by Alyssa Straessle, managing editor
In February of this year, researchers at Wellesley College in Massachusetts conducted a study to determine the role that similarity and familiarity play in forging relationships. The study, carefully surveying over 1,500 couples and pairs of friends, found that relationships have an in regard to personality traits. The research team concluded that humans follow a natural, instinctive draw towards homogeny.
Homogeny isn’t a “bad” instinct, even in a Christian context, and our missional call does not ask us to avoid the people who can protect, comfort and offer security and a level of natural, familial understanding that we all need. However, a problem occurs when we cling to homogeny; we must remain aware of this instinct of ours so that we can also be willing to renounce the comfort of it when Christ calls us to.
The fact is, we have millions of brothers and sisters with whom our souls are closely bonded in our shared incorporation into the Body of Christ. Gospel fellowship denotes a familial relationship with people whom we have never met and who are very different from us, whether we like it or not, and whether we choose to outwardly express that connection or not.
Because the definition of gospel fellowship is far broader than we are often willing to consider, there comes a time when we have to push past what comes naturally. If blood stays in one spot, it clots. Similarly, life in the Body of Christ requires a certain uninterrupted flow of life and godly love that extends to the entirety of the Church, the majority of which is entirely unfamiliar to us and utterly and confusingly “other.” As blood needs to be pushed through the body, we need challenging relationships, or we will stagnate.
It’s easy to have “fellowship” with the people we click with, and usually those we click with are those who are very similar to us. But to practice gospel fellowship is to swallow hard on the dry air of the “outside,” where getting to know people looks less like gazing in a mirror, where we are less in love with ourselves and less inclined to huddle amongst those just like us, which really is just to become intoxicated by our own hot breath.
Sometimes it means sitting in a sticky metal folding chair across from a sick old woman who coughs in your face as she wonders aloud how she will continue to pay her rent. Or listening more intentionally to the refugee woman who hardly speaks to you because you just don’t try that hard to understand her broken English. Or directing your attention more toward the interests of your gay peer whom you tend to view more as a project than a friend because you can’t relate to his struggles with sexuality.
These are the people who make up our church, and they aren’t the kind of people you would normally choose to be friends with, but we simply cannot miss how vital they are to the collective Body. Naturally enjoying the company of others is not a prerequisite to loving him or her. We cannot view the Christian family — or the tired truism “community” — as merely a pool from which to pick buddies. If we do, we are selling ourselves short.
There is something richer here: a harmonious body. The Body works in such harmony by God’s design, but we need to keep it healthy. The preservation of true gospel fellowship requires an active reaching towards the “other,” as well as the putting off of things like gossip, apathy towards and dismissal of people, reluctance to be intimate, and neglect of intercessory prayer.
Though it is necessary to expend more energy in forging and maintaining relationships within the wider Church, we should not carry guilt for not investing in every person who crosses our paths. It is okay to reach deeper levels with some people rather than others, and it is even okay to let some relationships go. But it is not okay to neglect the person in front of us with whom we can share a joy or a hurt, no matter how hard it is to “” with him or how “unnatural” it may feel at first.
To practice gospel fellowship is to live out the reality of “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female …” While the social constructs of the world in which we dwell remain intact, the Church transcends them as a supernatural but interrelated “new humanity” in which the passing of love and of graces is uninhibited. We keep the resources which God pours into us flowing, and we can then function like a human body that is in such harmony with itself that it spares its many resources to remedy the few parts that are sick. We become people who acknowledge each other, who stop to pray and to show kindness. We help people to be free from the ways the world holds them under the waters of their temptations. We become a collective resting place, and a palate on which to mix and spread the joys and sorrows of the earthly life lived in Christ.
The healing and un-lonely qualities of the wider Church are not benefits which everyone will reap with ease — they require some work. Thus there exists a call to a missional love that is stretching, difficult and sometimes exhausting. But remember the Master who walks with us — He who is sovereign over the burdens of us all and ties them together to make us walk in sync — He who refreshes and renews and mends — He remains ever behind and ever before, Master of the walk, Head of the Body.