Read Find Your People: Building Deep Community in a Lonely World Online
Authors: Jennie Allen
Of course, not every family relationship can be successfully healed and restored. So, if you have a broken relationship with your parents or other family members, is it hopeless?
In anthropology, there is a term that strikes at the core of what I see happening in the lives of people all over the world who long for a healthy family, even as their relatives seem to spiral out of control. The term
—which I think is a fancy term for “find your people”—refers to strong social ties that aren’t established by marriage or by blood.
Interestingly, some researchers assert that the happiest people are those who have the strongest fictive-kinship bonds: their own family was a disaster, so they went and formed a new one to call their own.
In Okinawa, this is carried out in social support groups called
—literally, “meeting for a common purpose.”
When kids are born on this island, they are connected with up to five other children, a pod of people they will be committed to for the entirety of their lives. It is quite literally their second family, even if their first family is life giving and kind. They play with that group. Later, they will work with that group. Still later, they will raise children, tend to each other when one falls ill, loan each other money when one falls on tough times, and grow old, all within the context of that group.
In central Mexico, parents from different families band together to raise their children in a form of fictive kinship called
In Rwanda, as I said before, older men parent younger males as though those boys were their own.
We could examine myriad cultures, but the point would be the same: in nearly every culture, we see this phenomenon of coming together to plug the holes that natural families will not or cannot fill.
When I asked Pastor Charles about the generation of boys and girls who grew up in Rwanda after being left fatherless by the horrific genocide there in the mid-1990s, he said, “Jennie, the solution to that fatherlessness is the Church. We can’t bring back their earthly fathers, so we give those children spiritual fathers instead.”
One of my favorite things about God is that He can meet our needs as a loving, caring, intimate parent in a way no earthly parent can.
Whether you feel like an orphan and are craving to be “set in a family” or you have a healthy family but you still feel lonely, God has built a beautiful family for you to be part of—His own. In fact, at the very core of the gospel message is this idea that, despite our being separated from God because of our sin, in His great love God has a plan to get us back.
He invites us into His family. He adopts us in from the moment we trust Jesus as Savior. And He gives us a place with brothers and sisters and promises to be a loving Father for us and to help us in our distress. He is our family, and through His Church, we have a new, bigger family here on earth.
“You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ ” Scripture reminds us. “For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.’ ”
One of the greatest village experiences Zac and I have known involved a fumbling, imperfect church plant set in the context of a diverse crew of really kind sinners. These days, our small group through our church has become like family. I have brothers, sisters, grandparents, cousins, and crazy aunts galore, and it all has come through our local, real-life church.
But for you, “church” may usher in a completely different set of thoughts.
For most people I talk to, the only collection of individuals that comes remotely close to having caused as much pain and
trauma as their nuclear family is the local church. Any guesses why? Because it’s full of sinners. And guess what sinners do?
Yep. They sin.
We hurt each other. One of the reasons people leave the church is because it doesn’t feel like a family. It’s not a group of people coming together to take care of each other under the banner of Jesus. No, these days, you’re lucky if you know a single soul at your church. We’re more often a bunch of strangers who silently pass each other by.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. As followers of Jesus, we need each other, and as difficult as it might feel, a local church is one of the best ways to find your people.
I tell my teammates when they come to work at IF:Gathering, “Find an imperfect church fast, and start serving in the nursery.” By serving right away, you will meet people, and even though those people won’t be perfect, those connections with real, living beings will help you remember that you are part of something good. And serving also reminds you, before you resent the Church too much, that you are part of it. You are the Church. It isn’t an institution, it’s a group of people, of which you are one.
Church can be our people.
Church can be our imperfect little village.
Church can be our family.
If I could say just one thing to you and to everyone who has started believing that they are destined for loneliness, it’s this:
What if you are missing potentially beautiful, life-giving
friendships that are waiting for you right inside your family or right down the street at a local church?
Scripture is full of flourishing fictive-kinship relationships that ought to inform how we interact today. In other words, there are probably some stand-in family members all around you, ready to accept and encourage and love you, if only you’d choose to see them that way, if you would let them in, if you would commit to them.
Yes. It’s difficult and costly. I am a family member and I am a church member, and I know what a mess I can be and I know what a mess you can be too. But here’s what else I know: there is nothing quite like having a full table of broken people who, like my Italian family, fight and laugh and celebrate and talk over each other and show up and love and criticize and toast.
“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote.
As a starting point to committing to our family, whether by blood, adoption, or choice: let’s be careful about how we talk about our family.
“My church keeps asking for money.”
“My father has always been a jerk.”
“My family has never understood me.”
“Why isn’t my church caring for _______________?”
“They will never accept me.”
“We’ve all agreed to just part ways.”
“It will never work for us to be in each other’s lives.”
