This article was based on a home group leader training session given on 11 February 2009 at All Nations Presbyterian Church.
HOW CAN WE MAKE CHURCH MORE PERSONAL?
It’s a fact: church can be dry and impersonal. Sometimes this might be due to the way the teaching is presented and sometimes it might be due to us. We know that Christianity is all about a relationship with God and with others, but we can feel that we are not really connecting very well. This article aims to explore how we can practically encourage each other at church to be genuine disciples, rather than people who simply learn more facts about God each week.
A big danger for Christians, particularly in conservative churches, is to see church as some kind of tradition or ritual. We can think that we just need to go to the service and we have ‘done church’ or ‘done our Christian duty’. The Bible is clear that this is not enough. There are many warnings about the need for us to change our lives in response to God and His work. For example, John the Baptist in Matthew 3:7-10 warns the Pharisees and Sadducees to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance”. We need to have the appropriate attitude which flows through to appropriate actions. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 to 7) is full of ethical instructions on topics like anger, lust, giving, prayer and worrying based on what God is like. It is clear that Christian discipleship involves the whole of our lives, from what we think to what we say and do.
If we look in the New Testament for some kind of pattern or example of church, we also see a whole-of-life perspective. When we observe Paul at work in his ministry, we don’t see some aloof preacher but a pastor who cares for his flock personally. He describes his ministry among the Thessalonians as like a nursing mother who cared personally for each one (1 Thess 2:7-12). Brotherly love among Christians is also a key element of his teaching (as in 1 Thess 4:9-12).
Christianity is not primarily a set of beliefs; it is a personal relationship. Our relationship with God needs to be personal, and our relationship with other Christians needs to be personal.
What stops us making church more personal?
If we are honest, this idea of making church a more personal place can be a little scary. If we are to be more involved with people, it will mean that we need to open up more and reveal more about ourselves. This makes us vulnerable and open to criticism. Any personal relationship has this risk of rejection that we need to be prepared to get past if we are to really connect.
Perhaps our past church experience has been dry and impersonal and we find it hard to imagine how it could ever be different. We might be used to simply coming to church for the weekly service and being cordial but not really connecting with anyone else there. We would need someone to show us what brotherly love could be like at church.
We might also be hindered by our cultural traditions. Australian culture in general would like to label itself as a culture of mateship, but any significant emotional connection between people can be seen as a bit too “touchy feely” for many of us. Many Asian cultures have traditional values of not losing face with others which might prevent someone from sharing something personal for risk of affecting their reputation. If these things are in our minds, we need to be reminded that Christianity is counter-cultural; the values of the Bible are to be what we are to aspire to rather than those of our own comfortable lives.
Where do smaller groups fit in?
It is very difficult to form any kind of serious relationship with others at church if all we do is see them on a Sunday morning. We might have 15 minutes to talk to someone before or after the service, and most conversations don’t get beyond “how was your week?”.
Smaller groups, like home groups or mother’s groups or men’s groups, have a significant place to play in helping us connect to each other. Even if your church has hundreds of people on a Sunday morning, if you attend another group you might share it with 5 to 10 others. Regular meeting with a smaller group gives you the opportunity to build real relationships centered on prayer and Bible study. Smaller groups give you the opportunity to interact with each other more, to share your thoughts and concerns, and to pray for each other. At their best, they can be a wonderful place to give and receive brotherly love at church.
Some ways to make groups and church more personal (and more useful)
Making church more personal and applicable is not simply a matter of being more friendly and attending a smaller group. Let me give you a few ideas as to how you can change your experience of being part of a church.
Firstly, in smaller groups it is important to be honest and to keep other people’s sharing confidential. These groups can be very supportive but no-one will want to be truly honest and open unless they trust that the group will listen and not gossip. Think back to past groups you have been a part of. How open were you really when it came to your personal life, what really matters to you? It is easy to raise prayer points like “heal Aunty Muriel because she is sick” but much harder to raise one like “I need help because I am struggling with temptation”. Smaller groups can be a wonderful resource if you are willing to make the most of them. All it takes is one person to be open and honest and the group will follow and everyone will benefit.
Secondly, we need to make the most of the applications given in the sermon and Bible studies. The preacher or leader has tried to apply God’s Word to your life. Think through the big idea of the sermon – what was the major point? How will this change the way you relate to God, your family, the way you do your work, the way you see other people? The preacher’s work in applying the passage is only half the job, for you need to take that application and think it through for yourself. Don’t just feel guilty and then continue living exactly the same way; pray about it and make steps to change things. Guilt is not enough (see 2 Cor 7:8-11); we need to listen to the promptings of the Spirit and work on the issue for ourselves.
Thirdly, it will help us a great deal if we can be more accountable to each other. The church is often described as a family in the Bible, so we should make the most of that fact. As part of your local church you have a responsibility to care for others in your church. When was the last time you had a significant conversation with someone else at church? When was the last time you asked how they were going in their Christian walk, or prayed with someone about an issue you are struggling with? We need to know each other more deeply to be able to support each other more effectively.
Fourthly, we need to pray! If we are serious about Jesus affecting all of our lives, we need to ask God to change us. We need to ask for God to point out areas we need to change, to convict us through the Word, and to enable us to become more like Jesus. Prayer is meant to be personal. We need to pray to talk to our God and to express our thoughts and concerns. Feeling impersonal about church and God can go along with prayerlessness.
A few practical ideas to try
- Prayer partners. There might be someone you already know quite well at church who is the same gender as you. Why not set up a regular meeting where you keep each other accountable as to your Christian discipleship and pray for each other? This will be of great benefit to both of you.
- Testimonies. We have started hearing how people have come to know Jesus more regularly at All Nations, and hope to do this more. Finding out how Jesus has worked in others is very encouraging and shows us that Jesus is not an academic concept, but a living real person who changes people completely.
- A greater focus on prayer. We can pray individually, in a small group, or as part of a larger church. All of these opportunities to talk to our God are wonderful privileges. Make the most of them and be honest with God in telling him your struggles and needs. Think about the Psalmists and their brutal honesty; we have a lot to learn from their personal relationship with God.
- Making the most of application. At All Nations we have introduced a question box where people can ask the preacher questions arising from the sermon. We also provide sermon outlines so people can easily follow the sermon and make notes to pray about and think through afterwards. Try not to think of a sermon as a lecture; it is applying God’s Word to you, and you should be making the most of the opportunity to consider it and pray about it.
Christianity is not a philosophy, or even a set of facts about God. It is a real vibrant relationship with God through Jesus. And church should be relevant, personal and applicable to you as you try to live following Jesus. Is it like that for you? Let’s try to make church more personal for ourselves and more helpful for others.