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Rural Churches Need More Weak Relationships

We need more weak relationships in our rural churches. Granted, “weak relationships” do not make for a catchy tagline in our discipleship plan. In general, many rural churches see close, tight friendships as the preferred goal for all relationships within the church.[1] Weak relationships do not get much press in small church literature—after all, they have the label “weak”!

However, in my recent research that included 28 rural churches from 9 different denominations and networks, I found that all churches have strong relationships between some of the people in the church—even in the most unhealthy of churches. The healthy churches, however, had flourishing weak relationships. Weak relationships are somewhere in between acquaintance and friendship. Picture the people that you know a little bit—you know their name and have an idea of where they live, but do not engage in personal conversation very often. These relationships are a blessing!

When all of our relationships in the rural church are focused on close, bonding friendships we miss out on the opportunity to engage with people from different groups. We need weak, bridging relationships where connections can begin between people who are simply different from one another.[2] This may be even more true in the rural church.

Weak Relationships Open up the Group

There is a reason why close friendships are the overwhelming goal for rural churches. The strong tie of a close friendship is amazing, a “combination of the amount of time, emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confiding), and the reciprocal services.”[3] In fact, more than a goal, we have the unwritten expectation of tight knit relationships in our rural churches that match our stereotypical expectations of our multi-layered relationships in the community. When the end goal of every relationship is a strong friendship, however, we can create a church health mess.

Exclusively generating close friendships creates an in-group versus out-group divide. We start out with plenty of these out-groups in our rural churches. If you were not born in the town, or the county for that matter, you might always be an outsider. If you have an uncommon last name, or the wrong last name, you might be perpetually on the outside looking in when it comes to decision making or even life-on-life discipleship. We are not intentionally keeping people out of the inner circle (usually anyway), but there are natural barriers. If you are not at the family gathering the day before the church business meeting, or one of the couples who have known each other for decades within the church, you might not have an opportunity to join the exclusive close relationship clubs.

When we exclusively maintain the strong ties of bonding relationships, we operate within our own group, and do not interact well with others.[4] The beauty of weak relationships is that they offer the “sociological WD-40” that free us up for relational connections with people outside our usual group.[5] Weak ties provide the opportunity to bridge between people of various small groups and get them communicating, even if it is not at the deepest of levels.[6]

We complain about “new people” not staying in our rural churches. Are there weak relationships to welcome them into, or are they always on the outside looking in at tight, bonded friendships? Through my research, a number of rural churches identified that small groups are only used by the “outsiders”—people who have moved in, people who recently started attending the church, or are different in ethnicity or socio-economic status. The long-term church families do not participate—they do not see a need for it. The unspoken reason is that they already have their unofficial small group—the extended family and long-term friends. These in-group families do not see a need to participate in a church small group because it does not meet their need—missing that the small group is not all about them.

Weak Relationships Increase Our Reach

People are limited by the number of strong ties that they can have—there are only so many close friends one person can maintain. More people can be connected through weak ties than if we solely relate to people through strong ties.[7] When we consider developing small groups, it is imperative that we are not only developing tight knit groups. These are critical to offer, but they are also closed to people looking for a new place to belong. We need to provide some small group experiences where people can “try out” a church connection. Service opportunities provide just that sort of space.

Service Oriented Small Groups

Churches do not have to choose between offering only close, bonded friendships or weak, bridging relationships.[8] Healthy rural churches provide small groups for bonding, but also provide missional, service opportunities where people can interact with weak, bridging relationships. Inviting people to join in on a community service project or even a road trip to come alongside another church is a way of actively advancing God’s Kingdom.

I love hearing about rural churches engaging in service projects: blessing a local school through meeting a specific need, participating in a community clean up endeavor or providing for community needs, helping a sister church complete a remodeling project, and the list goes on. Not only is the work itself missional, but WD-40 gets applied to relationships and there is an opportunity for all to participate and engage.

We are called to more than tightknit “in-groups.” We have the opportunity to welcome people into weak relationships that make for healthy rural churches. Let’s grab a can of WD-40 and get to work—and explain the “why” to the in-groups that are deeply bonded in our churches.

[1] Beyerlein, Kraig and John R. Hipp. 2005. “Social Capital, Too Much of a Good Thing? American Religious Traditions and Community Crime.” Social Forces 84: 1006.

[2] Maselko, Joanna, Cayce Hughes, and Rose Cheney. 2011. “Religious Social Capital: Its Measurement and Utility in the Study of Social Determinants of Health.” Social Science and Medicine 73: 760-761.

[3] Granovetter, Mark S. 1973. “The Strength of Weak Ties.” American Journal of Sociology 78:1361.

[4] Granovetter, Mark S. 1973. “The Strength of Weak Ties.” American Journal of Sociology 78:1374.

[5] Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone:  The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 23.

[6] Granovetter, Mark S. 1973. “The Strength of Weak Ties.” American Journal of Sociology 78:1376.

[7] Granovetter, Mark S. 1973. “The Strength of Weak Ties.” American Journal of Sociology 78:1369.

[8] Curry, Janel. 2003. “Social Capital and Societal Vision: A Study of Six Farm Communities in Iowa.” In Religion as Social Capital: Producing the Common Good, ed. Corwin Smidt, 139-152. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 150. Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone:  The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 23.