Four Essentials for Relationships in the Local Church

If you’re like my kids, you refer to your friends according to where you met them or where you’re with them the most. 

School friends. Sports friends. Neighborhood friends. Church friends. 

And if you’re like my kids (and me too), you may have a slightly different level of interaction, comfort, and candor with each of those groups. You might laugh a little louder with some. Maybe you lead in one group and follow in another. You might share more of your struggles and concerns with some and stay closer to the surface with others.

We live out our faith in Jesus Christ through relationships in every context, but let’s put a magnifying glass on those church friends. Relationships within a local church are unique and purposeful, with some biblical requirements, but they still include all the “stuff” of life. In church relationships we experience joy and sorrow, encouragement and frustration, growth and stagnancy, fun and boredom, love and disdain.

So how do we navigate all that? And perhaps more importantly, Why should we? 

We find a big picture answer to that “why” question by looking at a chunk of the New Testament table of contents:

1 and 2 Corinthians
Galatians
Ephesians
Philippians
Colossians
1 and 2 Thessalonians

What’s the common thread? These are all letters from Paul to local churches that he helped start or build up. Establishing these churches and writing to them was a part of Paul’s mission from God, and the encouragement, correction, exhortation, and wisdom Paul sent to these local churches were so essential and widely applicable that they were included in the canon of Scripture. We can deduce that the local church must be pretty important to God and to His kingdom. Because of that, we should persevere in relationships within the local church. 

Remember, too, that the definition of a “church” is a called-out, assembled group of people with a purpose. You’ve probably heard it said that a church is the people, not the building. It’s people in relationship with each other because they want to live out their shared faith in Jesus Christ. 

So then, these relationships are part of building up individuals, families, and groups of believers—the parts of God’s kingdom that, for now, exist in the kingdom of this world. That’s the big picture. Our goal is God’s kingdom and making what is important to Him important to us. 

That’s the why. Now to answer that tricky and really complicated original question, “How do you navigate the stuff of life in relationships within the local church?”I would offer four biblically-grounded essentials for healthy church relationships.

Four Essentials for Healthy Church Relationships

1. Don’t just go. Get involved.

While your consistent attendance at the main worship gathering of your church is valuable to you and the entire church family, it’s really difficult to develop meaningful relationships in that setting. 

Friendly greetings, brief conversations, and just your presence alongside others have value, but meaningful relationships develop as you get involved in multiple aspects of church life. That might include joining a small group, getting involved with a class, serving within the church building or in the community with others from your church family, or even just going to or hosting social gatherings. 

There is virtually no way to have a meaningful relationship, let alone get the personal nourishment you need, by simply attending a local church. It’s just not God’s design (see passages like Acts 2:42–47, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 2:19–22, and Galatians 6:10). 

Tim Keller explains this first essential in a succinct and powerful way:

We live in a culture in which the interests and desires of the individual take precedence over those in the family, group, or community. As a result, a high percentage of people want to achieve spiritual growth without losing their independence to a church or any organized institution. . . . There is no way you will be able to grow spiritually apart from a deep involvement in a community of other believers.1

As you are consistent and committed in various contexts of your church with various people, you’re going to need love. This love is the kind described in the familiar 1 Corinthians 13 passage that follows Paul’s description in chapter 12 of the structure and the working of a healthy body of believers. The local church is the original context of love that is patient, kind, selfless, strong, and enduring! 

This is also the kind of love that one of my mentors modeled to me. She often told her children when they were young, “I love you too much to let you act that way.” This is the faithful, disciplining love we see in Proverbs 13:24 and Hebrews 12:5–11

These definitions of love inform the remaining three essentials for relationships within a local church:

2. Maintain a loving attitude.

Attitude is the combination of heart and mind. It involves both knowledge and feelings, and it’s revealed in the ways we act and speak. If you’re going to have loving actions and words (they’re next on this list), you need a loving attitude. As you combine what you know about God’s Word and about a person, your attitude towards them should be Spirit-controlled (Gal. 5:16, 22–26) and full of the kinds of love just described. 

3. Pursue loving actions.

Anything you are doing with or for a person within your church body should be characterized by love. But first, you have to do something. Just your presence and effort to come to something shows care and love. As you’re a part of events, service opportunities, classes, Bible studies, and/or groups in your church, you’re acting in love. As you get together with people from your church outside of the church building for meals, playdates, exercise, sporting events, home improvement projects, and whatever else you might be into or need, you are pursuing loving actions. The emphasis is both on love and action. They’re nearly inseparable.

4. Speak loving words.

Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Prov. 18:21). So if you want to preserve and strengthen your life and the life of others, speak loving words. Again, this doesn’t mean that every word that you speak will be pleasant to hear, but our words should be characterized by a loving attitude, purpose, and sincere tone. This will most certainly include words of affirmation, encouragement, and building up (Eph. 4:29). But it will also include words of correction and rebuke. Our words should evidence our love for the ones to whom we speak and the love of the One who is our guide and purpose in all things.

Relationships can bring some of the greatest joys of life. They can also bring a lot of pain. They’re complicated, take a whole lot of time and effort, and sometimes just don’t seem worth it all. But God’s kingdom and valuing what is important to Him is worth it. And our relationships within the local church are part of his plan for the world. We are part of His kingdom here on earth and His representatives in it. Be active and intentional; God can show Christ to and through you and people in your church body.

1 Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (New York: Penguin, 2008), 124, 127.

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About the Author

Heidi Jo Fulk

Heidi Jo Fulk

Heidi Jo desires to know and live God’s Word, then teach and challenge other women to do the same. Heidi and her husband, Dan, live in Michigan with their four children and she leads women's ministries at her church.