The sound of their laughter carried across the crowded lobby one Sunday morning after church, as one of the women in the group momentarily glanced in my direction. I read her glance and smile as an invitation to join them.
"How are you all this morn—"
Another wave of laughter rippled around the group, swallowing the rest of my greeting. I tried gently inject-ing myself into the conversation, but soon realized the welcoming glance I'd seen across the lobby wasn't meant for me … or anyone else, for that matter. Focused on chatter about their weekly post-church lunch date, none of them acknowledged my presence until they drifted toward the exit.
"Hey, have a great week," one called over her shoulder.
After relocating to a new town six months earlier, my husband and I began attending this church. We tried to build new relationships by helping with some community outreach projects and by joining a small group. The small group fizzled after a few meetings, and we weren't quite sure what to try next. The church initially appeared to be a friendly place, but we couldn't seem to get past the "glad to see you again" label affixed to us as new people.
We began to notice that the relational life of the 300-member congregation was driven by a few close circles of friends. While the dynamics of those connections gave the place the appearance of lively biblical community, in reality the church was a warehouse full of cliques.
I'd had a circle of good friends in my former church, and enjoyed the richness of that experience. If there was a problem in my life, I knew I could pick up the phone and call one of them. We laughed, cried, prayed, and changed our kids' diapers together. I never saw us as a clique—until we relocated to a new town, and my husband and I tried to build some relationships in our new church.
The Power of a Circle
The awkward moment in the church lobby sparked some deep reflection in me. I thought back to the way my friends and I interacted with those outside of our circle at my previous church. When was the last time we'd invited someone new to join us for coffee, a toddler play date, or one of our many Sunday afternoon after-church get-togethers?
We were a closed circle, focused only on ourselves. I realized that a clique forms a faux community, a copy of the real thing. A church clique isn't typically a spiritually challenging or demographically diverse place. God used the awkward moment in the lobby of this new church to lovingly convict me of my past choices and reshape the kinds of friendships I would be making here and now.
With fresh eyes, I saw that the Bible offers some compelling snapshots of healthy relationships, including the core circle of 12 disciples, some of whom never would have hung around with one another before Jesus called them together. The apostle Paul coached his friends in Corinth away from cliquey and divisive behavior: "By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 3:10-11). Paul spent much of his ministry encouraging the church to pursue radically different relationships than the unbelieving culture around them ever could.
Like most women, I carry the sadness that comes from being left out of a tight, exclusive clique at work, in school, and in my neighborhood. As followers of Christ, most of us ache for a deeply committed circle of friends that offers one another a safe place to share the mess and celebration of our lives. Although few of us intentionally make our group of friends into a members-only club, our desire to belong can close the circle so that only those inside its boundaries enjoy a sense of community.
If that circle then becomes toxic in a church by engaging in gossip or power politics, it has the potential to destroy a congregation and leave lasting wounds in the lives of individuals. How many women have been sidelined from active service to God by intramural clique-driven church conflict? Those wounds rob us all of the true counter-cultural community to which we as the church are called.
Even though a circle of friends can become a clique, I know that doesn't mean we're not supposed to have one. Scripture describes the intense, life-saving friendship between David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 18-20), tells us that Jesus had a special relationship with one of the 12 in his inner circle (John 13:21-27), and details the conflict that temporarily separated the close-knit ministry team of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41). All women need to know and be known by a true friend or two, friends who will stick "closer than a brother" (Proverbs 18:24), friends who will be there for one another in the midst of the joy and ick of life.
But just as I discovered, if we're blessed with a comfortable group of like-minded faith companions, we may not ever realize our group has morphed into a clique. I didn't understand it about my group of friends back home until I came face to face with cliquish behavior that morning in the church lobby.
Opening Your Circle
If you'd like to consider ways to open your circle of church friends, here are some questions to ask yourself:
- When was the last time I took a good look at the way I've chosen to relate to others in my group of friends? How well does my group mesh with the rest of my church?
- What holds us together as a group of friends—our lifestyle similarities, such as all being parents of young children, or something more?
- When church services end, do we always migrate into conversation with one another, or are we intentional about talking to others?
- If something controversial or challenging happens in the life of my church, with whom do I process or pray about it?
- Are sinful ways of relating to others, such as jealousy or fear, driving any part of my group's dynamics?
- When was the last time I included someone new when my group was just hanging out together?
- When was the last time I invited that person back a second time?
These were questions I asked several of my friends from my old church. The conversations sparked some necessary self-evaluation and even repentance. More important, the questions helped me begin to think differently about the kind of friendships to which God was calling me.
After a few more months at this congregation, my husband and I came to the sad conclusion that the cliquey culture was impenetrable. After some discussion with each other, we left the church.
The important lesson I learned was that I had now felt what it was like to be left out at church—even if it was unintentionally—and I never wanted to be on the giving end of that.
At the next church we visited in our search for a new church home, we stopped to grab literature from the lobby rack before the service started. A group of older men and women were standing nearby chatting. One of the women drifted away from the group and came to say hello to us.
Her name was Maggie.
Maggie approached us the next week, and the week after that. Maggie and her husband took us under their wing, introducing us to others in the church, inviting us to be part of their small group, and modeling for me what life beyond a clique could be. Maggie had intentionally stepped outside her comfortable circle of friends to do so, and then welcomed my husband and me again and again, as though we were long-lost relatives.
I became part of Maggie's never-closed circle.
And she became part of mine.
Michelle Van Loon is the author of Uprooted: Growing a Parable Life from the Inside Out (FaithWalk). www.theParableLife.blogspot.com
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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