Somewhere along the line, a notion began to subconsciously cement itself in our Christian culture’s psyche: that the breadth of our individual relationships with any non-Christians we encountered was simply to invite them to church gatherings. As followers, it made sense that we would all begin walking around with this deep-rooted, unspoken belief; our contexts for evangelism were giant stadiums, extravagant holiday pageants, and teenagers littering urban communities with tracts while wearing neon colored t-shirts that read “takin’ it to the streets.”
Growing up, I was a part of all of those things in one way or another. But as I got older, I realized I wasn’t walking with anyone, eating with anyone, going to parties with anyone, or teaching anyone the ways of Jesus who didn’t already know him.
And that seemed like a gigantic waste.
It seemed like the very opposite of how the Jesus I was reading about in the gospels lived. How could I call myself a devoted follower of this Jesus without ever attempting to reflect his lifestyle?
The more this contradiction sat unsettled in my mind, the more I began to notice people differently. I became aware of just how many people I encountered in a given week, sometimes more than once.
People I had treated like transaction machines.
People I had never noticed with tears in their eyes.
Old men who talked like they had lived their entire life on the same bench.
Children who never seemed to attain their parents’ attention, regardless of how hard they tried.
All this around me… in the grocery store, around the park, at the corner coffee shop. All these stories I was completely missing out on. I had a feeling I wasn’t alone.
I’m not sure what it’s like where you live, but in Orange County, California, where I’m from, people make an art-form out of keeping to themselves. It’s like Mr. Rogers never made it to syndication out here. People get up, drive to work (most of them work long hours and make A LOT of money), drive home, just to lock themselves inside of a million dollar, 4-bed room cage without paying any attention to the other cages on either side of their own.
How could “neighborhood,” something we’re inherently wired for, become so foreign? What happened to the kind of bold friendliness and curiosity that once accompanied our innocence? How come there’s a hesitancy to introduce ourselves to strangers and where did it come from?
There are about a million anthropological reasons for why these questions exist , but the bottom line is that at some point, something got broken. Sin entered the world and we learned not to trust each other, to play our cards close to our chest, to look out for ourselves above anyone else.
The Church, in our humanity, was not immune. We created detailed doctrinal statements that kept other people who didn’t think exactly like us at bay. We neglected a generation of young adults we didn’t quite understand once they went away to college. Most of all, we slowly decided to become culturally illiterate, moving away from practicing healthy rhythms that both engage and create culture while desperately still trying to keep up with it. The result, as we know, is usually a cheap imitation.
My friend, Karl, is on the path to following Jesus. The last time he attended a church was with his parents as a kid. Karl recently moved to a new city with his fiancé. Oh, and like many twenty-somethings, he deals with deep anxiety.
Imagine my friend and his fiancé walking into a church for the first time since they were children, or even a bible study for that matter. The complete culture shock it would be! The raising of arms, the Christianese language barrier, the enthusiastic but shallow greeters awaiting them at the door.
Can God move and work through these experiences? Absolutely! But doesn’t it seem a bit scary for that experience to be someone’s first introduction to the Jesus lifestyle?
The first time Karl made the bold attempt to re-enter church, he had a massive anxiety attack!
Imagine you’ve been lost in the desert for weeks and someone brings you a giant pool of water but the only way you can get to it is if you jump in. Oh.. .and you don’t know how to swim. What happens?
That’s right, you drown.
Recently I met a bright young doctoral student named Katie in the local coffee shop I work out of most days. For me, this coffee shop has become a kind of incubator for authentic conversation and community in the town where we live.
It wasn’t long before Jesus naturally came up in my conversation with Katie as we both shared with each other the work that we do and the things that we’re passionate about. Katie’s insights regarding her own experience with Christianity were fascinating to me. She had grown up going to Catholic school where she learned that the Bible was a book of do’s and don’ts. She had once attended a church service where the pastor encouraged the congregation to rip bumper-stickers with the phrase, “coexist” off cars when they see them. When her brother had gotten his girlfriend pregnant a few years ago, her evangelical friend’s first response was “How could your brother sin and bastardize his child by not getting married first?”
Like Karl, Katie is actually open to Jesus, though quite weary of his followers. Recently, she decided to give church another try.
“I visited a church, but besides the greeters who just handed me a bulletin, no one really talked to me or took the time to get to know me or even my name. It seemed like everyone had their own clique. It’s not like going to a coffee shop like this one. Here, people know my name. They’re friendly and they share their space with me. The people that work here even remember what drink I like to order! And I’m nobody. I’m just an ordinary person. But here, I’m not just number… I’m known.”
I long for the Church to be a place where people like Katie feel known. I long to see us shift our view of people from transactions to interactions, empty spirit-sized souls in search of a permanent tenant. I am trying, bumbling my way through this transformation, and hope you’ll join me if you haven’t already.
Is the way we do Church (even if our intentions are good) drowning people who are complete foreigners to the Jesus lifestyle?
How can we, the collective Church, God’s people, break the cycle of individualism and lead the way in the mandate to love thy neighbor?