Authors: Jennie Allen
I say “work to reclaim” because that’s about all that we can hope for in our present reality. Because Adam and Eve wanted independence more than connection and they bucked God’s authority, shame entered their relationship, they forfeited close proximity with their Creator, they corrupted their God-given purpose, and time began to count down to a grave. Sin entered the world.
Since the beginning of time, we’ve fought hard for the independence we think we want—not just Adam and Eve, or you and me, or the three-in-five people who admit to being lonely pretty much all the time
—but rather every human who has ever lived.
There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away.
It’s the story of humankind. We see the repercussions of that independence everywhere. But nowhere is it shown more clearly than in our human relationships.
We all hurt others. We all sin. We all push people away. We all are guilty.
Nothing in my relational life has helped me more than coming to terms with these simple truths:
You will disappoint me. I will disappoint you. God will never disappoint us.
Accepting this shifts our expectations from people to God. And He can handle our expectations.
AFTER ZAC AND I LANDED
in Dallas, we wasted no time in finding a church our family could call home. With four kids who were experiencing varying levels of anxiety about the restart, not to mention my own tailspin, we needed to act fast. We did exactly zero church shopping, choosing to simply return to the church we’d attended twelve years prior, when we had briefly lived in Dallas to attend seminary.
Next, when I learned that my camp counselor from twenty-five years earlier happened to be living in the same town and attending the same church, I swallowed my embarrassment over being essentially friendless and asked if she’d be my friend.
To be fair, it didn’t exactly go like that. But that’s precisely how it felt. Michelle is only three or four years older than I am, but given our bond when I was a teenager, I took the risk of initiating a conversation. When she showed up at the coffee shop with minimal makeup and wearing a plain T-shirt and workout shorts, I knew we could be good friends. This
was Dallas, where standard dress for the grocery store rivals my Austin wedding attire.
I cannot overstate how monumental this singular decision was, in the overall course of things. You may not believe me when I tell you this, but one simple phone call, one seemingly inconsequential text, can shift your course entirely. It can set into motion a cascade of events. As it turned out, Michelle was in the process of joining a small group at our now-mutual church. “You know about the small groups?” she said to me, her eyes revealing some of the doubt she obviously carried.
“What about them?” I said, matching her tone of reservation.
“You join them for life,” Michelle said. Our church, as I would soon discover, takes community very, very seriously.
As in, tell-the-truth-about-your-struggles seriously.
As in, tell-the-
As in, disclose-the-details-of-your-finances-with-each-other seriously.
Not kidding, even a little. In these community groups,
is fair game.
So, anyway, in the midst of giving me a little primer on our church’s views on community groups, Michelle blurted out, “You and Zac should join ours!”
“No, thank you.” I mean,
I wanted friends, but I also wanted some time to be sure that we were throwing in with the right people. Coming off some friendship failures in Austin, the mere mention of lifelong commitment made me reflexively step back. Since then,
I’ve learned that plenty of small groups don’t quite make it the proposed four or more decades. But I felt the pressure.
I tend to be gregarious in social situations and come off extremely extroverted, engaged, and fun, but raise the stakes and dive into how life
is going, and man, do my walls go up fast. And now a bunch of perfect strangers were supposed to have access to my deepest thoughts? My desires? My spending patterns? My use of time? Yikes.
I should mention here that that conversation happened almost four years ago, and Zac and I risked it and jumped in with that small group of people and still are together today. And those friends we did not intentionally choose? They are some of the closest friends that we have.
Don’t get me wrong: at many turns along the way, things between people in that group and us have been incredibly difficult. Especially at first, it was awkward. As in,
Had I not been so desperate to find my people, I probably would have bailed. Thankfully I stayed. Thankfully, when the invitation came to engage in candid, authentic, long-term community, I whispered an earnest
That one yes has changed everything.
Let me assure you that today I have my village. Since that coffee date, a handful of other friends have come into my life too. You’ll hear more as we go. My network of people is diverse and intrusive, and they hold me up and together. I love them, and they are in and out of my life most every minute of every
day. And I want this for you, if you don’t already have it. More important, God wants this for you.
My suspicion? You want this too.
