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What If My Closest Friends Are Not Christians?

Written By Madeline Twooney, Germany

At the moment, I find forming friendships in church quite challenging. Moving to a new city, as well as health issues, is probably part of the reason. I also have trouble connecting deeply with people at church, even though I join small groups, volunteer for service, and participate in church events.

My old friends, however, are still like family to me. Most of them are former teaching colleagues, and a few I know from my former church. Our friendships span a period of 16 years. Though our bonds have been tested through many seasons—job changes, marriage, sickness and death—we remain dear friends. When it is time to rejoice, we dance; in times of sorrow, we hold to each other and cry. We have grown up together.

None of my friends attend my current church. Most of my friends aren’t even Christians: in fact, some of them are atheists. One of them has even embraced the goth lifestyle.

Does that make it okay then, that l am closer to them than people l know in church?

 

Who Did Jesus Befriend?

Some well-meaning Christians have suggested that I give up these friendships. While I certainly put time and effort into making friends at church, I definitely do not think it is necessary to give up my friends outside of church. After all, Jesus was diverse in his interactions with people as well. He not only spent time discipling the Twelve, but He associated Himself with children, tax collectors, lepers, as well as others considered socially inferior. He sought to draw them to the kingdom of God. Why then, should we limit ourselves to being involved only with people from church?

Just like Jesus tried to draw people from various backgrounds into His kingdom, so too, we can try to bring our friends into the church family. After all, the Great Commission commands that we share the gospel with our fellow man (Matthew 28:16-20).

For example, I invite my friends to church, and they enjoy themselves when they are there. l use discernment to determine the right moment to broach Christian-related subjects. It means stepping into unfamiliar territory for all of us and exploring deep-rooted issues, but l love how open-minded my friends are. More often than not, my friends talk about God of their own accord. I’ve also discovered that I can sometimes be a more effective ambassador for Christ through the way l live my life as a Christian, rather than through using my voice.

 

God Loved Us First

I cherish my friends. Our relationships have a realness to them—the kind of grit and spit that has survived the ugliness of hardship and seen the beauty in each other when we were at our weakest. We share a love which selflessly gives, genuinely wanting to contribute to the happiness of the other. We share a love that deepens through shared experiences and the revelation of life’s lessons. It is a love that does not leave anyone behind.

Our love for each other reminds me of God’s love for us—in His unconditional love, He gave up the life of His precious son Jesus to pay the bond price for our sins on the cross of Calvary (John 3:16). This is the love that breaks chains and sets people free.

I get to love my friends—though they are not all Christian—with the love that God has showered on me. I pray for them and hope that one day, they get to know God’s love for themselves as well.

 

Friendships in Church

While I am incredibly thankful for these friendships God has blessed me with, I am also aware of how important it is to have strong friendships within the church. The depth of my relationship with my closest friends encourages me to reach out and work to build meaningful relationships at church.

Instead of simply trying to get to know everybody, however, I am now focusing on getting to know a few specific people better. I try to keep in mind that we are all imperfect and ask God to help us understand each other.

There are a few women at church with whom I share a mutual sympathy, and we have a similar perspective on faith as well. We now stay in regular contact. We pray for each other and try to get to know each other over coffee. It’s taking time, but our efforts are bearing fruit, and we are opening up more to each other.

In a letter to the church in Colossae, the apostle Paul lists his dearest friends: Jews, Gentiles, cellmates, a physician, and even a slave (Colossians 4:7-18). This extensive list encourages and inspires me to nurture Kingdom friendships with people from all walks of life, so that we might work together towards the glory of God, both within and outside the church.

 

Perhaps you have close friends outside of church as well? I thank God for the deep love you share with them. Do you pray for them? Have you ever considered inviting them to church or small group?  May you keep loving them the way God loves you and me.

