Church Cliques: Are they a Bad Thing?

August 17, 2012

Mike, Bart (not their real names) and I would hang out on the golf course every Monday morning. We did this about 25-40 times a year. Afterward, we went down to a local restaurant and had lunch. During those times together, we shared intimate details about our lives. We often ended in prayer with each other. After a couple of years, our wives became close friends as well. We even took a couple of weekend vacations together.

But I remember distinctly the day when a young lady in our church came and told me that I was sinning because I was part of an exclusive “clique” that left her and her boyfriend out. She had wanted to be friends with the wife of one of my golf partners, and felt rejected because this woman decided to go camping with us instead of going to this girl’s shopping trip.

I asked around to some of my other friends in the church to see if they noticed I was part of a clique. A couple of them said they did feel I was in a clique and the rest said they hadn’t noticed. My wife asked some women and almost all of them expressed concern that our clique was harming the church.

We decided to disband our golf group. I was very sad to do so. Now, I am thinking that I may have been too hasty to break up a good thing. Let me explain and then propose some middle ground on this issue.

What really is a “clique”? It is hard to define, because it often depends on whose viewpoint you are seeing the group from. If you are someone who wants to be included in a group, or at least invited to participate, a clique can seem like a walled-off group of people, resulting in (at the very least) a marginalization of others. However, if you’re a member of a small group of dear friends, this group can be a lifeline and a refreshing break from the mundane existence of living in a broken world.

Think of some of the groups in the Bible that you might call a “clique”. The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus spent most of his time with just 12 guys to the exclusion of many others. Mark chapter three makes it clear that Jesus was deliberate in wanting to be fairly exclusive with his time. And then, within that group of 13, there were four people (Jesus, John, James and Peter) that formed an “inner circle” clique.

Remember, this is Jesus we’re talking about here; the healthiest human that ever lived. He pulled it off, but he’s not the only one.

Paul and Barnabas left on their first missionary journey with a small group of guys (and probably a few gals). This did not include the entire church and was certainly intended to be somewhat exclusive.

King David had a group the Bible calls “His mighty men”. Among that group were 30 men he hung around with a lot and in that group was another exclusive clique called “chiefs among his mighty men”. He also had a best friend, Jonathan, to whom he devoted more love than to his wives.

I could keep going at this idea, but you probably see the pattern. In and of themselves, cliques are not necessarily a bad thing. Personally, an exclusive group of friends can do the following things:

  • Meet the need for deep, intimate closeness. You can’t have that with everyone or even with crowds of people.
  • A small group can accomplish a lot more than an individual or a big group. If you’ve ever tried to plan an event with a committee of 20, probably you will never attempt it again. On the other hand, if you’ve ever tried to execute a large event by yourself, then you will remember how demoralizing it can be. A small group of friends can often achieve amazing results.
  • It meets the God-given need to have friends. And we can only give ourselves to a limited amount of people.
  • Only a small, trusted group of friends are safe enough for us to open up with and share ourselves completely. Therefore, only in a small group of people will any of us be held truly accountable with our actions.

But I can hear someone saying “Mike, you know that’s not what the problem is. In any group (be it church, community groups, clubs or 12 step programs) some people are popular and some are isolated. Some make friends easily and others do not. The popular, friendly ones get invited to join small, intimate groups and the less popular, perhaps awkward people, do not. And yes, (especially in Church), that can be so devastating and cause people to exclaim , “I’m never coming back to that unfriendly place”.

What can be done to prevent a healthy small group from becoming a demoralizing clique? I think there are some very simple guidelines that will help.

1. When your small group is in public, make a point of not talking just with each other. Actively seek out the marginalized, forgotten, extra-grace-required people. Look for the introverts, the socially awkward and the disabled to let them know you care. If the public meetings are truly public, then the entire group needs to be embraced. You have more intimate times to connect with your friends.

2. Make a point to include at least one or two people in your group who would never have found their way in. I don’t mean to have “token introverts” among you. But I think it is healthy to be deliberate in how you approach friendships. Jesus deliberately included Judas Iscariot and Simon the Zealot among his 12, even though both of them must have been a pain in the butt.

