God Makes Uncomfortable Groups
How would you like to be in a small group with the Sons of Thunder? That’s what Jesus called Zebedee’s boys, James and John (Mark 3:17). Somehow I don’t think they got that nickname from just one or two outbursts. Luke remembers the way they responded to folks who refused to welcome Jesus when he visited. The brothers wanted to know if Jesus would like them to call down fire from heaven to consume the villagers (9:54).
At least they asked.
I’m not sure how safe an environment they would create for group discussion. Can you imagine sharing personal struggles or an insight from Scripture with one or both of them? I think I’d have been happier if they were in Zechariah’s group. Or Simeon’s. Or anyone’s. Just not mine.
Odd that Jesus didn’t think that way. He handpicked them for his group along with a bunch of other guys I’d struggle to get along with (Mark 3:13-19). Zealous Peter who regularly missed seeing the world from God’s perspective (Matthew 16:23). Dispirited Thomas who spoke more from the depths of resignation than joy (John 11:16). None of them would be easy to relate to, yet Jesus thought it would be a great idea to have them all live life together with Him and with each other for a season. I suspect it was anything but comfortable for any of them, Jesus included.
Yet out of that community experience with God and with each other grew the church—a church that God quickly added thousands of people to who didn’t share the same culture (Acts 2:41) or the same religious background (Acts 10:44-47).
You’d never expect it, but that eclectic, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic church has outlasted every other civilization and continues to reach down through the ages to embrace every different kind of person imaginable. Even me. Without Jesus working to blend people who didn’t look blend-able you and I wouldn’t be here today.
God Still Blends Incompatible People Together
Now we have the same privilege. The same grace that embraces you also calls you to share your life with people who are decidedly different from you and to live with them in smaller groups of people that closely resemble that first one 2000 years ago.
Unfortunately that’s not a privilege we always want or even value, especially in my congregation. My local church has been undergoing a transition for the past decade. An older, more traditional congregation called a younger man to be senior pastor and under his leadership we’re seeing a steady influx of younger folks coming from a variety of sub-cultures and backgrounds that don’t blend easily. Oddly enough, because it’s not what I’d expect, sometimes it’s the newer members who are the most difficult to assimilate.
A young woman, Ava, emailed me to see if we could find a small group for her and her family, only she didn’t want to be in a group “full of SNL [Saturday Night Live] church ladies and Mr. Rogers.” Rather she wondered if we had groups where people were “real and edgy.” In other words, she wanted to be with people who were more like than unlike her.
I’m not really surprised at her desire. It’s normal to want to be with people who are just like us. Normal for us humans, yet God seems resolutely intent on diversity.
I can’t help but come to that conclusion as I study the dissimilar personalities in my own family, all of whom God added to my household without consulting me to see if they made me feel comfortable. The same holds true as I study the people living in my neighborhood, my country or the larger world. Why should I be surprised then that most of the people in my church are not like me … which means that my small group will surely contain people I find difficult to get along with.
Learning to Value People I Don’t Like
That’s where it’s my job to help shepherd myself, as well as Ava, to embrace an experience that will be uncomfortable; that will stretch her comfort zone and mine by inviting us to love and cherish others as we’ve been loved and cherished. Along with unpacking God’s commitment to diversity like I have above, I also find it helpful to urge her and I to:
- Recognize and appreciate God’s sovereign decision in placing us physically and temporally close to the people we struggle to relate to. He could so easily have decreed we or they be separated at birth by half a continent or half a century. The fact that we are not says something important about his purposes in our lives; that He thought this was the best possible way for us to become all that He ever wanted us to be.
- Realize that the differences between us and other people—social, cultural, intellectual, personal, etc.—are small in comparison to how different we are from Jesus in each of those areas. Then realize that if Jesus is happy to have Ava and me in His family, to genuinely enjoy us, then we can learn to see what He appreciates about others who He also enjoys.
- See people from God’s perspective. Every human being reflects something of God’s person individually, but on our own none of us can image Him in his totality. It’s only as we join together that we begin to adequately reflect His infinite fullness. That means every person shows me something of God that I’ve not seen as clearly without them. As I learn to see Him in them, I learn to appreciate them far more than I did before.
- Aim for partnership. Read through the lists of people that Paul singles out as his friends and you’ll realize that the glue that bonds them together is not compatibility, but a shared sense of working for the same goal. As we focus on developing our gospel-oriented partnerships, we’ll discover that we’ve been simultaneously building enduring friendships that we come to appreciate.
God does not rely on compatibility or external similarities to draw His people together. We first relate to Jesus, who unaccountably calls us ‘friends’ (John 15:15). It’s out of our friendship with Him that we develop our friendships with each other, drawing together despite our differences as we share with each other the things Jesus has shared with us.
Author Note: The thoughts in this blog post are developed in greater detail in Chapter 6, “Partnering Love: Working Together to Care for Each Other” of Loving Well: Even if You Haven’t Been © 2012 by William Smith and is available from New Growth Press.