Building Relationships With Those Who Are Not Like You.



A young gal serving in ministry at an Omaha church asked the visiting pastor of a church in a very poor, lower-class area of Edinburgh, Scotland, "So how do you encourage your middle-class church members to reach out and build relationships with those in a much lower class?" She had mentioned the desire that she had to see it happen more within her church and was looking for counsel on how to direct her church members. The pastor then responded.

"It's basically impossible."

That's all he said, leaving myself and everyone else in the awkwardly quiet room to wonder how we should respond, with laughter or with groaning? Finally, one of the pastor's associates encouraged him to elaborate, and thankfully he did. 

The pastor described for us the difficulty of these types of relationships. He serves a church that is made up of mostly very poor, underprivileged people, many who have a history of various addictions, some in prostitution and even incarceration. The church also has middle-class members who share almost nothing in common with the lower-class members' life experience. In the early days of his time at the church, he worked to encourage relationships between members in the two different social classes. He reported that it was a very discouraging time as these relationships hardly ever seemed to get going. His honesty and realism was refreshing as he made the point to us Americans that there is no seven-step program or 40-day revitalization program that you can launch in your church to make this happen. This kind of thing is incredibly difficult as there are so many obstacles to overcome. He reiterated something he had said in a message earlier, "There is a big gap between the two social classes and it is growing larger, not smaller." We could all feel the weight of this heavy burden upon us. How can these types of relationships happen when it is so difficult? Is there any hope?

That is when he shared one example of one such relationship that he saw develop within his church. There was one man who visited their church and eventually came to profess faith in Christ. His background was one of years of heroine addiction. The way that he supported his very expensive addiction was as a homosexual prostitute. That was his life when he first began coming to the church. 

The other man the pastor described as having been "born reading Banner of Truth books." (Banner of Truth is a publisher in the UK which is known for publishing the theological works of the Puritans and 20th century preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones)  He was a middle-class man who was particularly uptight and critical of everything he believed was theologically wrong with the church and their ministry. He complained often about the behavior of the lower class people the church was attracting. The pastor described him as being quite a large "thorn in his side." 

Then one Sunday the pastor introduced the uptight middle-class theological expert to the recently converted male prostitute. The pastor told both men that they had to spend ten minutes together after every service getting to know each other and talking about how God's Word in that week's sermon impacted them. The pastor laughed at how ridiculous his plan sounded to him even now years later. Amazingly though, the two men obeyed him, and even more amazingly, they eventually became friends. The impact was noticeable. The pastor shared that now, years later, this middle-class man's Christian life has been transformed. He is now characterized for his humility and graciousness as much as he used to be characterized by pride and snobbery.

We heard the lessons in the example that was given as well as by how the pastor talked about it. Relationships between Christians from different social classes are fraught with difficulty. There is no program or method you can instill which will guarantee positive results. It takes time, a great amount of patience and perseverance which most Christians, sadly, are just not willing to press on when the going gets tough. And it most certainly will get tough. 

Yet there is another assumption that must be discarded. That is the assumption that the lower-class believer needs the relationship with the middle-class believer more than the other way around. Too often Christians in higher social classes (like most American Christians) have an underlying assumption that it is the lower-class people who are in need of our help. We too often bring this  presupposition into the relationship, often even as a prime motivating factor for it. That will quickly be sniffed-out by the other and will become a great unintended obstacle which often leads to disabling the relationship even before it starts. Rather, believers from both classes need to think of themselves as both poor, wretched, helpless sinners who are utterly dependent upon the mercy of Christ. As the pastor observed with the example of the two men in his church, it was the middle-class believer who benefited the most from the relationship. 

In Acts 16 we are given the story of the beginnings of the church at Philippi. We are told the stories of the very first converts in Philippi under Paul's ministry there. It is a picture of how different the believers are who make up local churches. There is Lydia the wealthy business owner, most definitely in one of the higher social classes. Then there is the clairvoyant slave girl that Christ delivers from demon possession. Finally, there is the blue collar prison guard and his family. Each from different social classes. Each with very different backgrounds and baggage which they brought into the church with them. But as Paul shared later, God had begun a work in each of them which Paul was convinced He would "bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ." God was using the relationships that they had with each other within the church in order to help them each to grow in their faith, and would perfect them through those very relationships with Christians from completely different social classes. 

The relationships are fraught with difficulty as we are shown in the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche that Paul addresses in chapter 4 of Philippians. A conflict which could have been complicated by differing social classes to which the women belonged. But just as Paul believed in the perseverance of the saints that he showed in Phil. 1:6, he also believed in the necessity of the persevering patience required in our relationships with each other in the church. 

We all need each other within the church. Too often we tend to congregate with, and only grow close to those people in the church who are just like us. Those we are most comfortable being around. We then tend to avoid those within the church that we most definitely aren't as comfortable with, those whom we share little in common. But we need them and they need us in order to grow to maturity in the faith. They will help us grow in ways that we will not be able to grow in by just sticking with the people who are most like us. Will it take patience? Yes. Will it take more sacrificial love? Yes. Will it take extra measures of kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control? Yes, it will, which all happen to be the very things God is forming in us anyway.

So consider the people you seek out to talk with each Sunday or Wednesday when your church gathers. Are any of them from a different social class? Do you avoid those you aren't comfortable being around and pretty much stick to those who don't take much effort on your part to speak with? Change things up this Sunday. Begin to get to know someone in a different social class and commit to sticking to it when it gets hard. Remember to rely on God's Spirit and to live out His Word in John 13:34-35.

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