Lately, I've come to a realization. That the primary way our world is broken is found in one fundamental area: relationships.
Where there is a lack of relationships, the void that exists causes great pain to people.
Relationships are not always easy. They involve caring about other people and communicating.
I've had both negative and positive examples of this in my life lately. Lemme share a few with you...
Church: While I would love to go into great detail about this situation, I'm choosing to refrain; but it's the same story we all hear far too often: the leadership of a church treats a human being as a commodity. Those in charge claim to be about the business of the Kingdom of God, yet they demonstrate less integrity than what is commonly accepted in the business world. Rather than providing healthy accountability, people with formal titles circle the wagons. Instead of having conversations, narratives and spin control are the focus.
I had the opportunity to speak to a nationally known pastor about my situation and he told me that many churches tell associate pastors (which I was) not to make close friendships in order to avoid these exact situations. I've never heard anyone tell me to avoid making connections with other people in any other job. The fact that corporate America is more relational amongst employees than many church leadership/board groups makes me want to throw up. I will absolutely never take a church position where I have to remain unconnected or aloof from the rest of the community. The answer to unhealthy relationships within churches is NOT to stop forming relationships. If I thought for a minute that was a viable possibility, I would permanently be done with church, but I absolutely reject it.
(There's a positive side on this item you'll see in a moment...)
Twitter: So I've been trying to break into the realm of being a writer for a bit. Here's one of the first things you learn about trying to publish a book: most publishers only care about whether you already have a big following. This could be in-person, such as the pastor of a large church; but more often it involves having a following online, with social media platforms such as twitter or facebook. One number I've heard tossed out is that you need at least 10,000 followers on Twitter to even be considered. I have far fewer followers on twitter, which admittedly is not my primary way of engaging on social media. That said, there are ways to grow your following on Twitter that I consider to be completely non-relational. For instance, if you follow a large number of people, say 100, a certain percentage will follow you back. You can then unfollow the rest and repeat this process until you have a larger following. I have refused to do this. Being non-relational to help my own cause feels incredibly selfish. I had a person do this very thing to me. He followed me, then after I followed him, he unfollowed me. It made me feel like I was less than human. Just a number to him. I messaged him, but he did not respond. It made me sad. The fact that he refers to himself as a relationship expect on his twitter bio just makes me shake my head. I honestly don't know whether it's possible to regularly form genuine relationships through social media, but I know the junk he pulled is more likely to harm our world than to improve it. If there's a better definition of gaining the whole world while losing your own soul, I haven't found it.
Okay, that was all a downer. The good news is that I have some positive examples as well!
Book: I wrote a book last year - a devotional for Lent. I sent proposals and copies to dozens upon dozens of agents and publishers. Nothing worked out, which isn't very unusual (see my lack of a big following above). However, in the midst of many rejections, I encountered one person who liked the work and tried to move it forward. He was funny and encouraging and when it didn't work out, I was genuinely appreciative that he had given me dignity through the process instead of taking it. When I wrote my next book (not yet released...stay tuned!), I didn't sent it out anywhere because I simply didn't have the emotional strength for more rejection. On a whim, just before self publishing it, I emailed this guy asking if he wanted to see it. He said yes, and proceeded to fight for it at his publishing house. We're still in the process and I don't have any news to share at this time, but he has already given me feedback on the book to make it even better and he has gone out of his way to keep me informed through the whole process. Whether this ends up with me having a book deal or not, this guy has once again given me dignity in the midst of uncertainty. In a business that's incredibly prone to turning people into commodities, I found someone willing to be a friend even when it may not benefit him in the least and it has meant the world to me.
Facebook Conversations: In my quest to figure out whether it is, in fact, possible to be relational on social media, I have intentionally started a few challenging conversations on Facebook recently. Mostly, they revolve around the national anthem protests at sporting events. In these conversations, I've seen people disagree, but also try earnestly to engage with others and be respectful. After seeing how full of vitriol these conversations can be on social media, I was so encouraged that my circle of friends was brave enough to be willing to share perspectives and read about the perspectives of others. I saw people brave enough to apologize when there were some frustrations.
College Group: I have the privilege of being involved with a local Christian group at a University. I just started showing up a couple times each month last semester after the leader gave me the option. When I returned to the meetings this semester, the kids were incredibly welcoming to me. They remembered my name and were genuinely happy to see me. It was a simple situation of creating the opportunity to have friendship and other people joyfully accepting it. Now, I can encourage these young people who are exploring faith since there is a relationship in place with them.
Generous Church Members: At the same church where leadership was non-relational, dozens, perhaps hundreds of members reached out to shower us with love and prayer. This was deeply appreciated, while also being painful, knowing we had been cut off from such wonderful people. However, they did as much as they could. In the days before social media, not even this could happen. Church leadership would simply spin a narrative and a staff member would disappear. I'm very grateful for the friends who chose to be relational in the midst of a crappy situation, and have been willing to trust us even as we don't offer a full explanation.
The Body of Christ - the worldwide community of followers of Jesus - has at times put a lot of energy into spreading information. Information that is good and helpful (though not always presented in ways which make that readily apparent). But the job of the church is not to be information distributors. We aren’t the newsboy on the corner trying to shill a product. If that was our mission, the two most important commandments wouldn’t be to love God and love other people.
My point is this: When the church is informational and not relational, it is useless. Look at how our society is unable to have open and honest and constructive conversations - such as civil rights and injustice toward Black Americans.
If we aren’t more relational than the rest of society, why the heck would anyone listen to us talk about healthier, more abundant life? I wouldn’t hire a stockbroker who was wearing a barrel. Likewise, I don’t want life advice from arrogant, uncaring jerks.
At one point, Jesus tells his disciples that in our world, people are only out for themselves, but that among Christians, “it will be different” (emphasis mine). Not “it should be different” or “I hope it’s different”. You WILL be different. I take this as Jesus saying it isn’t optional. We must be more relational. We must love people. Because if we aren’t and we don’t, we’re only going to end up doing more harm than good.
So give somebody a compliment on your commute or at work.
Join a group of people and start to extend friendship to them.
Provide accountability to Christian leadership who use power in harmful ways.
Be part of difficult conversations on social media with grace and respect.
Look for ways to give people dignity in your life.
Because among us, it will be different; and we will be part of God’s good plan to renew this world.