When Church Relationships Are Hard

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Why don’t I click with the people in my church? Shouldn’t it be the most natural thing in the world for me to spend time with brothers and sisters in Christ?

Is something wrong with my church? Is something wrong with me?

I look at our neighborhoods and see cars gathered in front of houses every Saturday to watch football. Every Saturday. And they seem to really enjoy being together. Why can’t it feel that natural when I gather with my small group?

And then there are family gatherings. I feel more relaxed at family birthday parties and Christmas gatherings than I’ve ever felt with my church. When that turkey’s being sliced and pumpkin pie is on the counter—that’s real family. My church is never going to even come close. Right? And should it really be this way?

Family through the Fight  

If we expect our churches to feel like family without any effort, we have misunderstood the gospel. To become our brother, Jesus Christ had to be made “perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10). When the apostle John reaches for an explanation of true family, he doesn’t say, “Real brothers sit down and have a beer” or “Real family pulls for the same team” or “Real love comes from shared background and skin color.” No, he speaks of pain:

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. (1 John 3:16)

Jesus actually laid down his life—as in whipped, beaten, insulted, nailed through, suffocated, and killed—to make us family. If we think love in the family won’t require work and pain, we aren’t listening to John. We become family through the fight.

Above all, we must fight ourselves. Paul calls this putting to death the old man (Col. 3:5). We are the biggest obstacle to intimacy in the body of Christ. Our sin. Our selfishness. Our desires. Paul tells the Philippians that the body of Christ is designed to give us opportunities to kill the flesh.

In humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Phil. 2:3–4)

When my family lived in Louisville, I played pick-up soccer every week. There was a student there who got under my skin. We always seemed to be on opposing squads, and every tackle was a little harder with him—if you catch my drift. Then one day, he joined my church. My wife and I invited him over for dinner, and I ate a piece of humble pie as I realized this guy had a big heart for Jesus. Brothers and sisters are going to rub us the wrong way. When they do, we should assume the problem isn’t them—it’s us.

We grow by enduring conflict and hardship, especially within the church. God brings conflict to forge unity through sacrifice. And here’s a rule of thumb for the conflict: you can stop deferring to your brothers’ and sisters’ needs over your own once you’ve humbled yourself lower than Jesus did (Phil. 2:5–11).

Tallest Walls

The thing about being born again is that it’s like being born the first time: we don’t get to choose what family we are born into. I didn’t pick my biological brothers and sister. And I don’t get to pick whom God saves and draws into my church.

God loves to confound man’s wisdom (1 Cor. 1:27–29). The wisdom of man says we should make a church out of a bunch of people who already have everything in common: skin color, income, education level, worship preferences, and more. But the wisdom of God saves people like Peter and Cornelius—people who wouldn’t be caught dead in each other’s neighborhoods—and makes them brothers (Acts 10).

It took a fight to bring the family of God together, and it may take a struggle to keep it intact.

Christ’s church is a place where the tallest walls in society are torn down (Eph. 2:13–16), and that doesn’t happen without intentionality and struggle.

Paul even talks of Jesus’s work for the family in violent terms: on the cross he was “killing the hostility” (Eph. 2:16). The people now reconciled to God were once “alienated, hostile in mind, doing evil deeds” (Col. 1:21). If that’s how they acted toward God, imagine how they treated one another before Christ entered the picture. It took a fight to bring the family of God together, and it may take a struggle to keep it intact. After all, the church is a society of saved sinners.

Worth the Fight

In the church, we don’t have externalities to fall back on: we aren’t blood relatives, we don’t all have the same skin color, and we don’t make the same money, come from the same schools, or enjoy the same things. We have Jesus. That’s it. And he’s enough.

Jesus draws together those who wouldn’t naturally hang together. This is why church feels unnatural. Even forced at times. And so it should. Love is not just a feeling; it takes work. It takes realizing maybe our music preferences are just that. And maybe we need to learn to laugh at old man humor or to listen and empathize with the teenage angst of that high schooler.

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