We all know about cliques both in and out of the church. Some of us are at least a little bit put off by them. We may feel that we are looked upon as an outsider who is unwelcome if indeed we are looked upon at all. As Justin Rogers noted in his book, In the Beginning: Life Lessons from Genesis, “Everybody is aware of cliques…Small groups of people with similar interests band together and exclude all who do not belong in their group. Schools, businesses and even churches can develop dangerous cliques…Cliques keep us from branching out” (Gospel Advocate Co., 2014; 54).
Does the fact that a person has a close circle of friends mean that a clique has been formed? We all know that Jesus had friends whom He dearly loved and who were particularly close to Him (John 11:5). Even among the apostles He had what we call “the inner circle,” including Peter, James and John (Matthew 17:1; 26:37). It was not unusual for Paul to conclude his letters with greetings to a few brethren, either as groups or individuals (Romans 16:1-15; 1 Corinthians 16:12-18; Ephesians 6:21; Philippians 4:2-3, 18; Colossians 4:7-17; 2 Timothy 4:19-21; Titus 3:12-14; Philemon 23-24).
A clique is defined as, “a narrow exclusive circle or group of persons, esp: one held together by common interests, views or purposes” (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, “Clique,” 249). In this article I am applying the word “clique” to small groups of brethren that form within a congregation and huddle together to talk and visit either before worship services, after, or both. These groups are not necessarily formed by Christians who are exclusionary or cold toward others, but nevertheless might be perceived as such. Norman Bales expressed it this way in his book, A Sense of Belonging, “Cliques are formed when people develop exclusive ideas about their group and discriminate against people who aren’t in that specific group” (20th Century Christian Foundation, 1989; 34).
Do cliques ever develop in otherwise friendly congregations? We would answer yes. Why does cliquishness exist in some congregations? Does cliquishness (to some degree or another) exist in all congregations? It is not possible for anyone to speak for all congregations since we are not there to have a first-hand knowledge of what they are like.
We all participate in some form of group-life in the church. Formal groupings include nursery and teenage classes, young adults, young marrieds, singles, retired, and ladies classes. Added to this are various work committees, such as visitation teams, support groups, care groups, singing groups, singles groups, seniors groups, service teams, food committees, and in our day more and more addiction recovery groups join the list. Part of the glue that holds congregations together is the interworking of groups like these. To this formal arrangement of groups we might well imagine informal huddles of people with similar sporting interests, health concerns, personal problems, parents of children about the same age, as well as other interests. There is, of course, nothing wrong with any such groupings.
Cliques result when and if otherwise healthy groups become clannish or exclusive. If our time is basically limited to a close circle of friends congregational communication suffers. The problem is that new members, quiet members or visitors can feel largely ignored if they see small groups banded together, talking to one another and ignoring new people. That feeling on the part of such persons may be reality, or it may be perception. If you want to say that perception is reality, then that adds another dimension to this matter. The perception that a congregation is not friendly is sometimes nothing more than one’s perception, or opinion.
You might say that all of this seems to be a very small thing, but it is not so small when and if someone judges a congregation negatively, or criticizes a church unnecessarily. Let’s posit a hypothetical, but at the same time, a very real situation. Someone will visit a church and say, “You are one of the friendliest congregations I have ever seen.” These brethren are naturally pleased that the visitor is so impressed. Someone else may visit the same church and say, “You are one of the most cliquish congregations I have ever seen.” The same brethren are naturally hurt and perhaps a little defensive against such a charge. In the 30 years that I have preached for the same congregation I have often wondered how one assembly of the Lord’s people can be perceived so differently, and at opposite ends of the opinion spectrum.
It may also be that visitors project their own personalities into how they view the receptiveness of a congregation of the Lord’s people. Some people visit and complain, “Nobody spoke to me,” and that might conceivably be true. Suppose the visitor sat in the back, did not speak to anyone around them, and was quick to leave after the final “Amen.” Is it then fair for that person to complain that this church is unfriendly and cliquish? On the other hand, suppose that the visitor spoke to others around them, introduced himself or herself by telling others where they are from, and lingered a little bit after the last “Amen.” We would all do well to remember we find people about as amicable as they find us (Proverbs 18:24). Does this scriptural truth apply in situations like this? If visitors expect friendliness, should they exhibit some friendliness themselves?
I pray that the congregation where I attend (and preach) will never be cliquish, and that visitors will not perceive us to be so. In all honesty I don’t think that people in most congregations really intend to be cliquish. It is very easy for us to be drawn to people who share our particular interests and concerns. We are comfortable with certain people. There may be some places and situations where snobbery is somewhat evident, but that should be the exception rather than the rule. I hope that we will not be drawn into such a tight circle of friends that visitors must walk past us unnoticed. Let us strive to move outside the warm clans of close friends and extend the warmth of friendship to others, especially visitors! The love that God’s Word teaches us is broad enough to welcome everyone. Think twice about shaking hands with a friend until you have extended a kindly greeting to a stranger!