Ark of safety. Haven. Hospital. We usually think of the church as
a place of refuge and healing. We are encouraged to support
one another in good times and through challenges, to “bear
one another’s burdens,” to endeavor to build the kingdom through serving one another in unity. Why then does it seem that many are looking to other sources in the hope of being fulfilled? It may be time to examine our practice of being the church with a more discerning lens.
Many churches use standardized language in their interactions:
“Good morning! Happy Sabbath!”
“God is good!” “All the time!”
“How have you been?” “I’m just blessed and highly favored!”
“Bless your heart.”
“God works in mysterious ways . . .”
“I’m praying for you.”
“All things work together . . .”
“Let go and let God.”
At first glance these statements are benign, even comforting, common staples found on the lips of believers worldwide. While these holy exchanges feel warm immediately, they cool on the hearts of hurting people almost as instantly as they are applied. The real goal of uttering standard “churchspeak” is to appear interested for as short a time as possible and move on, bypassing the hurts, fears, issues, and emotions that run deep below the surface of another individual. Why do we treat others this way? Is it not totally unlike God to leave people in the midst of their pain as we walk away with preoccupied smiles? What does this do to the soul of a seeker? It could possibly be said that “for this reason many are weak and sick among you” (1 Cor. 11:30).
The church is responsible for authentically representing the values of the gospel. Knowing we have not been worthy ambassadors, how do we change?
Imagine for a moment being outdoors in Antarctica on the coldest day of the year with no coat. You run toward black smoke in the near distance, hoping desperately to find people, fire, warmth! With the last ounce of strength you finally arrive, grateful, at the door to the shelter, and knock. The people who live there open the door, inquire as to the whereabouts of your coat, and swiftly wish you “Godspeed” on your journey to finding what you need, before returning to their fireplace. How cruel. You were desperate, cold, hurt, and now, disillusioned.
If God was willing to share His only Son with us even with the knowledge that we would abuse Him, God’s followers certainly ought to consider more hospitable approaches to each other and the “stranger who is within your gates.”
How does the church attempt intentional reconciliation with those who have been bypassed? The following subheadings* succinctly sum up the blueprint for establishing more authentic relationships as followers of the gospel, resonating as a modern translation of Jesus’ Great Commission.
Spiritual bypass, or “churchspeak,” fosters a sense of identity and community by providing common language to identify who belongs to a certain group. A perhaps unintended consequence of this is the tendency for exclusion once a person fails to offer the traditional response to a specific gambit. Rewrite sentence: The person seeking a human affirmation of God’s affection may feel rejected if all they hear is that “God cares.” We are all human and responsible for submitting what we say to God before offering it on His behalf.
David understood the importance of inviting God’s transformational power to guide his tongue when he penned Psalm 19:14: “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord” (KJV). Grace invites us to practice being mindful of what we say, as our words are often the bridges to enduring, effective relationships with others.
Often it is easy to make a promise and more challenging to keep it. In addition to thinking more about what we say, connecting our words with necessary action lets people know we are concerned about them. The next time you are tempted to tell someone “I’ll pray for you” in response to hearing about a troubling matter of the heart, try honoring your word in real time by taking the time to pray with them at the moment. This free demonstration of your commitment will acknowledge the concern of your prayer partner and immediately place it in the hands of our Provider. Future conversations will encourage reflection on the action and a sense of solidarity in seeking God’s will. Remember, we are promised that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20, KJV).
How do we show our friends and family that we want to include them in our lives? We invite them to be with us in our spaces. We check on them and take an interest in the details of their experiences. As the church, we are also invited to actively cultivate relationships with others by going the extra mile to learn about the realities of the people around us, and inviting them to be part of our world. True connections and devoted, genuine friendships are formed, not when we are satisfied with surface interactions, but when we show an interest in participating in the lived experiences of others: “A man who has friends must himself be friendly, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). When we take the initiative to care about the inner world of someone else, we are mirroring the image of God.
The church can practice providing emotional and spiritual safety by engaging with people wherever they are. No longer is the knowledge of God subject to the availability of specific members, convenience, or tradition. Effective methods for the present-day church will utilize innovation, technology, and investments in parallel ministerial and community partnerships.
Spiritual bypass has a direct effect on individual relationships. Its impact is felt cumulatively with regard to how the “body” moves as it prevents us from growing through the vehicle of vulnerability. Integrating the wisdom of generations past with the opportunities of the present will pave the way for spirituality to become targeted, tangible, and accessible.
Matthew 5-7 gives us an example of Jesus rearranging His method for ministry based on the circumstances of the moment. “And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain” (Matt. 5:1, KJV). This break with the use of conventional facilities for religious education enabled Him to reach all who would come, and impacted their spiritual development to the degree that “the people were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matt. 7:28, 29, KJV). Jesus used practical insight to offer the people access to Himself. Chapter 8 describes how the people, compelled by His practical gospel, felt compelled to follow Him. The aim of the church should be to provide access for people to love, grow, and serve.
The message of the gospel is too valuable to bypass spiritually. At this very moment the church is hearing God’s call to something more profound, to honestly offer each other and the world deeply caring empathy, “and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). Accepting this call to care as individuals is fundamental to furthering God’s cause of restoration and healing of the whole body of Christ. The opportunity to be the healing change we want to see in the world is in our hands. And it will flourish when we allow Christ to first heal our own wounded hearts.
* Borrowed from a 1994 hit, “If You Love Me,” by female trio Brownstone.
Kryselle Craig, a doctoral student in marriage and family therapy, is passionate about the intersection of faith and relationships in modern