We all want our churches to be loving environments. But what does that look like? How do we make that happen?
As I see it, some churches work to be more friendly— and that’s good. Some move beyond being friendly and move to caring— and that’s better. But, I think there is another step. That step is being a carrying church.
Let’s look at the progression.
It starts with friendly churches.
We need to be intentional about the friendliness of our churches. Nowadays, many churches and church leaders do trainings on how to be a friendly church. A church can be an intimidating environment for newcomers, so we must start taking steps to make everyone feel more comfortable when they enter. We have things like welcoming teams and greeters at the door.
In the past, churches weren’t as intentionally friendly, at least as we would think of friendly today. Oftentimes, no one would greet you at the door; you would just walk in. But now, there are smiling faces opening the door when you enter. Someone says to you, “Hey, good to see you!”
Friendly churches are a step in the right direction in transforming our churches into places that better reflect the love of Christ. It’s nice to feel as though you’ve walked into an approachable and agreeable environment.
But we can go further.
As time passed with more and more churches becoming friendly churches, we began to realize that people weren’t just looking for a friendly church. They were looking for friends. A friendly church doesn’t mean friends. It just means you taught people how to greet one another—which is a good thing, but there’s more to friendship than that.
A friendly church is basically a greeting church.
But a caring church is a church that is moving into deeper community. In a caring church, people have an intentional engagement in each other’s lives. It is in a caring church that people find friends.
In a caring church, people are not only identified as members of a community, but are also able to participate as members of the community. You can’t be a caring church when you’re always sitting in the sanctuary, facing forward, lined up like you’re on shelves at Walmart.
That’s not community; that’s just proximity.
We want to move people from sitting in rows to sitting in circles. Small groups are a great structure to accomplish that, which is why today a caring church is almost always going to have some form of small groups. In small groups, people can build true relationships with some of the people they sit next to each Sunday in church.
Contrary to popular misconception, a caring church does not have to be a small church. Large churches can stay caring churches through their small group ministry, or other ministry that does the same job as a small group ministry.
But, there is still more.
So, there are friendly churches and sometimes we go a step further to be caring churches. But I think Jesus has called us to go even deeper—he has called us to be a carrying church.
God has called us in Scripture to “carry each other’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
We are not only to care for one another, but to carry one another.
Caring for one another may look like having an empathetic or sympathetic approach to another’s pain and hurt. In a caring church, we at least know about one another’s burdens; in a friendly church, we may not even know that.
But a carrying church means we’re going to engage in each other’s care and hurt. I want our churches to move to be the place where there is a deeper caring, a deeper compassion, a deeper level of love.
1 Corinthians 12:26 says, “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.” Often, when we think of members, we think of members of churches. But what Paul is talking about here is members of the body.
Think of the word “dismember.” If you cut your arm off or even just a finger, you’re dismembered. You’ve lost a member of the body. We, the church, are the body of Christ. If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it, just as when one part of your physical body hurts, the rest of your body feels an effect.
But in most churches, this isn’t actually the case. For the majority of churches, it is assumed that a person’s family will provide the carrying while the church provides the surface level, or sometimes even moderate level, caring.
Carrying is thought of as a familial function. But in the New Testament, carrying is a congregational function. It can and should be the reality of our congregations today, too.
The church needs to move into deeper community that truly expresses what love is. We need to bear one another’s burdens, confess our sins to one another, pray for one another, and have deep compassion on one another.
We are a family. No one is too heavy for us to carry, because they are our brothers and sisters. We should be willing to work together to carry one another’s burdens as we suffer with those who suffer.
My exhortation to the church today is that we would take steps to go deeper and embody being carrying churches, as the church was in the New Testament.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.