As we sat around the table toward the back of the restaurant, we really were the living embodiment of a motley crew. We had it all, from a 19-year-old grunge to a 60-year-old grandparent. Our backgrounds ranged from locals to transplants, seminarians to seekers, marrieds to singles, and even an array of ethnic, cultural backgrounds.
So when our waiter came, we were not surprised by his question.
“I’m sorry, but I have to ask. What in the world is this? I mean, how do you even know each other?”
It was a fair question. By human reason, our small group made no sense. We seemingly had nothing in common, and physical appearance alone ruled out any speculation of familial ties. There was no obvious explanation for our gathering.
Which made our response simple: “This is our community; our church doing life together.” From there, the Lord opened wide the door for us to share the gospel – together.
I share this antidote, not to brag on my community, but instead to give testimony to two of the hardest years of my life. While that group carries some of the deepest gospel-centered relationships of my life, it was not always so.
The Loneliest Generation
Back in May a study was released by Cigna identifying this current teenage generation – Generation Z – as the loneliest generation. Out of those surveyed from each generation, Gen Z reported the highest percentage of participants feeling loneliness and social isolation, higher than even those surveyed 75-years-old and older.
Why it Matters
As leaders and parents, the students we minister to are a part of this “loneliest generation,” a generation that has also recently been defined by an increasing rate of suicide, depression, and anxiety. And while the complexity of this issue is more than what can possibly be covered in one article, I believe there is an opportunity in this moment for us to examine how we, as leaders, are offering a redeemed hope of relationships to our students.
In a generation that is more “connected” than ever, yet more lonely than any other, may we help draw our students, and ourselves, back to the beauty of God’s original design and the hope of His coming restoration of that creation.
A Biblical Theology of Relationship
From the beginning – literally – God revealed our deepest need for relationship by first establishing it in Himself and then, in turn, crafting us in His image – the image of a triune, communal God (Genesis 1-2). He declared this primacy of relationship over humanity in Genesis 2:18 when He proclaimed, “it is not good for man to be alone.” Yet, when sin entered the story, God’s perfect design was broken, including His design for relationships, as reflected primarily in the separation of man from God.
Then, throughout the Old Testament narrative, we see God calling His people back into His original, good design. Through the institution of feasts and commands, God invites His people not only to commune with Him, but with one another. In Deuteronomy 16, we see God command His people to care for and even include the sojourner, fatherless, slave, Levite, and widow in their feasts. The very people who were at higher risk for social isolation and loneliness are the very ones God calls by name to be remembered and invited in.
And this design for relationship was not given over at the onset of the New Covenant. It was actually redeemed to a more complete picture through the one man who did not merely bear the image of God, but who was His exact imprint (Col. 1:15). Now, not only are God’s people called to live in community, but through the power of His Spirit, we are called to a redeemed version of community – the church. No longer are we identified by our former selves; no longer are we strangers or aliens merely invited in; but through Christ, we are all one family because we have been reconciled through one blood to God, breaking down the dividing wall and creating one man where there were once many (Eph. 2:11-22).
Where our differences once threatened to separate us, we are now connected through the familial tie of the blood of Christ. This means that a group of total misfits, a textbook motley crew, can not only live in community but, in so doing, reflect the image of God’s kingdom – a redeemed community.
What Can We Do?
For the first year of my community group, I desperately wanted leave, to find a “better fit.” Had I not been committed as a leader, I would have. There were weeks no one spoke, weeks fights exploded, and weeks few showed up. I was walked out on and yelled at, and I cried my eyes out more times than I like to admit.
However, the reason I stayed was simple: gospel-centered relationships don’t just happen, they have to be fought for. And by God’s power, we can fight, knowing His promise is true and His church will stand. So, if we want to train our students to hold fast to this redeemed version of relationship that is now ours, here are a few places I believe we can start.
1. Worth the Fight: As we proclaim a Savior who fought the final battle at the cross to redeem His children, His treasured possession, let us teach our students to treasure His bride as well. This can be done so many different ways. For myself, one thing I am extra cautious to never do is to “fix” a problem for my student, especially when it deals with another believer. Instead, while it may take longer, I will walk them through the steps of Biblical reconciliation (Matt. 18:15-17), showing them that if any relationship is worth the fight, it is our relationship with the church. It was in the midst of those tough conversations and hurts that my community group learned to love one another past our differences.
2. Vulnerability in a world of dichotomy: Our students live in a generation where relationship has been reframed by more than just social media, but convenience. From self-checkout counters, to Teladocs, to online shopping and even fast food delivery, everything has been designed to avoid face-to-face interactions when we would just rather not. This, coupled with our students’ world of social media, has allowed our students to curate every corner of their lives. They live in a dichotomized world, where they can be one person in public and then save their hurts/vulnerabilities for a select few, if any. Gospel-centered community challenges this framework of relationship in every way. Because of Jesus, we are safe in our vulnerability. This is why my community group was able to share the gospel simply by being together – because true, Biblical community shines bright in a world that wants to hide in the dark.
3. From friends to family: In the glimpse of heaven revealed in Revelation 7, it is the church that we see standing in communion together – forever. Yet, too often we view the church as any of our other friendships, ones that will come and go. We must help our students see a true perspective of the church, as their eternal family. Our students will not always be best friends, but they will always be family. What are ways we can help them embrace their differences as brothers and sisters, instead of separating them based on those differences?
4. Gospel Diversity: I believe this can be an answer to our last question. Revelation 7 also shows us that redeemed community is the coming together of all nations, tribes, tongues, and languages. In other words, it is the coming together of all grades, social status’, races, clubs, and schools. We must help our students see their differences not as dividing walls, but as opportunities for the gospel.
It was our obvious differences that gave my community group the chance to share the gospel that night. As we strive to shepherd this lonely generation, may we first seek to reclaim our view of relationship back to God’s original design, laying hold to the hope that He will one day restore all things.