“We just can’t get along.”
“My family is a dysfunctional mess.”
“It’s irreparable, my relationship with my mom.”
“I’m better off without them.”
Whenever we make statements like this, we give ourselves permission to start a construction project that erects sky-high walls. We then spend the rest of our lives making sure we stay on our side of the wall and that “they” remain on theirs. Out of sight, out of mind is the approach we take, almost forgetting those people exist until the bothersome thought creeps in from time to time:
I wonder what might have been.
Instead of committing ourselves to isolation, let’s consider a better commitment. It’s what the Benedictine monks call the vow of stability. “By making a vow of stability,” Trappist monk Thomas Merton once wrote,
The monk renounces the vain hope of wandering off to find a “perfect monastery.” This implies a deep act of faith: the recognition that it does not much matter where we are or whom we live with…. Stability becomes difficult for a man whose monastic idea contains some note, some element of the extraordinary. All monasteries are more or less ordinary…. Its ordinariness is one of its greatest blessings.
After all the other vows are made and upheld by a monk, the vow of stability is his way of saying to the other brothers, “Despite the nuances and failures and ordinariness of you people, I’m in this for the long haul. I’m a stayer. I’m part of you, and you’re part of me. I’m here. I’ll be here. I’ll never go anywhere.” I can’t think of a better way to describe what it means to be a family.
Engraved on my husband’s wedding ring, as on many rings in the world, is a reference to Ruth 1:16–17, which says, “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.”
Ruth was Naomi’s daughter-in-law. After her husband, Naomi’s son, died, she made this commitment to her mother-in-law. Her mother-in-law! She could have gone back to her family of origin, but she committed in love to stay and live and even die with this woman.
She chose to stay, to consider this woman her family.
My husband at times has felt like my best friend in my village and at times my greatest enemy. But we have fought for each other and our relationship, because we are committed to stay. We choose to stay. In imperfect marriages, in imperfect churches, in imperfect friendships.
What will you choose?
Choosing to stay is not easy, but whomever God has given you as your family…
the moment you decide to accept them for who they are instead of constantly trying to get them to change…
the moment you look for ways to serve your family and church instead of constantly expecting things from them…
the moment you watch for opportunities to speak an encouraging word instead of questioning their every decision…
the moment you seek out chances to love them well instead of spending your days anticipating awful exchanges with them…
that might be the moment when you see your family and church changed.
Perhaps you’ve heard of confirmation bias, which is when you find in the world exactly what you expect to find. Confirmation bias works here too. If you expect to find beauty in your family relationships, you will find beauty. If you expect to find support, then you will find support. If you expect to find acceptance, then you will find acceptance.
If you expect to find friendship, then nine times out of ten, guess what?
You will find a friend.
My daddy today is the least critical person in my life. He in fact has transformed into my greatest cheerleader. He goes out of his way constantly to tell me how proud he is of me, how much I mean to him. And that never gets old. I see the beauty in our relationship now; in fact, it’s all I see.
It’s all I want to see.
Don’t miss the imperfect people right in front of you.
I WANT TO GIVE YOU A
bigger, more beautiful vision for living neck deep in interconnected, diverse community. I want you to walk away from this book committed to prioritizing that community over better job offers, more square footage, or a cooler city. I want you to see God’s vision for healthy relationships and to choose that above comfort or easy, shallow conversations or occasional convenient meetups. I want you to not only find your inner circle but to find a village where you can know and serve and be served and known. I want you to find your people.
But the vision is so much bigger than that.
It’s for you to embrace a completely different way to live.
Because I see it in Scripture, and I know it’s possible. Even so, it will always be hard.
Scripture says, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
This is the battle we’re in. We must remember this.
Years ago, in the early days of our church plant, I was in a big disagreement with someone in the church. I felt misunderstood, and she felt misunderstood. So we sat down to talk about it. After trying to work it out, it blew up even more. I left our meeting even madder than I’d been before, not knowing how to resolve the thing.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been in conflict like that, in which even though you’re trying, even though you’re sitting down and going through the steps of resolution, it feels like resolution just can’t be found. When I read that verse above in Ephesians, I realized the problem wasn’t my friend. The problem was the enemy who was trying to divide us.
As we discussed in chapter 4, the enemy hates community. His goal is to divide us, to distract us, to separate us so he can prevent us from being most effective.
If every believer on earth was united and of one mind on mission together, the Church would be unbelievably dangerous.
We would see revival in every city and every country. More kingdom work would be taking place than we could possibly imagine. So, of course, the most effective way for the enemy to stop the work of God on earth is to have us devour each other instead of celebrating each other and loving each other and serving each
other and working together. This is why I care so much about developing deep, authentic, committed community.
