By Donna Jones, Crosswalk.com
No matter what label dons the door of your church, one thing all churches can agree on is this: The church is meant to be a place where outsiders become insiders.
Too often, though, otherwise well-meaning believers stifle others from becoming healthy, contributing, loving members of the body of Christ, simply by being unaware of how they’ve formed cliques.
It’s good for church members to be close, but a close church can become a closed church -- and that’s a problem.
Here are 10 ways your church can stop cliques.
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1. Be Aware of Nonverbal Cues That Separate Insiders from Outsiders
My friend felt a nervous excitement when she signed up for the church women’s retreat -- alone. It wasn’t easy to do, but she reasoned that spending a weekend with other Christian women would allow her to meet badly needed friends and integrate more quickly into the life of her new church.
Her confidence was short-lived. After Friday night dinner, she walked alone to the auditorium as other women strolled with friends, their happy chatter a reminder that she was an outsider. Oh well, at least I’ll get a good seat, she thought, trying to stay positive in an uncomfortable situation. She walked toward the front and was shocked to see every seat taken, saved by the Bibles that women had placed there before dinner. She moved further back, only to find the same thing. The only seat open was a corner one on the very last row.
Every Bible on every chair seemed to scream, “You aren’t welcome here. We already have friends, and you aren’t one of them”.
Of course, this was not the intent. Still, it was a memory she never forgot.
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2. Model Inclusiveness from the Top
My friend (the one who ended up sitting in the back corner) later became the Women’s Ministry Director of a large, thriving church. Because she experienced first-hand how isolating church can be (even unintentionally), she made it her goal to model inclusivity. She not only talked about being welcoming but also modeled it, making sure every person -- whether on the leadership team or on the fringe -- felt equally valued and included.
She prayed for those things, too. And guess what? God honored her heart and her prayers. In all the years she served as Women’s Director, her ministry was marked by unity and love; in fact, the single most common observation newcomers made was “the women here are so loving and welcoming!” And no wonder, a clique-free church starts from the top.
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3. Encourage Other-Centered Thinking and Acting
Most churches have greeters. Many even set aside a minute or two during the worship service to greet those seated close by. While these things are good, they’re just the start. It does no good if greeters aren’t truly warm and friendly, or the welcome time leaves newcomers left standing alone. The key to making these things work is to be other-centered. Other-centered churches are made up of other-centered people. And here’s the key: other-centered people actively look for others to include.
Being other-centered is not a function of your personality; it’s the fruit of your heart.
Jesus was the ultimate other-centered person. He initiated conversation with the woman at the well; He saw Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree and invited him down to talk; He called Matthew to follow Him while Matthew was sitting at the tax booth. And even though Jesus had an inner circle of 12 disciples, their closeness never isolated people from Christ; instead, their closeness to Christ served to bring others close, too.
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4. Stop Grumbling and Complaining in it's Tracks
While most of us tend to think of cliques forming through bonds of relationships, cliques can also form through bonds of resentments. For example, get a small group of people together who are upset about the style of worship music their church sings, and you have a clique. Or a group who shares the same distaste for the pastor’s style of preaching, or the youth pastor’s ministry style, or the way the budget is allocated, or…you get the point.
Cliques can form around common interests, but they can also form around common complaints. Want to know what happened to the clique that complained and grumbled about Moses? They were destroyed. Ouch. God doesn’t mess around with cliques like this. 1 Corinthians 10:10 warns us against becoming a part of a clique who complains: “And do not grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.”
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5. Expand Volunteer Base
In most churches, 10 percent of the people do 90 percent of the work. Not only is this profoundly unhealthy (not to mention, unbiblical), but it also fosters division between those who do and those who don’t. This division is fertile soil for cliques to grow.
Every church can make sure that it has ample opportunity for people to contribute by using their gifts. It must also be certain that opportunities to serve are easily accessed by folks who aren’t already involved and “in the know”.
When people can’t break into a church’s inner circle -- or don’t know how -- they feel marginalized. Marginalized people never stay. But when a church expands its volunteer base, it expands its capacity to be a healthy, vibrant, clique-free place to worship Christ.
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6. Don't Show Favoritism
It’s natural to gravitate toward people like us, or people we deem “worthy” of us. But God warns His body not to show favoritism. James 2:1 says, “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.” Wow! This is not a suggestion -- it’s an outright command.
Favoritism comes in various forms in today’s culture, not all of them obvious; for instance, church programs might favor married couples over singles or divorced folks. Other factors like clothing style, whether or not someone has tattoos, race, ethnicity, socio-economic levels, and education can affect whether or not someone is included or excluded.
God’s kingdom is for everyone. Christ’s church is not simply a place for people we deem acceptable; His church is a place where people can be accepted. Church should be the ultimate clique-free zone.
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7. Make Sure Some Ministries Have an Open Door Policy
Years ago my husband became the teaching pastor of a large church. We made a mid-year move -- November to be exact. Eager to meet friends, I inquired about joining a women’s Bible study, only to find out I would need to wait until January to begin; in fact, there was not a single group or ministry I could join mid-session. I remember thinking that the women’s ministry leader didn’t seem to consider how difficult her policy made it for a new person to integrate into life of the church, not to mention make friends. But then again, she already had friends. She was already solidly settled into her comfortable church life. She was part of the clique, and didn’t even realize it.
Of course, not all ministries can -- or should -- have an open door policy. But some can, and some should. Every church needs a few options for folks to join at any point; otherwise, the church is unknowingly creating a culture of cliques.
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8. Don't Use Insider Language
As a speaker, I travel across the country speaking to churches of all stripes. I’ve noticed a common thread between groups who seem particularly clique-free and those who aren’t: their word choices. And it’s not the word choices you might think.
For instance, when someone says, “to sign up for XYZ, see Sally”, they’re implying that everyone knows Sally. Of course, people in the church clique know Sally, but what about everyone else? What about the guest the church is trying to reach? Or the person who attends church occasionally? Churches also unintentionally perpetuate cliques by what they name their ministries. Years ago, my mom was involved in a church group called BYKOTA, which stood for “Be ye kind, one to another”. Without knowing it, the very name these women chose created an “in” group and an “out” group. Who else would possibly know what BYKOTA stood for, except the women who were in the group?
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9. Invite Others in
This one might seem obvious. But reality tells us that too often churches and church members don’t take the initiative to invite others in.
Why? Because inviting others in takes us out. Out of our comfort zone. Out of our familiar routine. Out of our nice, safe, predictable life.
But inviting others in also takes us out of a life of stale, powerless Christianity. The Leadership Pastor at our church likes to say, “Church gets exciting when people start inviting”.
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10. Mix it Up
Although we might like our small groups to stay the same, or our Sunday school class to be made up of people in our same life stage, it’s good to reach beyond our boundaries and live life with people we might not otherwise choose. Not only does this prevent cliques, but it also opens the door to new growth possibilities for us as Christ-followers; for instance, if a group includes folks in different seasons of life, the older members can share their wisdom, and the younger members can share their zeal. If a serving team, worship team, or hospitality team is comprised of different types of members, the capacity to genuinely love and care for people from all walks of life is expanded. It’s a win-win and a great way to prevent cliques.
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Donna Jones is a national speaker who’s shared God’s Word and God’s love with folks in 20 states and on four continents. As a pastor’s wife, she has a front row seat into the in’s and out’s of church life. Donna is mom to three, and the author of several books, including Seek: A Woman’s Guide to Meeting God. She’d love to connect with you at www.donnajones.org, on twitter @donnajonesspeak, or on Instagram @donnaajones.