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Practical Ideas for Building Relationships

At the heart of the Christian life is community, and community is built in relationship. How do we build relationships in classes, workshops, meetings, training events, and work project groups? How do we plan and lead vital Christian education so that participants experience the presence of Christ in the group? Let's look at Jesus' earthly life in Luke's Gospel for answers and suggestions.

Jesus began his ministry by himself, following the strength and direction of his powerful experience with God. He was assured of God's love at his baptism and discovered God's direction for his life during a prayer retreat in the wilderness. As with many of us who begin a new ministry, Jesus' early efforts had energy and enthusiasm that accompanied the assurance of God's love and a clear vision of ministry. After a period of time, the pace of the schedule pushed Jesus to seek a place alone for reflection. (See Luke 3:21-4:44.)

  • Celebrate the energy and enthusiasm of a new group or an existing group that is re-forming to begin a new study unit. Keep alert as Jesus did to the signs of burnout, resulting from trying to carry the work on your own.
  • As a leader of ministry, keep your relationship with God as a central, strong part of your life. Launching (or renewing) a new Christian education experience requires time for planning, contact and promotion, and preparation for teaching. Seek some time alone for prayer and reflection. Pray for the community you hope to build.
  • In the next stage, as described by Luke, Jesus built relationships with one person at a time. He went to Peter's house; then he asked Peter for the use of his boat. After that, Jesus invited Peter to trust him to try something Peter didn't expect. As Jesus built a relationship with Peter, he did not exclude the others — they all followed Jesus. Next, Jesus surprised the fishermen by calling Levi, someone who was different from them. After many days together, and after intense prayer, Jesus named 12 disciples —a core group (Luke 4:38, 39; 5:1-6:16).
  • As the leader, begin to build a relationship with one person in the group. Trust God to lead you to that person, and then to the next person. These may be people who are not at all like you! The entire group is watching you, so model Christian hospitality and welcome strangers.
  • Call each person by name, and help members of the group know one another's names and interests.
  • Spend time with God in prayer so that God guides your actions, your choices, and your timing as you build relationships and teach others to build relationships.
  • As soon as Jesus named disciples, he started teaching a curriculum of core beliefs and values. He began to equip the followers to live as disciples. The core group of disciples was part of a larger group who were listening to Jesus' words (Luke 6:17-44).
  • Teach the group core values and a belief system that includes loving others and loving God. Be the best teacher you can be by growing in your own relationship with God and by developing skills with various teaching methods. Beware the trap of becoming a social group enjoying one another's company while stalling in faith development!
  • As a group, express care for others by providing a service, such as food, visits, clothing, or cleaning. In other words, practice what you preach!
  • During the rest of Jesus' life, he lived with the disciples. They shared what they had — material goods, spiritual life, doubts, fears, celebrations, meals. Their relationships were built in community.
  • Spend time with the group you hope will become community. Relationships form as people share their life experiences. Youth and adults form their identity and strengthen their faith in relationship with others. Read the Gospel of Luke with this in mind. Look for examples of the way Jesus lived with his friends, with strangers, with enemies. Jesus pointed the way to God and to community.
  • Talk about things that are important. Often, Jesus communicated by asking a question and by listening — so deeply that he often "heard" heartfelt needs, deep pain, hopes, and joys that were not spoken aloud. Relationships are built as we listen to others.
  • Pray together and pray alone. Pray for the individuals in the group, and let them know that you are praying for them. Together, explore different ways of praying. Plan lessons on prayer; have a prayer vigil or prayer retreat.
  • In every community, there are times of conflict and times of crisis. Jesus did not avoid these times. He faced conflict as it occurred (e.g., Luke 22:24-30). He warned the disciples about conflict and crisis that would come if they followed him. And through it all, he loved them.
  • Welcome differences as opportunities for growth. Talk about differences and ask,"What is God saying to us through this issue/incident?" What should we be learning?
  • Teach about conflict and differences before they occur. There are plenty of helpful examples in the Bible and in curriculum. Help the group understand how addressing hard issues can lead to deeper understanding and faith maturity.
  • Share concerns and crises during prayer time. Model concern for absent members and be ready to assist a member of the group at a time of crisis.

The Trinity, or God in three persons, shows us the perfect relationship of distinct persons (Father, Son, and Spirit) who together are One. God has created us for relationship with God and with one another. Jesus' life and ministry show us how to build relationships. In the end, Jesus blessed the disciples, and the community was one of joy, praising God (Luke 24:50-51). God calls us today to be Christian community built on relationships of mutual encouragement, praising God.

An ordained deacon in the Northwest Texas Conference, Betsey Heavner is the Director of Leadership for Congregational Renewal at the Discipleship Ministries, Nashville, TN. This article was first published in Christian Education Week, 2001; edited 2011.