I was talking with a first-time church planter about how things were going. As we were talking about some of the difficulties he was facing, he blurted out, “I just don’t like the people who are coming to my church! I wouldn’t choose to hang out with these people, and it’s hard to create a community with people you don’t enjoy hanging out with!”
He was stunned and a little embarrassed by this realization. As it so often does, church planting had revealed an unspoken expectation he didn’t even realize he had.
On the surface it seems like an innocuous expectation: he expected he’d be building a community with people he enjoyed hanging out with.
But instead, planting a church brought him face to face with one of the hidden ways we are trained as consumers: we assume we ought to be able to hang out with people we like. We expect that we should be able to choose how we build “community” with others.
We treat community like a commodity.
There is a built-in “affinity bias” we all seem to carry around. This is natural, of course. Would you rather spend time with people you resonate with and enjoy or those you don’t? It’s normal to gravitate toward people who are like us and toward experiences we enjoy.
This becomes a problem, though, when we do it unreflectively, because any tendency we have that we don’t reflect on and ask questions about will end up running our lives.
So it’s normal to want to hang out with people we like, but should we expect that this is what building a community will feel like as we plant a church?
Are we really seeking to build a community that reflects the beautiful diversity of the Body of Christ, or are we treating “community” as a commodity that we try to obtain at the lowest relational price?
Paul’s Affinity Affection for the Churches
As I read through the Apostle Paul’s interactions with the churches he planted, I think there are some lessons for us. Specifically, I’m struck by the exuberant, overflowing affection he expresses for the diverse, often troubled churches he planted.
- God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:8).
- We were gentle with you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well (1 Thess. 2:7-8).
- My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you (Gal. 4:19).
- When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship (Acts 20:36-38).
This breathtaking affection coexists with the massive problems Paul had to address in these churches. Clearly, there is something stronger and more robust than just affinity going on here.
The affection Paul expresses is not the same thing as the mild feelings of enjoyment that come from spending time with people we like.
This isn’t the easy hanging out of affinity. This is the hard-won affection that only comes from surrendering to the work of the Spirit in the Body of Christ.
From Convenient Affinity to Cultivated Affection
It would seem that if we’re going to plant an actual church (rather than the idealized church we carry around in our minds), we’re going to have to shift from relying on a convenient affinity with one another to a cultivated affection for one another.
We have to move from what is inherent and natural (affinity) to that which is intentional and nurtured (affection).
Affinity takes your desires as they’ve already been shaped, affirms them, and makes you feel good about them when you spend time with other people who have the same desires.
Affection calls you to cultivate new desires and be with people you wouldn’t normally want to be with for the sake of the gospel. It takes intentional investment for it to grow.
This is a major feature of God’s kingdom: he doesn’t honor our preexisting affinities as normative. Instead, he shatters them and calls us into love, naming our affinities for what they are: just preferences.
For consumers, preference is the law, an unalienable right. For the church, preference is just preference, and it goes on the altar, along with everything else, as we submit ourselves to God’s service.
And we learn to love as he loves, bursting the narrow, comfortable confines of affinity to explore the wide-open (and often scary) world of learning affection for those who aren’t like us.
Learning to Feel Affection
The struggle is real, folks! I’ve planted a couple churches, and I never got to hand-pick my favorite people to be part of them (despite my best efforts). I’ve always been surprised by who joins and sticks and who doesn’t.
And I’ve come to see it as a sign of God’s grace. So if they’re here, they have grace to be part of our community. And if they’re part of our community, it means there’s grace for us to grow together in our love for one another, even if we’d never hang out if affinity were the boss.
And you know what? As we submitted to this our affection for one another grew! We learned to appreciate the personality quirks that would have separated us if we had only been pursuing affinity. God’s grace really does help us grow in our affection for those who aren’t like us.
C.S. Lewis said that provocation doesn’t make us ill-tempered, it only shows us how ill-tempered we are. So the annoyance or boredom we sometimes feel as church planters is actually an opportunity.
Part of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in church planting is learning to really love, care for, and actually feel affection for those we would normally not even talk to if our lives were guided by the concerns of affinity.
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