“I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, What did we bring to the world?” Tony Fadell, who helped create the iPhone, voiced those words of concern over the self-absorption that can come with too much ‘iFocus’ in our use of technology. He noted that communication devices—though capable of much good—are designed to meet individual needs and aren’t always about what’s best for healthy family and community relationships.
After coming to faith in Jesus, John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace”, made the dramatic change from being a slave trader to influencing the eighteenth-century movement to abolish slavery in England. But he didn’t fully turn to Jesus in the moments when he first famously cried out to God when he thought his ship was sinking. In fact, Newton admitted that he probably wasn’t a true believer until much later.
As many have sadly experienced firsthand, an all-too-real problem is the failure of Christian communities to really embody Christ’s love. Author Mary DeMuth describes how, in an insidious way, spiritually abusive leaders can even distort the gospel into a “culture of fear and shame.” Such leaders use guilt and fear to manipulate others into compliance with their own rules.
Many years ago, a hurricane forced my wife Miska and me to evacuate a resort in Cancun, Mexico, where we were celebrating our tenth anniversary. On our way to the airport, I got lost and stopped for directions. Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand the people who tried to help since they were speaking in Spanish. Finally, I called a bilingual friend and had them talk to the clerk at a service station. Fortunately, we made it in time for the last flight out that day.
More than a dozen families had committed to share life together in a local community. They were so devoted to one another that they bought houses in the same neighborhood. Eventually, one of the men in this group received an excellent job offer in a large city hundreds of miles away. He didn’t, however, immediately take the new position. Instead, he went to his community to seek their wisdom, advice, and prayer about the move. Within a matter of days, all of them sensed he should take the job. But, to his delight, the consensus was that if he moved, five to six of the families would also move with him.
“Sometimes, going to church just seems irrelevant. After all, we listen to sermons via podcasts and can live- stream a church service . . . in our pajamas. Personally, I enjoy having access to so many Christian resources at the swipe of my finger on my iPhone. . . . I also meet in Christian community on Wednesday nights for small group Bible study. That’s good enough, right?” Those words, from a thoughtful post by Lindsay Blackburn, reflect the ambivalence many people feel about being part of a local church.
For the past decade, I’ve served in East Africa and have gained far more understanding of my heart, motives, and attitudes than I would have had I not taken the step of faith to live and work in a foreign land. Among the more humbling insights has been my occasional tendency to assume that my knowledge and resources are superior to those in the developing nation where I’m serving.
Who we spend our time with matters. In middle school and early high school, some of my friends were a bad influence on me, and my desire to fit in was leading me to act like everyone but Jesus.
In a previous ministry position, I was responsible for directing pastoral care at a church. My job was to remind people of God’s presence through my presence and prayers as well as to oversee those offering care to others. When someone was sick or dying, a family was going through a crisis, or a newborn baby was brought home, I was there to offer care, as well as discover if and how our church family could help further.
Researcher Brené Brown describes encountering in her work a unique group of people who seemed able to find significant joy and purpose in their lives regardless of their circumstances. The common thread uniting such people? Vulnerability. Perhaps counterintuitively, Brown found that those most willing to face their insecurities were also those most rooted in a secure sense of love and belonging.
One of my favorite TV commercials of all time involves a man and a woman sitting in a conference room together. The man suddenly proclaims his attraction to her. While the woman is surprised, she responds that she feels the same way. But then the man turns his head toward her, revealing that he was actually talking to someone else on the phone via an earpiece—his passionate proclamation wasn’t meant for her. Oops!
My friend Jen and I are looking forward to meeting in Atlanta for a much-anticipated reunion. Our friendship formed over a short span of time, but the bond has remained strong despite the distance that separates us. Anne, in the novel Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery said it best: “Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.” My friendship with Jen reminds me that true kinship is powerful because relationships were designed to reflect God’s kingdom.
When we first welcomed a fifteen-year-old Chinese exchange student into our family, we thought it would be for only one year of high school. But years later he’s still part of the family. And we’ve added his younger brother to our growing group. Both young men were quiet and a bit reclusive when they first arrived—adapting to a new culture. But it’s been beautiful to see their hearts open to God’s love and to our own. Their faces now typically display smiles, and laughter effortlessly spills from their lips.
I’ve heard it said that “the church is the only institution that shoots its wounded.” Sadly, the idea possesses a real grain of truth. It’s not unusual for local churches to botch a crisis situation, causing members to leave deeply hurt.