Christian circles are very small. I am often amazed by who knows who among my Christian friends and acquaintances. But it shouldn’t be surprising. We are more likely to have deep relationships with people who have similar values and interests to our own than those who don’t. From a sociological perspective Christianity is just another example of this: we form meaningful relationships with other Christians through our mutual interest in Christianity and belonging to a church community.
There is a spiritual reality to church that is far deeper than mere sociology, but the basic sociological observation is important. Christian community has the capacity to fulfil our social needs such that we don’t feel the need to go looking for relationships outside it. In fact, I believe that church community life should be good enough that it fulfils most of our relational needs (Mark 10:29-30). However, this can mean that Christians can unintentionally find themselves without any significant connections to non-Christian people. If we want to reach non-Christians with the gospel then this is a problem.
We need to put effort into nurturing genuine Christian Community…
Building community requires time and lots of interactions. Unfortunately a lot of Christians are dissatisfied with the depth of relationships they have been able to develop at church. Partly this is due to ‘church hopping’: you can’t expect to develop deep Christian relationships if you change churches every 3-5 years. But another significant part of the problem is that a lot of Christians have unreasonable expectations for what one weekly meeting on a Sunday can achieve relationally. I previously described how the members of the first church lived near one another and had the opportunity to live as a community day by day. That isn’t our situation. Many of us don’t see one another except on Sundays (or possibly every third Sunday: the new definition of ‘regular attendance’).
Sunday gatherings alone cannot be reasonably expected to give us a sense of community. We can’t expect to have deep relationships with people who we only see in one place once per week. The ‘one place’ factor is a key point here. To develop significant relationships we need to get to know one another in a range of circumstances and settings.
This is why eating together is so essential to Christian community (cf. Acts 2:46). Inviting people over for lunch is a great way to begin turning an acquaintance-level ‘one-place’ relationship into a ‘two-place’ relationship because we have given it the opportunity to deepen. Church meetings that extend into invitations into one another’s homes and to eating together are wonderful opportunities to develop friendships. Likewise meeting together for Bible study during the week, or for basically anything, offer opportunities to develop relationships. People once lived in villages and naturally saw one another throughout the week and in many contexts. Today it takes greater effort to create opportunities for the development of community since our weekly activities typically don’t intersect very much.
Developing church community is an important goal in itself. It’s also important for mission. Newcomers to a church should ideally find a group of people who know one another, love one another, and who are very eager to welcome new people into their fellowship with Jesus and with one another. This kind of church is a wonderful place to invite non-Christian friends to.
…BUT we also need to spend less time with other Christians
Now allow me to seemingly contradict everything I just said. Yes, we need to do a better job at Christian community. And yes, that takes time. But we need to spend less time doing it!
Australia has a loneliness epidemic. 60% of Australians regularly feel lonely. Some lonely people will be Christians, which means we need to do church community better. But most will be non-Christians living and working around us.
One response to the widespread problem of loneliness has been highlighting the importance of people having a ‘third place’ in their life. ‘First places’ are our homes, ‘second-places’ are our jobs, schools or universities. ‘Third places’ are a regular social space that meets our need for relationship and community beyond home and work. Examples include community gardens, men’s sheds, cafes, and so on. Third places offer some aspects of the ‘village’ way of life to a densely populated and mobile post-village world. Good third places are neutral ground (nobody has to play host) and involve conversation and enjoyment.
For many Christians their third place is their church. If this is the case that is wonderful! However, it also means that Christians are in danger of feeling little compulsion to invest in relationships with those outside the church community. Their church offers community through Sunday gatherings, small groups during the week, and friends to socialise with. They can be involved in various forms of ministry programs in the church. Many enthusiastic Christians find their calendar entirely full of church-related activity very quickly!
Some might say “let’s invite unbelievers to make our church their third place”. If that works that’s great, however a church won’t feel like a third-place to someone unfamiliar with Christianity. Third-places are supposed to feel neutral and safe, whereas unbelievers will find churches to be a place where they are confronted with their need to turn to Jesus (as well they should be!). We can’t expect non-Christians to share our level of comfort with being among Christians. Christians therefore need to go out into the world to develop relationships with people who aren’t Christians.
