The day after I finished my junior year in college, I headed for Athens, Greece, with several classmates and professors. I remember standing in front of the Acropolis, trying to grasp the history before me—the icons and literature and concepts born so long ago—but it was impossible. Awe accompanied me around the Mediterranean—even on the very last row of an ancient amphitheater, where the acoustics let me hear our tour guide tear a piece of paper from the stage. Grandeur was everywhere, it seemed.
When it comes to the idea of proximity, my guess is that early Christians were more seen and known by one another than we are today.
Yet there an unexpected smallness about it all, too. I had imagined these remains to be larger than life, and in terms of significance, they were. Physically speaking, the opposite was true. This contrast hit me most when we reached ancient Ephesus, where a person could walk the city in less than an hour. I had forgotten there used to be fewer humans, smaller spaces, and closer communities. The people in Ephesus bought food from the same markets, shared the same library, and bathed together. They ran into each other while doing errands and probably peered through each other’s windows on the walk home.
This kind of proximity marked cities where Christianity first flourished, and sometimes I wonder if those early believers had it simpler. I love the big city I call home, but my friends and I must trek across it from all directions to gather for worship every Sunday. But between the crowds and multiple services, it’s possible to miss each other for weeks on end. And we’re not alone. A 2017 study conducted by Baylor University showed 47% of churchgoers spend between 6 and 15 minutes in the car to get to church, and 23% spend 16 to 30 minutes. Now remember, that’s just Sunday. The thought of meeting our fellow Christians in the mix of life—at the pharmacy, park, or laundromat—sounds fanciful to my city-spread lifestyle.
I don’t mean to say early Christians had it easy. They faced other hurdles—not the least of which was persecution. But when it comes to the idea of proximity, my guess is that they were more seen and known by one another than we are today. We can hide in our homes, speed away in cars, and live behind screens. It’s normal, even expected. So how do we close this physical gap in the body of Christ? How do modern Christians cultivate the interdependence and vulnerability that came more naturally to our predecessors?
I’ve read about a few intentional communities around the country, where groups of believers have actually picked up their things and moved in order to be together. Some build homes on a large plot of land; others buy available houses on a shared street. And they do see the fruit of proximity—not only in deeper relationships but also in the power of reconciliation. One man reflects, “The closer we live, the more exposed our weaknesses are and the more annoying we can be to one another. The more we put in common, the more chances to disappoint one another. There’s a real cost to living close together.” But at the end of the day, their long-term commitment is an incentive to pursue real forgiveness and healing, and the cycle usually strengthens their relationships.
Yet for most of us, moving isn’t feasible. It seems the next best option is joining the congregation down the street. For me, that would be a Catholic church half a mile from my house, a nine-minute walk to worship every Sunday. It sounds like a breath of fresh air until the doubts creep in—my husband and I don’t have any experience with the Catholic tradition.
This seems like a good time to remember physical proximity is not the goal. Remember, Jesus did away with all the rules and laws to replace them with the most important one. He said to the disciples, “I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples: if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). It is in relationship that we work out our salvation, where love becomes tangible to the world. In the May 2016 edition of “From the Pastor's Heart,” Dr. Charles F. Stanley reflects:
Jesus lived with [the disciples] for about three years, sharing His life, His heart, and His Father’s words. That’s the kind of openness required for true fellowship with another person. We must risk being vulnerable in order to reveal who we truly are. One of the benefits of this is the effect it could have on our personal relationship with God. You see, since our own thinking often shapes our perception of ourselves, a wise friend may be able to show us more accurately how the Lord sees us. And if we’ve tried to keep God from getting too close, learning that we can trust a friend may encourage us to open up to the Lord as well.
Building barricades may keep people out, but it also obstructs the blessings that come with God-given friendships. Instead of constructing barriers, why not begin practicing sensitivity, submission, sacrifice, and sharing in order to build a spiritual friendship that displays Christ’s love and shapes you—and your friends—into His image?
The goal, then, is real connection with people. Without it, how would we know when someone is hurting and in need of our comfort? How could I bring a friend a meal if I don’t know she’s had a stressful week? How could my friends and family come to my aid if I keep all problems and issues hidden from them? Though these questions may be easier to answer in tight-knit communities, that doesn’t mean the rest of us must either give up or move to another neighborhood.
“The closer we live, the more exposed our weaknesses are. The more we put in common, the more chances to disappoint one another. There’s a real cost to living close together.”
Like many others, my church gathers people into smaller groups based on location. Some of the people in my group actually go to my grocery store and frequent the same restaurants (though I’ve yet to bump into them there). It’s a far cry from the intimacy of Ephesus but a great comfort to know these friends are a quick drive down the road.
There are many times that my community group feels like 12 acquaintances who meet once a week to continue the same superficial, safe conversations we have with the rest of the world. But I’ve seen glimpses of authenticity, too. Once we had a tropical storm blow through the city, and fallen trees took out power lines, leaving most everyone without the ability to cook, work from home, or even see well. One couple in our group who still had power invited everyone over at 8:30 in the morning to charge phones and computers, work, and enjoy a warm cup of coffee. Interestingly enough, my first inclination was to decline their offer. I thought, I don’t want to impose, but truthfully, I was uncomfortable accepting help. Thankfully, my husband half-joked, “You need your coffee,” and ten minutes later we were on their couch.
I’ve seen the blessings of vulnerable friendships, and I’ve also missed out—too timid to dive deeper. But I’m realizing life isn’t long enough to tolerate superficial connections or silent suffering. We may have to drum up a little courage, but in the end, bearing each other’s burdens fulfills the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). And when Jesus said He came that we might have abundant life (John 10:10), He promised all our labor would be worth it.
Illustration by Adam Cruft