Investing in relationship is not about pursuing our own happiness. It’s not just so that we can have friends to go to dinner with when we feel lonely. It’s so that we can be effective for eternity. It’s so that people will come to know Christ because of our love. It’s so that our love would speak so boldly and clearly of Jesus that it would be contagious, that it would cause other people to want to follow God.
The enemy’s tactics to subvert God’s good plan for our relationships are things you are very familiar with:
I want to take a little time here to discuss each of these tactics, lest you do all this work to find your people only to not know how to hang on to them over the long haul.
You might be thinking,
What in the world does that psychobabble word even mean?
The short answer: a codependent relationship is when one
person’s happiness is dependent on the other to a disproportionate level. Codependency develops when we look to other people to meet our needs instead of looking to God. It usually begins as people pleasing—or the converse, expecting people to meet all our needs. Either of these will grow into a whole slew of unhealthy behaviors.
Relationships always go wrong when God is not in the center.
When you go into a relationship—whether with your spouse or your roommate or your friend—looking for that person to meet a need, to solve a problem, to fulfill you in ways only God can, that relationship will become destructive. Codependent relationships are built with a goal that can never be reached. That human will disappoint you 100 percent of the time.
And that’s okay. I’ve learned to see disappointments in relationships as reminders that God is enough for me.
How do you know if you are in a codependent relationship?
One sign is that you constantly feel discouraged and disappointed by the person. When you have an extreme reaction to something, you need to pay attention because it’s probably evidence of something or someone you’ve made into an idol. When you are unusually upset that a person didn’t call or that person wasn’t loving enough toward you or didn’t invite you to something, ask yourself,
Am I putting unfair expectations on this person to meet my needs?
It is okay to have needs in a relationship and even expectations. We all have them. But are they fair expectations? Are they clear expectations? Are you looking to someone to meet needs that only God can meet?
We know we need each other in a million different ways in life, but those of us who don’t battle with codependency often fall into the trap of living independently. At our very core God built us to be fragile, finite, needy creatures so we would come to Him and so we would lean into the strengths and gifts of one another.
If there is one principle that has shaped my last three years of ministry, it is this:
pull people in at every turn.
Never do anything alone. Why? Because even God exists in community within Himself.
If you want to be effective, then ask for help. This makes other people feel needed, draws them together in a shared purpose. What’s more, by taking this simple but vulnerable step, we start to build the community we are longing for.
Today I was preparing my notes for a talk I’m giving this weekend. I got the message to a place where I was satisfied, and then I was ready to move on to something else. Instead, I called Chloe, who runs beside me every day in this calling, and I said, “Please, help me with this talk.”
As we’ve already established, I hate asking for help.
I don’t want to bother my friend/teammate at the end of a long day.
Plus, I’m prideful. I felt confident that I had everything ready to go.
But because of my conviction that no one should do anything alone, I asked for help. Chloe’s fresh eyes, her creativity, and her questions elevated a good talk into a great one. She helped me see what I’d missed and tighten things up.
Anything helpful I send out into the world has been shaped by at least a handful of other people, and I’m not ashamed of that fact.
It is God’s plan to bring the best work out of community! Always has been and always will be.
Ask for help.
Build a team.
Don’t create or live isolated.
Every one of us needs people, so ask a friend for something and do not apologize when you do. It is a lie from the devil that we should be independent and self-sufficient!
Are you busy? Great. Bring people along. Invest in relationships as you are going.
I discipled a young woman named Bethany eighteen years ago, back when she was a teenager and I was floundering through the baby years of parenting. Now she is neck deep in the stage of life of young kids. At dinner recently, Bethany named all the things that she remembers about my spending time with her:
You called me friend.
You zeroed in on me and really listened.
You squeezed me tight whenever you saw me.
You showed me grace.
You used to teach your toddlers about sin while you were driving and I sat in the front seat.
What influenced her most wasn’t the brilliant Bible study I led—as much as I wish that had been true. It was all the small things, our mundane interactions as we were just living, that made her feel seen.
The takeaway here? Invite a teenager or young woman along on your carpool drives. Take her to coffee or for a walk. Lead that study in your house while kids nap or crawl all over you. Take a coworker to lunch. Invite the newlyweds over for dessert. Find the lonely college girl in your town.
This is how we change the world.
How many people has Bethany discipled since I discipled her? She couldn’t count them all, because this has been the marker of her life. She reminded me that I made her lead a study for her peers at age sixteen! And she just never stopped after that. Bethany, Ali, Christi, Cassie, Courtney, Emily, Jen, Amanda, Pam, Katherine, and others are the best investments of my life. That’s just a few I’ve poured into, and those few have discipled others, with exponential, immeasurable numbers of people they have discipled behind them.
