I "grew up a Christian." But unfortunately, I did not have a stable church or youth group that allowed me to grow up with many Christian friends. My closest friends — friendships that I have maintained for over 20 years now (I am 26) — are nonbelievers. I have only a handful of friends that are Christians, mature in their faith. Only one do I consider a close friend with whom I talk on a weekly basis.
Granted, a big problem is that I have moved a lot. Only once have I found a church where I felt connected to the congregation and developed friendships. However, I had to move from this area and am now living in a different place. I have only maintained one of the friendships from this church.
Anyway, I am now back in the city where I grew up. About a year ago, when I moved back, I began searching for a church that was as great as my last church. I have struggled to find one. I picked one that came close and joined several groups in attempt to meet new people (three groups, to be exact). All three groups bored me to death.
I find believers hard to relate to. I find them close-minded and sheltered. When there is a conversation, I find it difficult to relate to the same struggles. Their discussions of faith are based on sins I find so trivial (like not thinking mean things about someone or not gossiping). Are you serious? My struggles with faith seem so much bigger than these struggles.
I feel like I am on a whole other level compared to the Christians I meet. I know that it is a difference in maturity of faith. I want to be mature. I love God, and I want to strive to be Christ-like, but I find it impossible when surrounded by people who are nonbelievers. But they are also my best friends.
How can I better relate to Christians? And how can I surround myself with God-fearing individuals when often I do not really like them?
Thanks for your question and for your honesty in presenting it. I became a Christian as a young adult, so I can relate to the struggle to re-orient certain aspects of your life when comfort, familiarity, and even social desires are oriented in another direction. I can offer you some suggestions that were helpful to me and that have been helpful to others.
As you'll see, each of them involves not just changing how and with whom you spend your time, but training yourself to take a new approach to the things of God and His people. If you have the Holy Spirit in you, and you genuinely work at what I'm suggesting below, I believe it will help you grow in your desire to love God's people and that it will lead to better friendships with them.
Train yourself in spiritual disciplines.
This first idea doesn't really focus on "friends" or other people so much as training your mind and building up your soul in the things of God. It is both a theological and practical truth that a love for God's people can and will spring from a genuine love of God himself. And, just to offer a word of caution, God's Word tells us that "[i]f anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20). A clear indicator of the depth of our love for God himself is our love for His people.
That's why I'm encouraging you to start with your relationship with God himself. Just like our relationships with other people cool and eventually fail if we don't spend time together and nurture those relationships, so our relationship with the Lord will not grow and thrive if we neglect it.
So often when a believer comes to me or one of the other elders in our church and expresses a struggle with desiring not just God himself, but the things of God — like desiring to be with His people, the church — one of my first questions is whether they are reading God's Word regularly and whether they are spending regular time in prayer. The answer is almost always that they are not.
How often do you read and study Scripture? How often do you spend real time in prayer, and what do you pray about? God's Word tells us about His character, His love for us, His grace to us, and how to grow in fellowship with Him and live a life that brings Him glory. If you do turn to God's Word, one of the things it instructs us to do is to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17). God tells us to do this because He loves us and He knows that communing with Him will increase our love for Him and intimacy with Him. Also keep in mind it's OK to pray that the Lord would bring deep Christian friendships into your life. Prayer works!
As you wrote, it is impossible to grow in Christ when you neglect your relationship with Him and instead spend most of your time and emotional focus on people and ideas that are indifferent or hostile toward God.
In Philippians 4:8, Paul tells us, "brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." A steady diet of real fellowship with God in His Word and in prayer is the only way we can train our minds to do that.
By the way, there are other resources in addition to (not instead of!) the Bible itself that are hugely helpful. There are any number of wonderful, edifying books by Christian authors that can encourage you as well. Start with Knowing God by J.I. Packer and Desiring God by John Piper. Listening to sermons is also a great way to keep God and His Word on our minds during the week. Check out sermons by Mark Dever at Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
Jesus so closely associated himself with His people that when He confronted Saul about persecuting Christians, He didn't ask, "Why are you persecuting My people?" He asked, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" Grow in your love for Christ, and you will grow in your love for His people and your desire to have fellowship with them.
When you are at church or with Christians, focus on others rather than yourself.
This one is simple in concept but not easy in practice. I may be misinterpreting, but your question suggests that you might tend to consider church and small groups primarily as places where you go to be served rather than to serve. I would encourage you to really engage with your church from the standpoint of how you can serve others.
Arrive at services early (and stay late) and try to encourage people. Sign up to serve in ministries that have a need. I think you will find, perhaps counterintuitively, that engaging at church with a less consumeristic, more service-oriented purpose will give rise to a deeper and more satisfying experience of God's people and the church.
Similarly, if you joined three groups of Christians and were "bored to death" in all three, it might suggest that (1) the wrong things entertain you, and (2) you may be attending small groups with a pretty selfish purpose and expectations. Engage with others to try and encourage them. Go with a goal of knowing others and being open and known yourself.
If your struggles seem to be different or bigger than others in the group, try saying that. You might be surprised how other believers respond. Again, it is a wonderful irony that the more we focus on others, the more engaged and satisfied we ourselves usually are. That's not to say that you will immediately click personally with every Christian you meet, but you will grow and make progress in the ways that you wrote about in your question.
I praise God for your desire to grow as a Christian and to grow in love for God's people. I will pray that with God's help you are able to do both.
Copyright 2015 Scott Croft. All rights reserved.