What I Learned From My Search For A New Church

Written by Madeline Twooney, Germany

Since giving my life to Christ nine years ago, l have been on a spiritual odyssey to find a suitable church for my family. I have been happy in some places of worship l visited, and misunderstood in others. I have borne witness to a congregation that glorified God and was Spirit-filled, and in other instances, ran away in shock as a church crumbled under pride.

My search is not over. I am still looking for a church where I hope my family will feel a part of. But what I’m beginning to realize is that perhaps no church will completely satisfy me. Perhaps the church will not achieve perfection until Jesus returns, and the bride finally marries her bridegroom (Revelation 19:7).

In the meantime, I am learning to worship with people whom l may not always share the same demographic, point of view, or worship style with. For ultimately, we are all children of God, united by faith (Galatians 3:26-28).

From my journey so far, here are some of the things I’ve appreciated about the churches I’ve been in and would love to see in any church I worship in.

 

Preaches Christ

First and foremost, Jesus is the cornerstone of the church (Ephesians 1:22-23). Sermons that are founded on biblical teachings and emphasize the truth of scripture and its continued relevance today are needful. Sacraments, such as baptism and communion are essential, as they allow people to experience the love and power of God in a very personal way.

I also appreciate churches that are committed to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19). I’ve seen this happen through outreach projects or personal efforts of church members.

 

Acts as Light and Salt

Our broken world is focused on self-promotion, the latest material acquisition, or striving towards that “goals” relationship. We are called, however, to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16), living in the world, but not being part of its trends and pressures.

When churches teach their members to uphold moral and godly principles with humility through sermons, and exemplify it by the lives of pastors and other church leaders, this is carried through to the church members in their interactions with each other.

When we step into a church, it doesn’t really matter if people are wearing suits and ties, or ripped skinny jeans. But are church members squabbling over meaningless details, or are they interacting with love and grace? I’ve learned that we should take time to look at the hearts and needs or people we are worshiping with, and not be distracted by appearances.

 

Is a Welcoming Community

Another essential element of a healthy church is community. Community encourages us and supports us through life’s struggles. It is a haven of kinship from our daily interactions with people who might not know God. After all, as the body of Christ, we thrive in relationship with each other (Hebrews 10:24-25).

On one of my very first visits to a church, I was touched by how welcoming it was—my husband and l had coffee and cake in the kitchen with everyone who had attended that day. We were invited to the pastor’s son’s birthday barbecue for the following weekend, which we gladly accepted.

Yet, I know that how people behave on Sunday services isn’t always a good gauge. It’s hard for me to make new acquaintances during Sunday service, so I often look to sign up for a small group. In the intimacy of a small group, people notice and welcome you more easily, and there is more opportunity for mutual exchange. Friendships take time to build. As you start attending events, you will meet more people and over time, form meaningful friendships.

 

Holds Each Other Accountable

A church that practices accountability will recognize issues that can cause damage and open the door to spiritual attack. Such a church is not afraid to lovingly initiate hard conversations individually as well as on a corporate level.

I believe that this accountability should happen both at the church leaders’ level, and also among lay members. But I recognize that it is not always easy. For example, there are a number of women in my current church, including some in leadership positions, who wear clothing that could be considered inappropriate. It seems like modesty is an issue that needs to be kindly addressed in our church (1 Timothy 2:9-10), but I am still waiting on God to teach me how I can play my part in this matter.

 

Challenges Our Comfort

I appreciate it when a church challenges us in the area of spiritual comfort. I’ve heard someone call this “meat and vegetable” ministry. Everyone loves “dessert” sermons, where we learn about God’s love, peace and our gifts. We all need that balm to soothe our spiritual wounds. However, our spiritual growth is derived from discomfort: learning about spiritual warfare, confronting fear, being encouraged to serve even when we don’t feel like it, or loving others when their views differ from our own.

The church should not be afraid to challenge us. In my own life, I am learning that my own area of spiritual growth is fellowship. Shyness has often prevented me from building meaningful relationships. Therefore, l purposefully sign myself up for service ministries and small groups, in order to put myself out there and meet new people.