I think that’s why you are here. I am guessing you are here because you’re sick of the ache. I am guessing people have hurt you and you hope there is another way to do this. I am guessing you are looking for a vision and for tools to help you build healthier relationships. And I imagine that by this point in the book, you might feel a little afraid. You are afraid that this book won’t provide any relief for your deepest longings and hopes and dreams, and that possibly our whole system is just universally broken.
If that’s you, then please hear me: because our current world has been built on such rampant independence…
it will take deliberate intention to return to the kinds of relationships that God had in mind for us to enjoy.
At this point you also may be saying, “Sounds great! I would love to find my people, but I’ve tried, and for the most part, people are just incredibly toxic and draining. Are you sure this is a good idea?”
I hear you.
Choosing our people isn’t as simple as finding people to wash clothes by the river with or take walks with; we need these friends to be healthy. Not perfect, but also not toxic—is that too much to ask?
I mentioned earlier that Jesus has taught me more about friendship than anyone else. Let me tell you why I like Him so much.
I’ve always related to the words of Psalm 8:4: “[God,]
what is man that you are mindful of him?
” (emphasis added). I understand the question. If there is a God who set all this in motion (and there is!), and if He has existed forever, started this big, beautiful earth spinning, created every human being, and placed breath in each of our lungs, then how can it be that that God concerns Himself with sinful, broken us? Further, if sinful people refuse to turn toward that God, acknowledge that God, love that God, and devote themselves mind, body, and spirit to that God, then who in a right mind could blame Him for smiting them all? Why
He send a big fat meteor and just take out the globe?
Ephesians 2 tells us that we—you and I and everyone ever to live—were dead in our trespasses and sins, and that we were children of wrath, meaning that we deserved for God to send that meteor our way. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
Because of love.
Made us alive.
Let me tell you how these few phrases change everything.
Jesus rescuing us from our sin and giving us a way out changes not only our eternal future with Him, but it also empowers us to love like Him here. “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”
You and I are to give that reconciliation and hope away to living, breathing, broken, longing people. God purposefully set you in your place and in your time to love people in such a way that they will feel their way toward Him and find Him.
Jesus not only provides the means to live a full, thriving life with each other and with Father God, He also modeled how it would look! He chose to come to earth not only to die for our sins but to show us how to live as children of God.
So here are just a few things you need to know about when God came to earth:
Jesus was born into an earthly family, with a mom and a dad and siblings.
He grew up in a neighborhood with family friends and other kids.
He learned a trade—carpentry—from his dad.
He experienced temptation but never sinned.
He laughed and learned and sang and grew up in the context of a village.
He found His people in unexpected places, not universities or temples. His people were
prostitutes, uneducated fishermen, hated tax collectors, children, mothers-in-law. They were often, by any onlooker’s estimation, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong gender, the wrong age, the wrong status, the wrong personality type, the wrong people.
Jesus’s people were all wrong—except that they were
And they were
And they were all in.
That seems to be the only universally clear marker of the small group of people Jesus chose to spend His time with. They were willing. They were wanting. They were
You may recall that Jesus made a habit of pushing away crowds and eating with His few. He pushed the crowds away and chose twelve. Within that twelve, there were three He spent the most time with. They were His closest people. The ones He confided in the most. The short version? It’s okay to be selective as we go forward. You will need to be.
Jesus and His people would go on to help a lot of people “feel their way” toward God. What began in a village with a tight group of people would reach generations and the ends of the earth. This is the endgame of community:
we find our people, and together we build safe, beautiful outposts that offer the love of God.
Village-sized community works because it’s what we were built to handle—you know, five to fifty people, max. The internet is not your village. Every problem you hear about in the news is not yours to solve. We are exhausted from trying. We need to rebuild our infrastructure with healthy villages and commit to being healthy participants in the villages that we build. There will be times it doesn’t feel like the happier, easier
way. We need a deep conviction in our bones to stick with it and live not lonely.
You and I both desire deep connection. We want someone to know our deepest, darkest secrets and to love us anyway. But that type of community doesn’t come naturally. We have to look for it and then fight to protect it once we have it.
A note of clarification, as we begin. You and I both are unhealthy people. Hopefully not completely unhealthy, but somewhat unhealthy for sure. Everyone has pockets of sin in their lives, and you and I are no different. The point? You will never find the perfect people to do life with you, because those people don’t exist.
You will always be doing community with sinners.
