There once was a woman who joined a Bible study I helped lead. I’m certain she had never been to a group like ours before. In this gathering of nice ladies, I wondered if she felt as out of place as she appeared to be, with her tattoos, biker shirts and stories of her daughter in trouble at school again.
Sometimes, between studies, I’d see her in the next aisle at the grocery store as I grabbed milk and bread. I avoided her, because I was almost always in a hurry and she felt like so much work.
One week, as I led the group through some safe discussion of a passage we had all probably studied numerous times before, the woman said that the character in the Bible she most pitied was Satan, getting kicked out of heaven and all. This statement, as well as the awkward silence that followed, challenged my skill as a small group leader like none other. I mumbled something about what an interesting and unique view that was, and now let’s return to the text. What I really wanted to say was, “For the love of God, could you please just sit there quietly?”
I was cranky. She had complicated our easygoing Thursday mornings. Her needs, not to mention her theology, seemed to demand a huge response. How could we help this woman get her life together? Even though we were excited when she showed up (Look! A project!), to our unspoken relief, she came only a few times.
I am not proud of this story. I share it because I know I am not alone in my deep conviction that the church exists to offer a radical and transforming love to the world. And I suspect that I am not alone in feeling intensely uncomfortable when the world comes knocking at unplanned and inconvenient moments.
This fall, a project I have been working on for the last year hits the Canadian Christian book market. Co-written with Willard Metzger, World Vision’s director of church relations, Going Missional: Conversations with 13 Canadian Churches Who Have Embraced Missional Life tells the stories of congregations who have moved out of their comfort zones into a more intentional local engagement. They are serving their own communities in renewed and remarkably creative ways. Their aim is not to grow their churches but to grow their obedience to Jesus’ radical call to selflessly and deeply love the people and places that surround us.
I tell my Bible study disaster story in the book as an example of how much easier it is to give lip service to our convictions than to actually follow them. Time and time again in my Christian journey, I have banged hard against the edges of my comfort zone and skedaddled back to safety. It’s easier to preach how much God loves the poor, for example, than to actively love those who are suffering and struggling.
What I heard from the various churches profiled in the book is that authentic friendship lies at the heart of transformative outreach. I saw that Christ followers, in a society that offers an amazing variety of social services, can play a unique role in being a good and true friend.
Maybe the woman who showed up at our Bible study didn’t need our advice, our corrections or our programs after all. Maybe, at least for the first while, she just needed some friends.
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