 

What Else to Consider

Though not strictly necessary, I really appreciate it when a church goes out of the way in service of the needs of their congregation. I remember the time my husband and l tried out a Spanish church. We were the only ones there who didn’t speak Spanish, yet the pastor brought someone up to the pulpit to translate just for us. I was touched by that thoughtful gesture.

I also value a church that encourages people to serve. One woman in our church recently approached the pastor with the idea to start a new translation ministry. Not only did the pastor thoroughly support it, but he announced the ministry in church and encouraged people to volunteer. Since we all have different gifts (Romans 12:6-8), churches should actively encourage people to serve and be open to proposals for ministries and other projects from church members.

Finding a church has not been an easy journey for me, but it has been an enlightening one. I have encountered various cultures, met people from different walks of life, and learned so much about myself.

If you, like me, find that your search is taking a little bit longer than expected, as in my case—don’t worry. Regardless of where we are, whether we have found our spiritual home or are still looking, God is always with us. And ultimately, that’s all that matters.

I Was Abused: My Journey Towards Forgiveness

Written By Madeline Twooney, Germany

For as long as I lived with my parents, they abused me physically and mentally. They decided where l went, what l did, and with whom l spoke to. Depending on their whims, they would either lavish me with generosity or violently beat me in the name of discipline. Any achievements l gained were accredited to them. My failures and weaknesses were scorned.

l learned at an early age to fear my parents. l felt helpless and unprotected at their harsh treatment of me, painfully aware that l didn’t have another adult or a sibling to turn to for comfort.

Even the neighbors, who must have been privy to the fighting and acts of violence, refused to intervene. I remember my father hitting me on one occasion, when l was about nine years old. I fled the house in panic and bolted across the road to the neighbor’s house, screaming all the while. As I desperately thumped on the neighbor’s front door, l saw the front curtain twitch, but no one opened the door.

It was another reminder that l was alone. Trapped in a mental and physical prison of despair, fear, and depression, I mentally retreated into myself for years, as a means of survival.

Despite their volatile inclinations, l still sought affection from my parents, hoping that deep inside they loved me. Sometimes I attempted to hug my mother, but she kept her arms to her side and held herself stiffly.

And when I made cards for my father on birthdays or Father’s Day, he would throw them away without even glancing at them. My heart plummeting to my feet, l would turn away from my father, vowing to myself that l wouldn’t allow him to disappoint me again.

I dated my first serious boyfriend when I was 17. We dated in secret, as my mother was against our relationship. With my friends’ help, Nathan and I went to the annual school dance together.

But my mother suspected something. She found me at the school dance and dragged me home. After that, she went to the homes of each of my friends and gave them a severe scolding. My parents even called up Nathan’s family—whom they had never met—and yelled at them with curses and profanities.

After this, school authorities requested to meet my parents, since Nathan’s family had contacted them out of concern for me. Although my parents refused to seek counseling, at least my father acknowledged that they had mistreated me.

Needless to say, Nathan and I broke up within a few months. My heart was broken. My friends forgave me, but there remained a division between us, and we ended up drifting apart.

l finished my final university exams just after turning 22, and informed my parents that l was leaving home. I wanted to start fresh in a place that was far away from my parents and the painful memories of my childhood. Since I spoke German fluently and was familiar with the country and its culture, l decided to move to Cologne, Germany.

My mother was offended by my decision to leave, so much so that she walked out of the house without bidding me farewell on my last evening in Australia. My father blamed himself and let me go. Since leaving Australia 19 years ago, l have not seen them in person again.

Though we were on opposite ends of the globe, tensions between my parents and me continued. I tried to phone them regularly. However, their resentment, anger, and open hostility left me emotionally depleted, and l dreaded having to contact them. After a particularly heated discussion, which concluded with my mother cursing me, the depths of my gaping emotional wounds were too evident to ignore any longer. l resolved to seek professional help with a psychotherapist.

