Working in college ministry means that many of my discipleship environments revolve around social events and gatherings. The question of how to build relationships without losing discipleship is one I’ve wrestled with. As it turns out, I’m not the only one.
How do we build churches and communities where relationships are built and thrive, but are still centered around the study of the Scriptures and following Jesus? Last year Lifeway Research released important, yet alarming findings surrounding this topic and question.
Aaron Earls writes, “Building relationships with other believers seems to come naturally to Protestant churchgoers, however, for many, those relationships are built apart from Bible study and spiritual growth.” For most churches and Christians, building community is relatively simple. They offer community groups as their vehicle for building relationships with others. Gatherings and events are planned to foster community, fun, and fellowship with other believers.
Though there are many vehicles that the church uses to build community, the destination can often be forgotten, or the vehicles set in motion never even arrive at the desired destination. The destination is discipleship and spiritual growth, loving God and neighbors, and to become more and more like Jesus.
Though this is the intention, many aren’t getting there.
The 2019 Discipleship Pathway Assessment study from Nashville-based Lifeway Research found that 78% of Protestant churchgoers say they’ve developed significant relationships with people at their church. The research also shows that the impact of those relationships is weak when it comes to discipleship.
According to this study, churchgoers aren’t as intentional about leveraging their relationships with other believers to help them grow in their faith. Fewer than half of churchgoers (48%) agree with the statement, “I intentionally spend time with other believers to help them grow in their faith.” This is significant, and it also may speak to some of the divides we’re witnessing in the church.
If our relationships never move toward real discipleship, then our relationships will always be too shallow to display the unity that Jesus prayed for. So how do we continue to foster community and relationships while at the same time helping people move toward meaningful discipleship relationships with one another?
Here are four steps that can help us build community without losing discipleship.
Build families, don’t just gather crowds.
One of the things that COVID has revealed is that we love crowds. I don’t know of a pastor who doesn’t love to look out into a room to see the seats filled. Every preacher enjoys the adrenaline rush of speaking to a room full of individuals looking for hope and encouragement.
This is why, for many churches and church leaders, the transition from crowds to cameras have been quite difficult. Most church leaders and pastors hope people aren’t idly on their phones half listening and half scrolling.
This year has revealed that many churches depend on gathering crowds more than cultivating family in their churches and communities. We can move toward our destination by making sure our social events are more about becoming like family than meeting a quota of people and activities.
The goal is to move from merely hosting a crowd and creating fun to building trusting relationships that are foundational for growing with one another. The environments we create must include the familial language and atmosphere of the New Testament.
Growing up in the black church gave me a front row seat to this familial concept. It wasn’t unusual to be encouraged or even reprimanded by someone older in the church, because everyone saw each other as family. The black church is notorious for organically cultivating a family atmosphere where everyone is your aunt and uncle, and everyone has license to speak into your life.
As we all know, family is a context where the innermost parts of your life are oftentimes on display. However, this a breeding ground for intimacy and instruction—both of which are needed for discipleship. When our social gatherings or events are tools for building family, intimacy and instruction will be a natural product.
People will have the freedom to care for, encourage, and correct you even in relaxed and communal settings. This is how family works. The Apostle Paul saw his ministry to the Thessalonians the same way he sees a nursing mother care for her children.
An effective disciple maker sees his/her people as family, not just a group of students because in reality, we’re brothers and sisters with the same Father. We must view the people we are pouring into as family members. Our love for the people we are discipling must be expressed in the family room, not just in a classroom (1 Thessalonians 2:7-11).
Don’t just consume relationships; love your neighbors.
This next point should naturally be a byproduct of building family. Much has been written about consumer Christianity and its dangerous influence on people’s souls. Most people who visit a new church or who are even checking out a church for the first time in life are looking for something—more times than not, they want community or family.
Of course, this isn’t a bad thing; on some level we should want people to come to church or to small groups looking to connect with others and build relationships. Though this can be a good thing, the dangers of consumer Christianity can emerge.
One of the ways consumer Christianity rears its ugly head is in relationships. This is why small groups can go on for years and years without multiplying.
Forming lifelong friendships is encouraged, but if our desire is to only build exclusive relationships to serve our needs then we will miss discipleship opportunities.
If we look at the Scriptures many of the “one anothers” have to do with what we do, say, and give to others rather than what we receive from others. As the apostle Paul said (quoting Jesus), “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
If we take just a glimpse at Paul’s teachings on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians, Romans, and Ephesians, the purpose of the spiritual gifts is to use our gifts to love our neighbors and build our neighbors up in a way that would encourage them towards Christlikeness and towards doing good in the world.
Building relationships without losing discipleship means that our priority must be on loving our neighbors—which means seeking their good over our own good. Relationships shouldn’t just be consumed but should be places where blessings and love are abundantly giving. If our social gatherings are just places where people consume relationships, then discipleship will be squandered.
When love of neighbor is the priority, then discipleship will be in the forefront of our relationships. Selfless and sacrificial love will move us not just to receive the benefits of hanging out with people but will guide us to opportunities to encourage with the Word, and give ourselves to others for their spiritual growth and benefit.
Make circles and classrooms.
If the mission of the church is to make disciples, then we must seriously ask ourselves if we have been misguided in our processes. One could make the argument that if we want to make disciples, especially in a COVID world, then we must audit our methods.
Over the past few decades, there’s been a huge push for life-on-life discipleship. Many churches have moved away from classroom-style discipleship and have moved more so towards discipleship that happens primarily in circles like small groups, community groups, etc.
One of the ways we can make sure that social activity isn’t drowning out our mission and purpose to make disciples is by taking a look again at classrooms. In Deep Discipleship, JT English asks a good question about the kind of spaces we are creating or have for discipleship: “What spaces does your church have for discipleship?” which begs the question of whether our discipleship environments are conducive for learning and studying.
English concludes, “The reality is we have relied heavily on community-driven spaces to accomplish things that only learning spaces can, and we are paying a steep price.” I believe it’s possible to both have circles and classrooms.
We need spaces for learning and spaces for community. One way both spaces can thrive is if we teach and show people that the discipleship education that they receive in training environments are supposed to be applied in their communal and everyday relationships as well.
Knowledge must be applied to everyday life and relationships so that the wisdom of God can flourish in the lives of His people. We must work hard to help people prioritize settings and environments where they will posture themselves as students of Jesus and His Word.
This means that for social events and gatherings to truly flourish in their rightful places, Christian education and discipleship must be the priority when it comes to the church’s work and mission. Our goal when it comes to discipleship shouldn’t be to count how many disciples we have, but to pay close attention to the kind of disciples we are producing and sending out into the world.
Wisdom as the way forward
It’s a wonderful thing that we’ve succeeded in helping people form relationships and friendships in the church, but we must not stop at the gathering of crowds. We must be intentional about forming a family who will seek to bless, give, and love those around them in word and deed.
Discipleship in the home, in our lives, and in the classroom are all needed, so pursuing discipleship isn’t an add-on to our lives but should be built into them. This will happen if we see the Bible as a pathway of wisdom for human flourishing.
Whether we’re in the classroom or in a social setting that the church has organized, discipleship and wisdom should be a continued pursuit. This takes intentionality and even some hard work, but it’s worth it.
Discipleship and wisdom will help us to center our lives around Christ by being consistent to read and talk about the Word whether we are in a social setting or in a classroom. Building relationships without losing discipleship can happen if we prioritize the ways and wisdom of the Scriptures in every context and with every person.
This article was originally written by Charles Holmes, College Minister at The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, and published by lifewayresearch.com