Ricky Kirk blogs at Panta ta Ethne.
I was listening to Pastor Mark Sparks, youth pastor for Journey Youth Ministries at Tri-State Worship Center last night. He mentioned something that served to be a missing piece of the puzzle I’ve been working on this last 18 months. In beginning the initial exploration stages of planting a missional community, I have read much about engaging culture, reaching neighbors, and building long-term discipling relationships. Part of that is examining my tendency in relationship building as well as listening to the stories of others. Here’s what I have stumbled upon…
How many times do we as Christians only associate with other Christians while we are gathered together for ‘church’ or some other ‘church’ event. Outside of blood family or extremely close-life-long friends, the tendency I observe is that our relationships are not truly centered on Christ, our common creed, or even our denomination. Rather, the relationship tends to be centered on the ‘church’ service.
For example, Family A attends Church A for three years. They build relationships with many families inside the church and see each other regularly (just about every Sunday morning, occasionally on Sunday nights and sporadically on Wednesday nights). They share prayer requests, discuss details of their lives in Sunday School class, and serve together in several ministries throughout these three years. However, they rarely see each other, much less talk to each other, outside of said services or ministries.
Because of a job transfer, Family A moves to a new community 20 miles from Church A. Considering the price of gas and other factors, they begin attending Church B. Over the course of weeks, Family A notices they rarely hear from any of their ‘friends’ or ‘church family’ from Church A. They scratch their head and try to figure out why they haven’t received a phone call or a visit from their friends. In the meantime, they begin the process of assimilating into the life of Church B and over time repeat the same experience they maintained at Church A.
One day Family A is at the local grocery store and they run into a close friend from Church A. As they spot each other this friend loudly exclaims, “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in months.” This deeply hurts Family A; they believed they had a relationship with this friend. “How could this friend ask such a question? Didn’t they know they moved because of a job transfer? Didn’t they care enough to stay connected?”
This is when Family A begins to understand their relationship was centered on the church proper, nothing more. Remove the church, remove the relationship. The tendency is for these hurt feelings to turn to bitterness, not just to those families, but also to church in general and other relationships in particular. They become guarded in building any relationship with those in Church B and struggle with other relationships.
If my hunch is correct, there are many families and individuals out there who have experienced something very similar. These feelings have crippled far too many from building relationships with other Christians and builds a barrier to engaging in the life of the church. Because of this, they are less likely to build any type of discipling relationship with others. Period.
“What can be done about this?” I’m glad you asked. I think we’ve been asking the wrong question. Instead of questioning why our friends ask where we’ve been, we should be the ones taking the initiative and asking how they are! Rather than wait for months to pass and allow hurt feelings to develop, Family A should make every effort to continue those relationships. Family A should keep contact by phone, email, FB or other means. It is too easy for Family A not to do those things and then wait until someone asks about them. That provides them the opportunity to blame them for not maintain the friendship. However reality is both families are at fault. Neither did what was needed to continue the relationship. The naked truth, they have a relationship with the church building that exceeds the relationship with the body of believers.
Proverbs 17:17 declares, “a friend loves at all times…” This not dependent on location, life-stage nor on the church one attends. We have taken that sentiment and changed it to say, “a friend loves at all times when they come to my church; when we worship together; when we are in the same Sunday School class.” We cannot hold on to truth in one hand and then add to it with the other hand.
I am aware of this because I am guilty of it. I have found myself complaining about relationships that have seemed to be broken all the while expecting others to approach me first. I have been waiting for someone to ask how I’m doing so I can unleash my hurt and bitterness on them. That is wrong. That is sinful.
“Hold on a minute,” you say. What about those relationships that were deepened at church but also included many times sitting around a table eating a meal, sharing holidays together, vacations, and weekend trips? I know, been there… done that! I think it still applies. When the church is removed, then it seems as if the relationship is removed. Although this shouldn’t be the case, it often is the end result.
The only thing I can recommend is to repent of the bitterness and stop making excuses. Make every conceivable gospel-centered effort to continue those relationships sans church. I am not saying you will keep every friend you had, but you will know you made every effort and the chances of hurt feelings and bitterness will be lessened.
We must practice what we hear preached and taught. It is not the church building that unites us nor a denomination. It is the Gospel that unites us. It is at the cross where we gather together and repent of sin and receiving forgiveness. It is here we find the perfect picture of what Christ told the disciples in John 15:13-15 about no greater love being displayed than when a man lays down his life for his friends.
Ephesians 4:31-32 tell us to put away anger and bitterness (among other things) and to forgive just as we have been forgiven. There is nothing more sad than a Christian who has been forgiven refusing to forgive others!
So what are you waiting for, make that call, send that text, FB someone and let them know you are sorry you haven’t kept up with them and ask for their forgiveness. Rather than asking where they have been, ask them how they are doing!