We all go about our days, and we simply do the things that we do. I know that’s the ultimate nothing statement, but I mean it when I say it. I don’t think many of us set up our lives like a chessboard, where we strategize who we’ll become close friends with, how we’ll spend all of our time, who we’ll take the time to get to know, and so forth. For most of us, we get involved with various things, and those patterns of involvement shape the kinds of interactions and friendships we’ll have.
Without question, we pick our spouses, and usually within that we make conscious decisions about how many kids we’ll have. So to a certain extent we make choices about what our family makeup is going to entail. But even then, there are a lot of factors outside of our control. And we also make a lot of choices that help to determine our careers. But even then, who our actual coworkers are, what sorts of work-related interactions we have, those kinds of things largely just end up being what they end up being.
I say all of this because I see a trend in Christian circles. A lot of our decisions place us within Christian circles. We go to church on Sunday mornings. We attend Bible studies or social gatherings with church people. And it’s natural that many (or most, or in some cases all!) of our friendships are with church friends. That’s not inherently evil. But we ought to ask ourselves what that does to us.
As our church has been making conscious shifts to develop a more missional lifestyle, many people are realizing their lack of meaningful relationships with non-church people. How do you reach out to someone you don’t know? And more fundamentally than that, I’m seeing that some people are struggling to know where to begin in building relationships along these lines.
I actually think this is bigger than a Christian problem. I think it happens in many areas of society. We just have a hard time relating to people who see the world differently than we do. “Us versus Them” is a real problem in many sectors. It doesn’t matter if it’s Christian/non-Christian, Republican/Democrat, Millennial/Boomer, White Collar/Blue Collar, Married/Single, or whatever, we tend to make distinctions, and we tend to stay within the worlds that make us comfortable.
For example, I see a real tendency amongst people who have younger children to get completely swallowed up in that world. That’s not a bad thing, and to some extent it’s unavoidable. But I sometimes see these married-with-young-children folks struggling to interact with single people, or with couples who don’t have kids. It often turns into the singles feeling alienated—they’re made to feel different or inadequate, and in many churches, this becomes a demographic that feels like it doesn’t belong. I don’t think there’s anything malicious going on; I think it’s just a symptom of us losing the art of making friends whose experience of the world differs significantly from our own.
At times we’re repulsed by people who are different than us. For example, I know of good homeschool kids (please believe that I’m not trying to bash or pick on homeschooling here) who join sports teams and maybe for the first time in their lives they’re exposed to kids who use saltier language. It’s legitimately different than what they’re used to, and it can be alienating. These kids have to make a choice: do I keep my distance or work to develop friendships here? Can I just work together with these kids on the court and then just go my way once the game ends, or is there some basis for a meaningful friendship here? I don’t blame a kid for being overwhelmed by this. This may never be their primary pool for friendship. But do you see how impoverishing it is to believe that there is no opportunity for friendship here?
We will all acknowledge that there are significant disagreements between Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians. But would any of us say that you can’t have a meaningful relationship with someone who doesn’t agree with all of your political views? Similarly, there are real belief differences between Christians, Muslims, and Atheists. But would we really claim that these disagreements should render friendship impossible? I hope not.
I believe we need to work to recover the lost art of making and maintaining friendships with people who are different than us.
I’ve heard some missional church leaders talk about “the f-bomb test.” All they’re getting at is they want their church leaders to be okay with hearing salty language. If you’re going to flip out when you hear someone cuss, then you’re definitely not ready to maintain a friendship with someone whose language sensibilities are different than your own. I understand why a churchgoing person wouldn’t want to throw out coarse language. But is a relational deal-breaker for you if a person uses off color language? The same thing goes for so many lifestyle areas: drinking, political alignment, sexual practices, etc. Can you be real friends with someone who is different than you?
I think it comes down to this: are you willing to let go of your right to be offended? Paul makes an argument kind of like this in a couple of places, such as Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 6–9. Much of his argument is about choosing not to offend “the weaker brother.” In other words, don’t offend someone unnecessarily. But in 1 Corinthians 9, he says he has some rights (specifically, being married and also making a living from his ministry) that he chooses to forego for the sake of his ministry. “We endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (v. 15). And he famously adds that he has “become all things to all people” for the sake of the gospel (vv. 22–23). Sure, you’re going to find some things offensive. But do you want to cling to your right to take offense, or are you willing to allow yourself to be offended for the sake of the gospel. Paul calls on Christians in 1 Corinthians 6 to allow themselves to be wronged or defrauded rather than sue one another because that hinders the gospel. Maybe he’d call on you to allow yourself to hear a cussword or dirty joke or something?
I’m not just talking about gritting your teeth and pushing through a handful of conversations so you can “earn the right” to share the gospel with someone. I’m really and truly talking about relationships. Can you value that person—different though they may be in significant ways—as a person? Can you imagine the possibility that you could learn from them, be encouraged by them, and find some value in your common humanity? Are you willing to acknowledge the image of God in that person and to allow God to enrich your life through someone who is different in many ways?
If the answer is no, then you’re not ready to be missional. If the answer is no, your only path forward is to sit in a church pew and wait for someone to sober up, clean up, and walk through the church doors. But if you’re at a point where you can see the dignity and value and beauty in a person who is unlike you, then you can meet them where they’re at. You’ll find that you need to figure out how to handle some crass topics of conversations and how to graciously disagree on a heated issue or two. But you’ll also find that God is working in places you might not expect.
Only when we recover the lost art of friendship will be able to step out of our bubbles and watch God work as we’ve never seen before.