Ken Hemphill: RECOGNIZING RELATIONSHIPS AS THE KEY TO ASSIMILATION

Both authors were privileged to serve First Baptist Norfolk when it was experiencing exponential growth.  The explosive growth of that church was absolutely a “God Thing” and none of the staff would be so bold as to take credit for what happened as Norfolk grew from around 380 in average attendance to around 2,200 average attendance in the Sunday school small groups. 

The growth was exhilarating and humbling at the same moment.  It was exciting to see God work through human instruments in such a powerful and effective manner.  One of the reasons for our rapid growth was that our people regularly brought friends and neighbors to small group Bible study and church.  The atmosphere was nearly electric as people greeted one another, sometimes with a warm embrace, and then introduced their friend to others in the parking lot, hallways, and lobby. 
I would be less than honest if I didn’t tell you that our rapid growth created numerous challenges.  The land owned by the church was inadequate for our needs and therefore we were quickly out of building space and out of parking.  We responded to these challenges by implementing multiple opportunities for worship and small group Bible study.  While this strategy helped to solve our space problems, it created unique challenges to our fellowship. 

We were continually creating new units which meant that people who had been together for a period of time were asked to help start a new small group.  But beyond that, some small groups were asked to move to a new time period to provide space for additional small groups to be formed.  We were thrilled that God continued to use our church to advance His kingdom by reaching the lost, but we didn’t want to sacrifice the warm fellowship our people had come to enjoy.  Our church was a “friendly” church.  People loved to “hang out” with each other and this fellowship was a key to our rapid growth.  As we addressed this issue as a church family, we came to believe—based on our understanding of 1 John 1—that fellowship could never be diluted by numerical growth.  Thus we knew we had to address the concern from both a biblical and functional standpoint. 

One part of our biblical solution was to preach a series of messages on the church.  Several of those messages addressed the issue of fellowship.  After one of those messages, I was walking through the lobby observing the animated hugs and joyous conversations as people welcomed one another.  A young mother, who didn’t look quite as happy as most people, pulled me aside indicating her desire to talk.

Gesturing at the people in the lobby, she said, “Do you know how your sermon made me feel?”  Both her tone and her visage told me that this wasn’t going to be the typical “wonderful message pastor” salutation.  I indicated that I did want to know how she felt.  She then explained that the message coupled with the apparent “friendliness” of the lobby made her feel even more alone.  She was married, but her husband did not attend church with her.  She was shy and thus reluctant to interject herself into one of the animated huddles gathered in the lobby.  The “friendliness” of our church that did not include her made her feel that something must be wrong with her.  

Here is a profound truth.  People aren’t looking for a friendly church!  They are looking for a friend!  The conversation with that young mother caused me to rethink both the message and the structural issues of our church to ensure that, to the best of our ability, we would never again have anyone feel “alone in the crowd.”  This woman was a member of our church and yet she felt like an “uninvited guest” in her own home.  Everyone must establish several meaningful relationships in the church, if they are going to be Velcroed to the church. 

The explosion of various “social networking” sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, online dating services, and blogs indicates the need and desire for relationships.  The truth is these internet substitutes have not produced authentic personal connectivity which has led to close friendships.  Many people live with few if any real friendships and thus experience both personal and spiritual isolation. 

George Gallup has reported that Americans are among the loneliest people in the world.  We would immediately respond, “These people need the Lord and His church.  They need to experience authentic biblical relationships.”  But here is the problem!  Brad Waggoner, in his book The Shape of Faith to Come states: “Less than a third of our churchgoers could confidently affirm they have high-quality relationships with fellow church members.”

Casual contacts and surface relationships do not Velcro people to the church.  We must intentionally connect people to people so that they experience high quality relationships. 


Brad Waggoner, The Shape of Faith to Come: Spiritual Formation and the Future of Discipleship (Nashville: B&H Publishers, 2008), p. 236.

Ken Hemphill is the author of several books related to Sunday School. He will be speaking at several of our All Star Sunday School Training events. We have several dates we are looking for dates in the Fall. See http://allstarsundayschool.com/