Once I was venting to my sister about someone, and sure enough, I had pocket dialed one of the friends of the person I was complaining about and they listened to the whole thing. I’ll never forget it! God had that happen because it was such a reminder that this is not okay,
Now when I am tempted to talk about other people behind their backs, I always picture them walking up behind us and how they might feel if they heard my words.
If you have friends who are constantly talking with you about other people, let me tell you a little secret: when you’re not there, they’re talking about you!
The truth is, if gossip didn’t feel good, we wouldn’t do it. Something in us—something unhealthy and twisted—likes having the inside track on some juicy tidbit or feeling a little superior as we engage in criticism of someone else.
But so often we end up so discouraged after our time with friends, having fixated on negative things rather than choosing to celebrate the good in others.
Romans 8:6 tells us that there’s a road that leads to sin and death and a road that leads to life and peace. How do we stay on the road to life and peace when it comes to gossip? We assume the best about each other and protect each other. It’s one of the highest values at my work and in my family. When one of my kids speaks ill of one of my other kids, I shut it down every time because I never want an unsafe culture in our home.
If a culture feels unsafe, then you have no place to thrive, no place to share your issues, your weaknesses, your failures. You have no place to be broken.
You may be wondering,
How can I possibly shift conversations with my friends to create a safe culture?
I believe you’ve got to sit down and build ground rules. The healthiest cultures, the healthiest friendships I’ve been in always have ground rules.
So how do you do this? As you know, I believe in awkward conversations. If you want good friends, you have to have them. So sit your friends down and say, “Hey, guys, we’ve been gossiping and we’ve got to stop. I don’t feel safe with you. I don’t think you all feel safe with me. So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to assume the best about each other,
and we’re never ever, ever going to speak ill of other people or of each other.”
It might be awkward for a little while, but it is worth it. You will love feeling safe with your people. Trust me. These are the friendships you want—the encouraging, loyal, safe, got-your-back, too-focused-on-good-to-tear-others-down people you want to do life with.
But start by being that person. Refuse to allow gossip to take place in your presence. Just change the subject, or do what I tell my kids to do: ask, “Why are you being so mean?” Call them out. I know this is basic, but I see it happening from middle school to middle age. Life is so hard. Let’s have each other’s backs all the time.
This might be one of the enemy’s favorite lies. Instead of your depending on the people God has given you to run with, his insidious whispers of comparison compel you to compete with them, to strive to be better than them—or to feel terribly discouraged if you can’t. “Team,” by definition, celebrates others’ successes because we know we need each other!
If we understand the purpose of our relationships, we can choose celebration over comparison.
My friend Callie taught last night at our church, where I also teach frequently. She was glowing and brought such an incredible word to the women. Not one part of me compared myself to her as a Bible teacher. I took joy in cheering on a teammate who was up at bat.
Because it’s brave to lead, to stand up and share your soul,
and because I wanted her to not miss how brightly God shone through her. So I live texted her during the whole message, thinking she could read it later as she went to bed. When I hugged her after the event, she said, “Your texts were blowing up my phone during my whole talk.” She had her notes on her phone! Oops.
You know what? Let’s go down like that, blowing up people’s lives to the point of distraction as we tell them all the ways they are killing it.
I know women have a reputation for being petty or competitive. But we don’t have to be. In fact, when I look around, I see the exact opposite! From my two sisters, to the huge sisterhood of IF:Gathering, to the women I work with every day, to my incredible friends, to my daughters,
what I see everywhere is women cheering for one another, propelling each other forward, laying down their lives to make their world better.
My heart swells as I think of all the ways you shape your places through your faith in God, your optimism as you lead, your unselfish dreams, your joy as you create. If you feel competitive with others, ask yourself why. And then choose instead to blow up someone’s phone celebrating their efforts. It will start to change your perspective.
We recognize the isolation of our daily lives, but we don’t want to risk rejection or do the work of finding a way to connect. So we don’t bother reaching out to anyone—and we wonder why we don’t have friends.
It takes more work to have connection than we often are willing to invest. In her book for the Barna Group titled
Kate Harris cited a large study of women who are juggling work and family and friendship, noting that “the research consistently shows friendship near the bottom of priorities and time commitments for all women,” while at the same time more than one in three women agreed with the statement “I am often lonely.”
To have deep, true friendships, we must initiate. We first need to be the friend we want others to be.
Do you want deeper friendships? Do you feel left out?
Quit waiting for people to reach out to you. Start initiating.
And maybe if we are the ones to go first, people around us will feel the freedom to meet us halfway. Assume people want to be your friend. Need things from others and assume they want to help! Ask people the questions you wish they’d ask you.
Pick up pizza and pop by a friend’s house tonight. Worst-case scenario, they’re busy and you’ll have leftovers.
Risk. Need. Bother. It’s called community.