Sometimes I get a little discouraged when I talk to friends in really big churches (did I tell you that Rick Warren and I went to seminary together?  I don’t think he remembers me.) 

Big churches can do some really cool and creative things.  A local large-church TV spot recently advertised their worship featuring “full-stage lighting.”  I’m not sure what full-stage lighting is, but I don’t think my church has it.  Which brings me to my point…

While small-churches may not compete technologically, or in other ways, with large churches, small-churches have a strength that large-churches really have to work at.  Relationships.  That’s right, relationships.  The late Oscar Thompson, evangelism professor at Southwestern Baptist Seminary often said, “The most important word in the English language outside of proper nouns is ‘relationship.’ ” Seems like Oscar was right, and now a major university confirms it.

Stanford Social Innovation Review, in it’s Winter 2007 issue, features Networks for Good Works, an article by Yale School of Management’s dean, Joel Podolny.  Podolny isn’t even speaking of church or faith, just social networks in society.  But it’s what he says later in the article that has real implications for churches — small or large.

  • Podolny quotes sociologist Emile Durkheim, who says, “…when humans have to choose between saving their identity or their own skins, they usually opt to save their identity.  For what is a human life without identity?”

And where do we get our identity — our passions, beliefs, ideals, motivations, and values?  Are you ready for this?  Podolny says “…our identities ultimately come from our relationships with other people — that is, from our networks.”  He goes on to say, “Our networks shape and change our identities.” 

In a previous paragraph, Podolny says, “Networks…are…communities….”  So there you have it — a Yale professor telling us that relationships change our beliefs and that networks are really communities.  Does this sound familiar?  Isn’t that what church, and small-churches especially, are good at? 

In my small-church, our people know each other.  We know when someone is sick or has a birthday or is visiting their grandkids.  We know because 1) there isn’t much news in small towns; and, 2) because we care about each other.  And when we welcome someone new into our circle, we gradually develop the same level of community with them, too. 

So you can have your full-stage lighting.  I’ll take relationships anyday — that’s what really changes people.  I know that’s what changed me, how about you?

(For more on this article, visit my other blog Amicus Dei.)