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Why Discipleship Can’t Happen in Your Church Without Relationships

More and more Americans are concluding they don’t need church. One of the key reasons is that more and more churchgoers are concluding that they don’t need each other.

Today, two-thirds (65%) of churchgoers agree they can walk with God without other believers. If those who go to church do not value the relationships at church enough to see them as essential, then how can the church communicate to our disinterested neighbors why church matters?

In our efforts to make the Gospel personal, we have short-changed the corporate aspects. We frequently use a phrase not found in Scripture to describe our “personal relationships with Jesus Christ” and fail to emphasize the phrases that are in Scripture calling us to “be one” and to “love one another.”

It’s true that none of us is a follower of Christ unless we personally, individually accepted God’s gift of salvation through faith by His grace. But as a follower of Christ, have we fully grasped God’s plan for us to follow Him in community with other believers?

Jesus wanted His followers’ orientation to be pointed toward one another.

As Americans, we’re highly individualistic and consumeristic. It is easy for me to not ask for another person’s help for the things I do. I can access the information I need to do things myself on YouTube or by asking Siri. I get what I want, the way I want it, when I want it, and I’m done.

The tendency is bringing this mindset into church. We get the things we need from the church as often as we need it and we’re done.

But it’s easy to miss that some of the ends that God has in mind for us involve being together. Our mission as followers of Christ is something Jesus said must be done as one (John 17). Our witness to the world is designed to take place by loving one another. And the reality is that we can only be the church when we’re in community. Along the way these friendships improve our personal well-being.

How a church fosters community has changed. Years ago, many churchgoers were at church several times each week. The programs themselves were never the strength of these churches of yesteryear. The relationships that were built by seeing each other on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights, plus prayer breakfasts, workdays, potlucks, etc. created the strength of the church and what allowed it to have impact in its local community.

The power of relationships within the church is something that most of us individually need to rediscover. One of the most effective ways for a local church to foster relationships is through small groups of adults meeting together regularly, building relationships, praying together and studying the Bible together.

Lifeway Research completed research that illustrates the power of small groups, Sunday school classes or Bible study groups within a church. Participation in a small class or group of adults corresponds with higher levels of evangelism, service, giving, disciplines and relationships among those who regularly participate.

What is it about relationships that God would want them to be both a means to His ends and an end in itself? What did God hardwire into our overlapping friendships that benefits a local church?

Recent sociology research helps explain why small groups of adults in a church are effective in helping individuals be the church. In a word, it is all about relationships.

Damon Centola in this book, How Behavior Spreads, creates an important distinction. He agrees with previous researchers that information and ideas spread fastest through weak ties. These are connections we have with people that don’t involve much relationship or personal time together. But we do notice things that they pass along. This includes many social media connections with people you’ve never met or only met once or twice who give you ideas or pass along who won a game or supply the how-to video on YouTube.

Centola contends that behavior spreads differently. Behavior spreads best through strong, overlapping relationships. If you hear from two or three people who know you well and who know each other that a new restaurant is worth visiting, you are more likely to visit it than if you hear it from a food critic. You likely didn’t start using Facebook or Instagram until multiple people close to you shared that they were trying it. After all, there is much less reason to join those platforms if nobody you know is posting.

Similarly, when you hear about something new and you share the idea with close friends, they often discourage you from trying it. So, you don’t. The truth is that we value the opinions and advice of our close friends the most when it comes to actually changing our behavior. They keep us from making a lot of mistakes.

If you haven’t noticed, our walk with Christ involves a lot of behavior change. Christ calls us to stop going our own way and to follow Him. We need His help to be able to do that in many daily decisions. He has designed relationships in our local church to be a large component of the help he is offering us.

A powerful relationship thread is seen throughout Scripture. The cord of three strands in Proverbs are these overlapping friendships. Jesus referred to the church together as the bride of Christ. The new command Jesus gave to his followers was to love one another. James describes the victory over sin that can come from confessing it to another believer. Jesus meant for us to follow Him in relationships with other believers.

All of the positive reinforcement of behavior change that comes from a small group raises the question if this can also work in reverse. Can a group of people hold each other back? Can my friends’ inactivity reinforce my own apathy? If my group doesn’t start something, does that fuel my procrastination?

The answer is yes! And that’s where the importance of Bible study within these small groups comes in. The truths of God’s word become the plumbline for our lives and challenges us when our actions (or inactivity) differs from God’s way.

For Bible study to keep a small group on God’s course, it must be systematic and intentional. Too often what our groups study resembles picking a restaurant for dinner. Restaurant picking sounds like, “Where do you want to go? I don’t know. Where do you want to go?” Many groups have the same conversation about what they study. “What do you want to study next? I don’t know. What do you want to study?”

There’s nothing wrong with the latest Bible study, but neither picking new releases nor felt needs are intentional or holistic.

The best Bible studies for ongoing groups have a planned scope and sequence that intentionally take a group through the whole counsel of Scripture over time. By purposely working through the numerous ways that Jesus wants us to live His way we will challenge both a new believer and someone who has been a Christ follower for many years.

Think again about how few Americans see the value of church and how most churchgoers don’t see the value of relationships within church. Reversing this sequence depends on whether we as church leaders really believe that relationships within our church matter. Are we willing to personally model loving these relationships and communicating the importance in Scripture of this fellowship?

If an unchurched person pauses to consider the message of the Gospel today, their own relationships will likely create strong pressure not to follow Christ. If they visit your church or meet someone in your fellowship, one of the things they are evaluating is the community itself. Will they see so much love for each other and joy that comes from deep relationships that they doubt the advice they may hear from their close relationships?

Jesus’ prayer for the church is that we would “be made completely one,” that the world may know the Father sent Jesus. May this benefit become our prayer, too.

Used with permission. Scott McConnell is the executive director of Lifeway Research. Article originally published on and can be accessed here: Why Discipleship Can’t Happen in Your Church Without Relationships – Lifeway Research

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