So here’s the thing. I don’t know how many times I’ve felt isolated and friendless in Christian community, because I’ve chosen not to count, and to try not to remember (too often) either. Feeling alone in what should be a welcoming family is so utterly depressing I don’t want to contemplate it too much. And seeing it happen makes me sad.
But I mostly don’t want to think about it because normally, my experience of Christian community has been great! I have made friends with people I would otherwise never have even had the chance to know. I have a range of relationships with people of all ages, professions, ethnicities, sexualities, and, toughest of all, political opinions 😉
Having been at non-demographically-restricted churches for most of my life (ie, where the age range is foetus to centenarian) it’s always been normal to me to chat to people unlike myself, find out about their lives and interests and concerns, share a joke, say hello to them again the next week, be comfortable in social settings with them etc etc etc.
I was by no means always smooth at this (nor am I still! I HATE meeting new people, having trained myself to a.) assume they won’t like me and b.) to loathe most small talk. So, welcoming = not my natural preference!). I bored many an adult with long and I’m sure extremely boring stories of my life in primary school, then progressed to awkwardly inserting myself and my opinions into adult conversations in my teenage years. I’m sure they really needed to know my whacky theological musings. Still, they loved me anyway by listening graciously, and I love them for it!
I had those painful times at youth group where I just wanted to DIE because that boy from year ELEVEN at school was THERE and I had to be in a group with him for some awkward youth group game and it’s like OH NO! HE MAY NOTICE I’M ALIVE!! WHAT WILL I EVER DO TO RECOVER FROM THIS TORTURE?!!!!
Or was that just me…?
And then I progressed to awkwardness as a young adult trying to meet the slightly-older-but-in-my-eyes-incredibly-sophisticated-and-mature-adults at church, without TOTALLY embarrassing myself (didn’t work)…
BUT, eventually, all the progress led somewhere. Now, despite the fact that I would rather just have cosy convos with my friends at church, because it’s easy and nice, and avoids all awkwardness, effort or embarrassment, I actually talk to the new people, or married people, or people with children, or old people, or children, or single people, or even the minister, because I want to welcome others as Christ welcomes me! Church isn’t just about getting people I like to like me. Nor is it about dating someone. Or finding other couples to hang out with cos it’s easier as a couple to hang out with couples (or something like that… I’ve gotta say, this is a phenomenon I find particularly strange… Does something weird happen to people when they get married that stops them having single friends? And does it stop happening when they have babies?! Cos I’ve gotta say, the majority of couples I’ve been friends with either were my friends before they were married, so we still just hang out, or they have children. I have very few childless couple couple friends… Hmmm… Or maybe I’ve just made that up in my head… No wait, I’m gonna count… Nope, I was right. I do know slightly fewer childless than non-childless couples, but people with kids seem happy to talk to ANYBODY, so maybe that’s it… Whereas young couples don’t seem to hang out with singles……….?!)
The point is that church is about being family, and family is not about choice. You get put with who you get put with. And they are there for life. So no matter how much they annoy you, how smelly they are, how often they steal your toys or just how incredibly embarrassing they can be in public, they are your family for life. So get to KNOW them, because familiarity doesn’t just breed contempt, it breeds love and affection. When we know each others struggles and weaknesses and gawky senses of humour, we can appreciate the rich diversity God has blessed us with. We can appreciate the unique gifts and preferences He’s given each person and marvel at His endless creativity. We can find fullness in our lack and counterbalance to our biases.
Also, we can rejoice in trials shared, fears recognised, and dark terrors opened to the light of communal wisdom. No one’s difficulties are so unique that they cannot find their counterpart and colleague in struggle in the body of Christ. No test need be endured alone, not cut off from Christ, nor His people. Even when we are not geographically near, we are together before the throne of God, so even our sisters and brothers languishing in prison need not grapple alone. We can embrace both the diversity and the unity of being one in Jesus, in short, we can rejoice in every limb, tendon, cell and fibre of the body of Christ, sharing all things together. Amen!
And also, people are like snakes, they’re more afraid of you than you are of them*. Every time you think that person doesn’t need you to welcome them because they’re fine, and every time you think you can’t welcome that person because they’re too cool/scary/fun/weird/sexy/beetroot coloured/whatever, just think of the snake, and remember that you’re in a stronghold of power. What does it matter if they are too cool to talk to you? You’re a member of the body of Christ! Who cares if they’re a bit scary at first, you have been welcomed by your mortal enemy, who reached out to you first, so, go and do likewise.
*NB – this may not be the right snake-related cliche… Or even factually correct, but just go with it.