3. Don’t tell the whole world about your small group. Disarm jealousy before it starts. Most people dislike cliques because the groups are so “in your face” about it. They post all the pictures from their camping trip on Facebook, pepper every conversation with “Jane and I were talking the other day” and are always invited to every social event with each other. Do whatever it takes to be known as a group that is close but doesn’t flaunt it in front of others.

4. Challenge members of your group to occasionally do things with other people in the church; especially the shy and marginalized. Make that a goal of your group – to reach out individually and let others know they are loved.

I believe if a small coterie of people follow these guidelines, no one else will really mind that you are getting close to each other.



  1. I recently stopped attending a church that was clique-ish, in part because even after almost three years there, no one cared whether I showed up or not. and yes, I did participate, push my introverted self to get to know people, attend things. but when a group has been together for years, they get comfortable, and don’t seem to need more friends. and this is not the only church I’ve been in with this problem. I think it might be very common in the US, because our faith is not a life-or-death thing. it’s more like a club, whose members feel exclusive, and exclude others without even realizing it. in fact, this might just be one of the biggest reasons why people don’t go to church much, or don’t stay in church.
    and close friendships are what a lot of people are missing in this modern world. everyone needs community, even if it’s a gang. so how does the church promote close friendships, while still being open to new people. it must be a deliberate thing.
    you’ve given us a place to start, Mike. thank you!

    • You are exactly right! You hit the proverbial nail on the head.

  2. I agree with some but not all of your statements. First there is nothing wrong with having a close group of friends. I have friends from childhood and we are like brothers. However in a church setting it can destroy the body. You use the example of Jesusvand the twelve to condone or justify. Get a grip man. Jesus went to the needy broke hearted and those in pain. He was always available even when his “12” questioned or others like the tax collector, Mary Magdeline, etc. There is also a difference between members having close friends and when it’s the Pastor his family etc involved. This is where hurt and alienation creeps in.

    We just installed a new young pastor at our church after our old pastor was caught in an inter office affair with the youth pastor ( & his best friends) wife. The new pastor gave off a different vibe when auditioning versus now. He has ensconced himself in with a chosen few families, including one that openly lives contrary to Christian principles and works basically in peddling smut. The pastor and his family moved into their family compound and they are all together always. Others are not openly invited to attend simple things like a group outing and dinner after small groups. Likewise our church doesn’t get involved in raising funds for our sick members. People see this and are hurt. Many discuss “the inner circle”. I have felt ostracized by some even though we actively serve in ghe church and attend small groups. I’m a disabled vet from oy recent “squirmishes” but was also recrntky diagnosed with a fast cancer. I felt left out on my own. Not by everyone. But knowing I’m sick and ill eve never been offered a meal plan to help when I’m down from treatments. My wife us also suffering from some ailments and we have two young girls. My point is thst those who are in the clique and inner circle are thought of. Those not are like we don’t exist. I and my family could have used some care like that. Instead there are times where sick as I am, on the verge if blacking out I have to take care of preoaribgvandvserving meals and cleaning up. So if just want to say cliques cause major harm even when unintentional. It’s also about perception. So having close friends is normal and we are all not going to be best friends. However our church is supposd to be family bounded by our faith and relationship in Christ. We must act like Christ and not let our selfish desires needs and feeling good overstep our duties.

    • I agree with you. When a small group locks themselves away and only takes care of each other–ignoring the real needs of others–it is horrible. I trust God will bring others into your life that will help you get through this hard time.

  3. Oh my goodness! This is such a great post! When I look at it in the context of Scripture of how Jesus did it, it just changes my whole outlook on things. Thanks for taking the time to write this!

  4. I have to disagree with you. Cliques are really harmful. Jesus would have been left out as well. He was a carpenter. Even Judas who he knew would betray him was part of his circle. His circle to anyone who would follow him. The inner circle would spend their time open by talking to groups of people. Jesus will talk to marginalized, poor people. I think that you want to justify your actions.

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