The church gives us a lot of reasons not to befriend those outside of the church: Family comes first and we need to be investing in those God has entrusted to us. The body of Christ needs what little time and energy we have left over to run its programs, and we call this building up the body. And then there are all those verses about keeping yourself from being polluted by the world, not being unequally yoked with unbelievers, not being of the world.
Like pretty much anything else, there's a continuum in our churches of how separate we are. There are some churches where women wear jumpers and head coverings and they have 12 children and they never watch movies or tv. Somewhere in the middle are the people who show up every time the church doors are open and have no time left over for other relationships. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, those who go to church on Sundays, or maybe just the big 2 (Christmas & Easter), and who spend all the rest of their time outside the church, living just like the rest of the world does.
In my city, we have a lot of Christian schools. Christian parents teach their kids early on that they are different--that they need to be different. They might talk about the need to reach out to the world, but the culture they've created is so different from the world around them that they have little in common with those who don't share it. And the kids are taught that this difference is supposed to be the very thing that draws people in to wanting to know more about Jesus. But it seems like there's often also an underlying motivation of fear. If I send my kids out into the world, or if I go there myself, what might happen to my spiritual life? What might happen to my kids? How will we stay pure and holy, people after God's own heart?
But let's imagine for a moment that we put that fear aside. Let's say that I decided that I was going to live mostly in the world and be loosely affiliated with other followers of Jesus. And let's say that in my deep desire to love and get to know people... just regular people... I spent so much time with them and got to know them so well that I fell in love with someone who has not given his life to Jesus. What would happen?
It might be that it could separate me from everything that had always been important to me. It could be the thing that made me walk away from a calling to ministry and evangelism and writing. And, like Solomon with his foreign women, it could move my heart from total surrender to God to a position of compromise where I would never reach the potential for impact that he'd instilled in me.
But truly being his friend and walking with him for a while could also be a tremendous opportunity to grow. It could give me the chance to learn to articulate more about faith and how I live it and what it means to me. It could test and try the depth of my commitment to God so that once again, I knew for sure that nothing could separate me from him. It could sharpen my thinking about what I believe and why I believe it. It could give me opportunities that I never would have otherwise had to look someone in the eye and tell him that he is loved by God and that God wants to free him from bitterness or hopelessness or aimlessness. It could make me a better person by challenging me to choose to love unconditionally and selflessly. It could teach me to listen, really listen, to the cry of another person's heart.
The church often takes a very strong stance against loving those outside the church--at least loving in a way that might cost us something. We'll hand out a list of verses to our people, give a set of cold, hard facts about the perceived or possible consequences. And we often teach that obedience to God means walking away from situations where we might have to give of ourselves deeply and personally.
But who did Jesus spend his time with when he was on earth? Why were the religious people always so up in arms about him? Why did he take time to talk with the Samaritan woman at the well, or to let children come and talk to him? Why? What is it about humanity that he saw?
And what risk did he personally take when loving and challenging and walking beside people?
Well, we know he was betrayed by one of his closest friends. He was ridiculed by the religious leaders. He was crucified by the people he came to rescue. He risked everything, and it cost him everything.
If we're really going to love our neighbors, I think we have to be all in. I don't think we can do it from a position of power, a sense of separateness, or the idea that we have some great knowledge to impart. No, I think we have to jump in with our whole selves, loving and living beside and investing in the people around us. In this way, we are invited to abide in Christ in a deeply personal way. If there is no risk, there is no need for God. But if we follow Jesus into the trenches, loving people in spite of the mess that our shared humanity creates, he will be there right beside us, loving through us, and challenging us to an ever deepening dependence on him.
So what are we afraid of?