Now I’m really showing my age! Anyone else out there remember Roland Browning off of Grange Hill? He was the fat lad that all the bullies picked on in the BBC kids’ TV show in the 80s. However hard things got for Roland, he was never quite desperate enough to take up the offer of friendship from Janet St Clair. Janet’s catchphrase on the show was, ‘I’ll be your friend Row-land’. At least I think it was. Maybe it’s one of those catchphrases that people never said, like, ‘Beam me up Scotty’. Anyway, the point is that however desperate you get, there are some people you don’t want as your friends. It’s less embarrassing to be a Billy-no-mates than to count some people among your mates.
I think Christians are to the rest of the world what Janet St Clair was to Roland Browning – the people who want to be your friend; but you’d rather boil your own head than be seen anywhere near them. That has to be remembered, I think, when we talk about making friends with people. If we encounter a certain reluctance from people when invited to our soppy events, that may be magnified when we try and be their friends. First you have to persuade people that you really are quite normal, or at the very least that your lunacy is more like theirs than they’d ever really imagined.
There is a serious point here. I think people are suspicious of Christians trying to be their friends because they think there’s a hidden agenda. ‘You just want to be my friend so you can make me join your church.’ It’s an understandable suspicion because it’s, at least partly, true. What does it really mean to say that mission and ministry are going to have be relational? Lots of things. But translating it into everyday speak, it sounds very much like ‘make friends with people so that you can tell them about Jesus’.
Doesn’t everyone have an agenda? The drug and alcohol worker I talked about yesterday wanted to work relationally. Translation: I want to befriend people so that I can get them off drugs and alcohol. People not keen to get off drugs and alcohol might not want very much to be befriended by a drugs and alcohol worker with targets to reach.
If this sounds negative, I don’t mean it to. I just want to temper what I’ve been saying in the past couple of days with some realism and to encourage myself and maybe you too to put yourself in the shoes of someone who might be the subject of my/our efforts to befriend. Relational mission inevitably means that there is an agenda behind crossing social divides and making friends. Members of the Church will do that to some extent because they want to share their faith.
But that doesn’t have to translate into instrumentalism. We don’t have to see making friends as a means to the end of evangelism. That is how people have experienced their interaction with Christians. Some Christians lose interest in people who don’t quickly make some grand profession of faith. Truly relational mission must involve a commitment to love and care for people whatever their response to our faith. Sharing our faith will involve giving an account for the hope within, talking about our experiences, not preaching. But it must also include responding to people’s real needs with real practical love and care. And here’s the nub: being prepared to receive both those things too: listening to people’s real experience and allowing them to care for us too. Without that, we patronise people. We meet them as ‘clients’ imagining ourselves in a position of superiority – having the ‘goods’ people need – rather than engaging with people as fellow human beings. That means recognising and accepting that we have as much to receive as to give and that in the end the only resources we have to bring are ourselves. All we have to offer is who we are.
That’s a world away from thinking that we, charitable, middle-class people, will out of the goodness of our hearts give the poor people of this working class area what they need. But in offering ourselves, I think we do bring something unique. First of all, who we are is (however imperfectly) shaped by the Christian story that we inhabit. Whatever truth there is in that story will not be communicated by argument and persuasion; it will communicated only by who we are. Secondly, in offering ourselves in real friendship, that anticipates receiving as well as giving, we honour, respect, value and love people in a way that few others do. It’s a way of expressing our belief in people. It’s a way of saying: ‘You’re worth getting to know’.