A vision for the church

Don O'Brien

The church is about three things:

  • Friends
  • Faith
  • Support to make a difference

Let me elaborate.


We start with the greatest commandments:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-40 NIV

Church without friendship is not church. It might be a lecture hall. It might be a concert. It might be a show. But it’s not a church. Church is where we learn to love God by loving our neighbors.

Friendship/relationship is the currency of Christ’s kingdom. Nearly all New Testament instructions (including all the instructions relating to the local church) center around loving one another. Without relationships, love is never expressed.

Friendship validates our message. We live in a culture where there are thousands of competing messages all vying for our attention. To survive, we must ignore most of them. How do we decide which to pay attention to? The dividing line is relationship. We listen to people who care about us. The old saying is true: “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care [about them].” Jesus put it this way:

“By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35 NASB

Healthy relationships are characterized by understanding, trust, respect and love.

Nobody wants to be a project. But everybody wants a friend. Friends accept and love one another, even when they disagree. The goal of friendship is friendship. Love is unconditional. We don’t love people on the condition they convert, agree or change. We love them as they are for who they are: a person much loved by God.

Christian culture often divides church people into the ministers (those who have something of value to share) and the needy (those who need help). This creates roadblocks to friendship. We all have something to share. We all have needs. We each are both ministers and needy.

Friendships provide opportunity for us to grow. People challenge us on multiple levels. This is a good thing. We take those challenges to God and cash them in for patience, kindness, self control, peace, joy and love.

Putting people on the same bench listening to the same sermon does not create friendships.

Leaving friendship to chance does not create friendship. Some people have difficulty forming friendships; it is the responsibility of the church to help these folks into meaningful relationships.

One of the primary reasons people leave the church is they find (from their perspective) judgment instead of friendship. One of the big reasons people in their early twenties leave the church is this: They have no close friends in the church. One of the biggest things we can do to ensure the success of the local church is to prioritize friendship.

Most churches have a small group program, but most churches struggle to get more than 20% of their congregation enrolled. We need to do some troubleshooting to find out why that is, and we shouldn’t assume that it is the fault of the people who choose not to enroll. Maybe we need to approach the small group thing a different way.


We start here with the Great Commission:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20 NIV

Faith means that we bring people into a meaningful relationship with Jesus.

Discipleship thrives when people come into a meaningful relationship with Jesus. By that, I do NOT mean they said a prayer, and they’re set. Suppose a husband and wife said “I do” at the marriage altar, and then went on to have nothing to do with each other for the rest of their lives. Would you call that a marriage? I wouldn’t. It certainly is not a meaningful relationship.

A meaningful relationship with Jesus will look a little different for each person. But here are some defining characteristics:

A meaningful relationship with God means that no part of our lives is off limits for God. We share every part of our lives with Him, and we submit every part of our lives to Him.

A meaningful relationship means that we have faith to believe God for answers to prayer and faith to trust God when our prayers are not answered according to our wishes.

A meaningful relationship with Jesus means that we find comfort from Him in those places where we are hurting, and we find coaching/encouragement/instruction from Him in those places where we are trying to find our way. He heals our hearts and renews our minds.

A meaningful relationship with Jesus means we love soaking up what He has to say to us through His word and through His Spirit.

A meaningful relationship with Jesus means that we have confidence in Him for His provision for us to be forgiven, to be brought into God’s family, to receive the gift of eternal life.

Needless to say, a meaningful relationship with Christ is something far different than try-harder behavior modification and sign-on-the-dotted-line doctrinal uniformity. Leaders must be able to show their followers how to “taste and see that God is good” and experience a moment-by-moment relationship with Christ.

Support to make a difference

Here we start with this instruction from the Apostle Paul:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-13 NIV [emphasis mine]

What are those “works of service”? They could include starting a food pantry, building earthquake resistant houses for displaced people in Nepal, writing blog posts and books, working in the church nursery, praying with people for emotional healing, starting an NGO to rescue people from human trafficking, adopting a child, volunteering at a rescue mission, planting a new church, being a companion to an elderly person, sharing one’s story with an audience, recording music, starting a coffee shop to create a meeting place for Christians, raising funds to buy an airplane for a missions organization, creating mission-focused internships for students, distributing gloves to the homeless, writing letters to persecuted Christians or any of a thousand different things. Please note that these works of service might or might not have anything to do with perpetuating a Sunday morning church meeting. But they all matter, and they all need to be validated, affirmed, encouraged, supported, mentored, coached and celebrated by church leaders.

Unfortunately, research shows that the people who are the most motivated to make a difference in their world sometimes run into the most resistance and opposition from the bureaucracy in their own church. Many of these people end up walking away from church because they can make a bigger difference on their own.

To be fair, church leaders are reluctant to endorse outside ministries because they have no control over what those outside ministries might do. And church leaders are likewise reluctant to hand over too much responsibility too early within the church to the wrong person. While I understand these concerns, there are still plenty of options for celebrating, affirming, validating and coaching people who desire to make a difference. A mentoring program, a Sunday morning commissioning service, a newsletter with updates, and any of a thousand other options are available and should be employed to move the church from a sermon-centered event to an empowering community.

Church leaders need to remember that the real Kingdom footprint of a congregation extends outside the four walls of the church building and way beyond an hour or two on Sunday. Cultivating and deploying that Kingdom potential is Mission #1 for the church leader. This requires a vision that goes way beyond perpetuating a Sunday morning event.

Photo credit: Don O’Brien, Flickr, Creative Commons License

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