Seriously, other than our jobs or school, it’s rare that we willingly choose to be in a place where we “have” to be with people and “have” to forge some sort of relationship with strangers. People who we don’t necessarily like and probably wouldn’t choose to hang out with under different circumstances. People who get on our nerves and are difficult to like. The difference being the church’s mission is for us to long to do this, yet it’s equally rare that we reflect on just how hard it is to do so. And too often the word “community” is reduced to little more than a buzzword.
I was struck by a comment that a Christian lady made to someone in her church. She said something along the lines of how great it was that he was so willing to love those difficult to love. What struck me was how she inadvertently revealed the truth that, as the church, this isn’t how we typically operate. It’s easy for us to love people who act like us, speak like us, think like us; where people are like you and believe what you believe. Of course that’s easy fellowship: it’s an extension of loving ourselves! It’s natural to only want to be someplace that’s comfortable, that instinct is what drives many of our race and class problems. Most of what we call fellowship remains social and superficial and shouldn’t be confused with true unity.
With a great uniting element like being brothers and sisters in Christ, it should theoretically be easier. But anyone who’s experienced a Thanksgiving dinner knows how trying connecting with family can be. Because we don’t always like family. Church family is no different. What it’s like to be with people who you don’t always like. Who get on your nerves. Who are just SO different from you.
Within church and without, many of us settle for 4th grade relationships/love: “I like you, you like me, we can chill together.” We form little (religious) clubs that end up not being particularly welcoming because we wait to see how well the new people fit in before we’re willing to hang out with them. The onus is on them to prove they’re easy to get along with and not too much relational work. Because it’s hard to truly engage with people and we don’t like to work too hard at relationships.
This extends to how we work through problems within community. It’s easier to leave people alone, to “let them think about what they’ve done” and let them “come to us when they’re ready” rather than pursue them. We also want people to be fixed quickly (“what do you mean you’re still hurting? I’ve put in two weeks. Get over it already.”) And I’ve seen people simply withdraw or (fake) “getting over it” because they don’t want to be a burden or a downer.
This is an immature form of relationships and what we call love. Even “sinners” (the unchurched or whatever we want to label those outside of our little religious clubs) can love those who love them or who are easy to love. Us united by Christ, no matter where we are, is how we like to say that’s the way church is supposed to be.
When you think about it, of course “being united in Christ” isn’t always enough. We don’t all agree or even have the same idea of who Christ is and why He came. And that’s assuming everyone in the community even believes in Christ as you don’t, or shouldn’t, have to believe before you belong. People come to church for all sorts of reasons from being entertained by the pastor, loving the music, kids programs, their friends are there, or even cause there’s a free meal involved.
And a lot of our version of fellowship and discipleship seem focused on correcting behaviors and getting people to act a certain way—making it easier for us to like them—rather than learning what it means to love each other.
The church, since the church is people, is made up of people who irritate us, people we don’t get along with, people so different from each other. We don’t want to struggle. We don’t seek discomfort out and we do all that we can to avoid it. This makes us perfectly human. Loving relationships correct as well as affirm. Loving relationships, loving accurately and well, mean we can say hard things and still stay in relationship with one another. Loving relationships are marked by compassion, understanding, and love.
My pastor irritates the crap out of me. He “demands” to be in real relationship with me. He wants to speak into my life and wants me to speak into his. He once randomly sent me a note telling me how much he loves me, like hearing what I think, and appreciates how much I add as a part of their church simply by being me. So I avoided him for a week or so because I didn’t know what to do with that. That wasn’t in my usual experience with pastors. The same thing happened a week later when I went to visit my friend Rich Vincent at his church. He had me stand in front of his congregation while he told them and me how much he loved, valued, and appreciated our friendship. That simple act of love and appreciation about reduced me to a puddle of tears. Neither of these guys—unlike me, of course—are easy to love. They are full of quirks and eccentricities which can drive a person nuts. But they’ve nailed what it means to love well.
Think about what it means to live in relationship and community with one another. Just like there’s no “I” in “team,” there’s no more “me”, only “we”, in community. Everything is done together and this bumps against just how much of an idol we have made of individualism in Western/American society. For example, it impacts how we view sin because there are no “personal sins”: our decisions impact each other. It’s easy to not be in relationship, that is, to hide from one another, because we’re relationally lazy. We’re all irritating, frustrating, and difficult to love and be in relationship with. Too often we try to mask our differences under the banner of a shallow unity through (or to) theology. Being in constant communication, speaking into each other’s lives, requires intentionality and work.
I like to think of the church ideally being sort of like an AA group (ironic considering the origins of AA). Where we are united by a common pain or brokenness. Where we come together in our woundedness, with that sense of “I’m among people who ‘get this’”. People who accept one another where they are, how they are, build them up, affirm them, and encourage them to wholeness because of what Christ has done for all of us.
If you’re only in relationship with people who agree with you, you don’t know about love yet. Not mature love. What it means to love the difficult, those different fromm us, or our enemies. To love well and deeply—in a way so profound it transforms lives and brings people to wholeness—not easy. It’s not comfortable. But when the church becomes comfortable, it becomes irrelevant.