere Christianity about the futility of waiting for a loving feeling before acting in love. He wrote, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”
I’ve personally experienced this process many times. No one perpetually feels like loving. There are Sunday mornings when I don’t feel like getting out of bed and going to church. Once I get there, I don’t always feel like speaking to people. Here’s what I must realize in these instances: I’m not called to obey my feelings; I’m called to obey Christ. When I choose Christ, something miraculous usually happens. I sense my heart changing. I find myself wanting to love the church.