Be Realistic. You are Finite
So should Christians attempt to add a ‘fourth space’ to their lives?
No, we shouldn’t.
It makes sense for a Christian to make a fourth-place of somewhere that non-Christians are making their third-place. However, each of us is finite. There are measurable limitations on how many activities anyone can engage in as well as how many relationships a person can sustain. The only way to have a fourth place is to spend less time in either your second place (work) or third place (church community).
Let’s say (for sake of example) that you are capable of sustaining two weeknight appointments and ten friendships. At present you go to a midweek Bible study, serve as a youth-group leader, and have at least ten friends at church who you also meet with from time to time. You are meeting your own relational needs very happily and could be quite content to leave things as they are. However, you are not meeting with any non-Christians. Assuming this is an accurate estimation of your capacity, you have some difficult choices to make.
It is foolish to try to keep adding more and more activities to your life and hoping that you can cope. You need to develop a sober estimate of your personal limitations. You mustn’t feel guilty about this; it is not sinful to be finite! Even Jesus slept and took time out from the crowds.
But what that means is that to pursue relationships with non-Christians many of us will need to spend less time with fellow Christians. If you have reached your relational-capacity with Christian friends and want to pursue friendships with non-Christians, then you’ll need to graciously loosen your grip on some Christian friendships. You are not capable of doing everything.
You might also need to stop serving in a formal church program. We mustn’t fall into the trap of acting like the only ways to faithfully serve Jesus involve being on a roster or a church ‘ministry team’. Evangelicals often twist “ministry” into an over-formal activity that is foreign to the Bible. It just refers to serving others. If, in your judgement, it best serves others to withdraw from serving on various rosters or teams at church in order to instead spend your energy trying to meet non-Christians to tell them the gospel, then that is a good and deeply Christian decision to make. We can’t keep adding things to our lives. We need to take some of the time that we would spend with Christians and spend it with non-Christians instead.
Some Practical Considerations
Let me give an easy example. I cannot understand why there is such a thing as Christian sports teams (i.e. teams made up of Christians). I’m told that it is to “show other teams what Christians are like”. I don’t buy it. Whilst competing our relationship to players on other teams is impersonal and competitive. The people you’ll get to know and have a chance to develop relationships with are your own teammates, not the opposition. So instead of playing sport alongside other Christians, why not abolish Christian teams and have everyone join normal teams? There could be lots of good gospel opportunities to come out of that!
We must remain realistic and sober-minded. Evangelism is hard work. It often involves long-term commitment with few results. It can be very disheartening. Furthermore, a lot of people who need Jesus have very messy, broken lives. Seeking to serve them is time-consuming and might be very inconvenient and unrewarding. Serving in a church program offers routine, stability and a sense of accomplishment. It will probably be recognised and appreciated by others at the church. On the other hand, if you aren’t on a roster then some Christians might be judgmental. They might question your Christian maturity and commitment. Pastors need to take the lead in championing the variety of ways that people can serve Jesus, especially those that are “outside the box”. Pastors: if you want your congregations to engage with non-Christians then ensure that they aren’t overloaded with serving in church!
A Danger to Watch for
All Christians need Christian friends and allies. Isolating ourselves from the fellowship and encouragement of fellow believers is profoundly foolish. It is very easy to go into the world with good intentions and find that the world evangelises you into worldliness far more effectively than you are able to testify to Jesus.
That means that we must not give up meeting together for mutual strengthening in the faith (Hebrews 10:24-25). All Christians must maintain strong Christian friendships and fellowship in the gospel. My suspicion is that if we spend less time “hanging out” with Christians and more time seeking to befriend unbelievers than it will make our Christian fellowship in the gospel richer and more purposeful. We will find that we really do need one another’s prayer, support and encouragement. Our Bible-study prayer points will be more substantial and kingdom-directed.
So think it through. How much time do you spend with other Christians? Can you use a substantial amount of that time with unbelievers instead?
‘Musings on Mission’ Series
1. The Disappearance of the Visible Church
2. We Need to Spend Less Time with Other Christians
3. We Need to Think More Carefully about Christians Schools
4. We Need to Stop ‘Church Planting’
5. God Uses Godliness for Mission
6. We Don’t Really Believe in Prayer