With that in mind, we approach this work with humility. A
of humility. At the same time, we are told throughout Scripture to use discernment about the people we do life with.
Who are we looking for?
In the “village” that Zac and I have built, there are two categories of people I spend my time with:
People who need me.
People I need.
People who need me may not have much to offer in return, but what they can give me isn’t the point. I am there to love them, serve them, and encourage them—that’s it.
Remember the culture of community I talked about in chapter 1? Our lives should be built around layers of increasingly meaningful friendships, from acquaintances, to our village, to our inner circle. Think of it this way:
In the coming chapters we will walk through patterns of living that will help you find your people and deepen your relationships with those people. But before we run headlong into this work, it’s important to talk about what you are looking for.
First, remember that your inner circle can’t be huge—no more than five people. Your village might be made up of co-workers, Sunday school teachers, kids’ friends’ parents, your dorm floor, and so on. We live busy lives and don’t have the
margin to “do life” in any sort of meaningful way with a group fifty people strong. If you have fifty people in your life, we would call those people
Your inner circle is made up of the people who are keeping tabs on you day by day and who know the state of your heart. These are the people you’re going to call to tell about a fight you had with your husband or a difficulty at work or a fear or sin you’ve been battling.
My inner circle is made of a handful of people who see me and know me and who are willing to be seen and known by me. They’re imperfect, admittedly. But they’re determined to grow and become more like Christ, and that was the qualifier for me. We aren’t the same age, and we don’t approach all issues the same way, but we share a common pursuit of God. I love God more because of them. And hopefully they would say the same of me.
You might be thinking,
Are you saying my friends all need to be friends with each other?
No. They’re probably coming from different parts of your life. We’re not talking about five people who all know each other. I may be one of your five, but your other four may not be part of my five. Your people might come from different groups.
So what should you look for?
Look for people who say yes and show up even with kids in tow, even with a messy house, even before they’ve had a chance to shower.
Look for people willing to say hard things and receive hard things. We need humility to work things out, and growth happens in all our lives only if we aren’t so arrogant
that we think we don’t need to change or that the problem is someone else.
We’ll talk more about this later, but for now, look for someone who refuses to hide, people who will say what’s really going on in their lives. Watch for the ones who will articulate the hard, messy truth rather than a sanitized version that goes down a little easier.
Obviously, healthy friendships will inevitably have conflict, but in my experience these three qualities in a relationship help sinners stay together over time.
I should mention here that the apostle Paul wasn’t afraid to caution us against aligning with unhealthy people. Paul talked about people we should avoid, those who live as if “their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame.”
In other words, people who are comfortable in their sin, people who mistakenly believe that they don’t need to change—those should not be the ones who make up your inner circle.
If you are running with people like this, you will get complacent fast. Our flesh loves to not be bothered about its sin. Run—don’t walk—away from toxic people who will lead you into sin and away from God. Instead,
choose friends who will fight for you, friends who will fight alongside you, and friends who are as committed as you are to fighting against the dark.
Pray for this.
Ask God right now for these people.
Even if you haven’t prayed in a long time, right now close your eyes and form words begging Him to help you find people to live this way with. He can bring these people to you in unexpected ways. Believe that He can and that He wants to bless you with people to do this difficult life with.
And pray to become this.
We can’t have what we aren’t willing to become.
God’s idea of community is deep, intentional, day-in and day-out connection, loving at all times, bearing with one another, sticking closer than siblings, naming every sin, running our races together, encouraging each other as long as it is called today.
The reality of His intentional design is made clear not only in God’s Word but in scientifically observable facts.
For several years now, smart people have been researching why people who live in the happiest places on earth—called Blue Zones—experience a much better quality of life, a much longer quantity of life, and greater health overall.
Is it their diet? Is it their position relative to the equator? Is it their exercise regimen? Why are people who live in these specific places—Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California—doing so much better than the rest of us? What’s the one thing we all should do?
As it turns out, the reason those villagers with washing machines became depressed all those years ago, and the
reason inhabitants of the happiest places on earth thrive so distinctively today, is the same:
We’re not meant to go through our days alone.
We’re not meant to learn alone.
Or to work alone.
Or to do chores alone.
Or to relax alone.
Or to celebrate alone.
Or to cry alone.
Or to make decisions alone.