I get asked that question probably more than any other. How do I find fellowship if I’m not part of a traditional congregation?
It’s true that there are a lot of wonderful people who attend traditional congregations, but as many have found it’s also not easy to build relationships there unless you’re involved in all the programs. Even then, it can be difficult when people already have their friendships and very little time or energy for more. And if you ever leave a congregation because you’re exhausted by the behind-the-scenes politics or because the pulpit messages are laced with guilt and performance, you’ll find just how shallow those relationships are. Many of your so-called friends will forget about you or exclude you because you’re no longer part of the same work. Then what do you do?
One of the difficult realities people face when they leave a congregation is finding ways to connect with people. But that’s only so because we’ve always expected others to provide the fellowship opportunities for us. Some look for a nearby house church or think of starting one, hoping to draw others into a similar task, but that can also replicate the same problem. The good side of this is that people who find traditional congregational life unsatisfying, don’t do so because they’re loners. They actually want friendships that rise out of a common passion for Jesus and are looking for ways to walk with other believers in a deeper community.
If you’re new to this journey and have found your old friends pulling away from you, first know that you’re not alone. Almost all of us know what that’s like. We know the loneliness and the desperation that can set in. But the loneliness can be a great tool to draw you closer to Jesus. We often try to fill the God place in our life with others and thus miss how he wants to do it. So literally put him first. Find your life in him, not in your friendships with others. Learn the joy of waking up in the affection of Father each day, even if it takes months to learn.
As you learn to live in that freedom, ask him to give you away to others during your day. It is the task of the Spirit to set us in the family, not ours to find out what we think is best for us. That said, Sara and I just don’t wait on the couch expecting someone to come to our door and ask for fellowship. Instead we’ve been pretty proactive each day about looking for opportunities where our lives can intersect others.
In the last 8 years Sara and I moved twice to localities where we knew no one, and both times we just started loving up on our neighbors and others we met through work and other community engagements and watched a new network of friends develop. We followed those distinctive nudge in our hearts to go meet some believers in a congregation, fellowship groups, mission settings, and other local ministries. . Even though we didn’t join any of those things we met people there with whom we have maintained relationship and watched friendships deepen. We’ve volunteered in community projects and made intentional efforts to be a friend to our neighbors. Not all we met in our new surroundings were (or are) believers, but we have eventually found our lives so full of others, some to love and some to journey with, that we felt our lives quickly filling up.
Live loving toward others near you where that is possible, taking an interest in them whether they are believers or not. See where those relationships go. Don’t try to “build relationships”, because that puts an agenda to them that will drive people away. Desperate and clingy destroys the hope of organic relationships. Just love others and let relationships take their course. Some will deepen and grow, others will just be a passing moment. If God leads you to engage believers in places where they gather, feel free to go. You can be alongside others even in congregational settings without having to buy into all the baggage and without disaffecting them from what is meaningful to them. This is not an exact science, it is a journey and God knows the friendships that you need and how to bring them into your life.
Stay in touch on the web with connections God seems to make there. Travel a bit to meet others to whom God is bringing a connection. Resist the urge to treat relationships as a convenience and make some sacrifice to engage others. Everything about our world trends away from relationships and so will we if we get so overwhelmed with life that we only have them when its easy or convenient. Friendship is about laying your life down for others knowing that Jesus is always laying his life down for you. Friendships will grow best when we’re not trying to control them or trying to get others to act according to your expectations.
In the long run, it is trusting that God knows how to bring you into relationship with others and show you the way forward. It is out of that trust that real relationships can begin and grow.
[A personal note: To those who have been praying for my Dad, he got home Saturday from nearly 3 weeks of surgeries and re-surgeries and his home, healing, and grateful. Thanks for your expressions of prayer and love for us during this time.]