With the help of therapy, l realized that l suffered from severe depression as a result of childhood trauma. Despite making progress in therapy, the situation with my parents escalated to such an extreme, that l broke off all contact with them for 10 years. It wasn’t the right thing to do, but l just couldn’t cope with them anymore.

I continued with my life: I became a teacher, moved into my first flat and acquired two cats, whom l loved dearly. However, l was constantly depressed and developed an eating disorder in a desperate attempt to exert some control over my life. l started taking anti-depressants, yet l remained unhappy: l was either too fat or too thin, too overworked and too poor. I formed unhealthy friendships out of an inferiority complex and an innate fear of rejection. I hated myself.

I am deeply grateful for the day that Jesus pulled me out of the darkness and gave me new life. I was born again as a new creation, where l discovered the mercy and loving kindness of God, as well as His grace and peace which transcends all understanding. l began to believe that l was worthy, because God said l was. The aching wounds in my mind and my spirit began to heal.

When l became engaged to my husband four years ago, l knew l had to try and reconcile with my parents. Colossians 3:13 spoke to me: “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” l wanted to enter my marriage in right standing with God by forgiving my parents for their transgressions, as God had forgiven me for mine. It wasn’t easy talking to my parents after many years of silence, but l knew l had made the right decision in calling them.

I would like to say that since resuming communications, my parents and l have sorted out our differences. The truth is, things are just as bad as ever.

The last time we spoke was in September last year. My parents, who are not believers, had sought the advice of a psychic to predict my future, and had shared their misinformation with my husband and l during a Skype call. Since the Bible warns against seeking the advice of mediums (such as in Leviticus 19:31), my husband and l conveyed our discomfort to my parents.

My father reacted aggressively, and suddenly announced that he didn’t want to talk to me ever again: l should leave him and my mother alone. Then he hung up the phone.

I have not known how to move forward since then. There are times when l am sorely tempted to just let the entire matter with my parents rest. And yet, l find myself in a dichotomy between the woman who strives to honor God, by forgiving and putting the past behind her, and the daughter who struggles to lay aside the grievances she has towards her childhood abusers.

My love for my Savior wins. As a result, I try to practice forgiveness and acceptance. I pray for peace in my family and hope that one day, my parents will come to a knowledge of Christ.

Despite my efforts, l arrive all too soon at the boundary of my capabilities. My inability to let go of memories of my parents’ abuse leaves my emotional equilibrium imbalanced. Instead of putting up with their weaknesses, I condemn myself for my impatience at my parent’s pride. Rather than being peaceful, l speak to my mother and father in anger.

I can’t forgive my parents with my own strength.

Maybe confronting this impasse is exactly what l need to do. For it is only when l experience the outer limits of myself, that l can best encounter God.

When my strength wanes, His power surges me forward.

When l lose my patience, His peace revives me.

When my heart is afflicted, His Truth sets me free.

Whereas in the past, l believed that I was unable to make peace in my family, now l have come to realize that when l am weak, God is strong. l confess my limitations to God and give the situation over into His hands.

Hebrews 4:15-16 has provided me with great comfort in the knowledge that we have a High Priest in Jesus, who empathizes with our frailties and understands our temptations. It reassures me that l have the right to confidently approach the throne and receive Jesus’ mercy and grace during this family crisis.

Though I have never experienced unconditional love and delight from my parents, that’s okay. I have a great Dad, who adopted me as His own when my parents rejected me (Psalm 27:10). My husband is my greatest supporter and his family have embraced me with open arms into their fold. I have loyal friends and a counsellor with whom l can talk to about the gritty stuff. I am truly blessed.

Still, my hope is that my parents and l will one day heal, and that our relationship will evolve at least into one of mutual understanding and respect. I know for my part, that l will keep on trying to make that a reality by continuing to trust God.

And when, during my journey towards forgiveness, l reach the brink of my own abilities, l know that my Father will be there at the edge, ready to catch me.