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Years ago our church was in a rebuilding process and was seeking to reach the local community. I began looking for ways to help with needs, but we are an affluent community with seemingly few needs. One day I got a call from a drug rehabilitation center asking if I could meet with a patient. I went and that marked the beginning of regularly visiting with people in the throws of addictions. I began spending time with them, sharing the gospel, and getting to know them. Some came from Christian backgrounds, and I asked about their experience. I’ll never forget the piercing words of one person who said in a rather emotionless matter of fact voice, “I just never felt like church was a place where I could share my problems and get help.” His words weighed on me, but I didn’t grasp the significance of it until later. 

I had once been a part of a small group at church in which the people enjoyed being together, talking about the Bible, working through studies, but everyone was also guarded relationally. As the pastor, I knew many of the challenges people were facing (strained marriages, struggles to make ends meet, addictions, and much more), but when it came time for prayer requests everyone suddenly seemed to be “good.” The only prayer requests dealt with surgeries and procedures, and usually of distant relations: a friend’s, neighbor’s, daughter’s cousin twice removed had a cat who was having surgery. Please pray! Most of the group was going to counseling for something but no one knew. 

It seemed the people were dealing with a kind of avoidance behavior. They felt threatened by discussing certain things, the things that mattered most to them, and their avoidance was accepted and reinforced by the group. They certainly had some relationships and found some help, but there was also a distance that could make you feel alone in your life and struggles. It was easy to see why a new person hoping to overcome a challenge in their life would decide church is not a place they could find help. 

If churches are not prepared to hear about people’s problems and struggles then what are they doing? How are they ever going to know how to apply the healing balm of the gospel if they do not find where people are hurt. This failure is clearly a failure to love. Jesus said the world will know you are my disciples by the love you have for one another (John 13:35). Love is a relational word. If we don’t know people then we have failed to love them.

Jesus didn’t minister by staying superficial. He went after opportunities to go deep. He wanted to win their heart. He wasn’t satisfied with superficial smugness or time where people simply filled out their Bible study worksheet. He wanted to know them. 

Once when two would-be disciples came to him he pointedly asked them, “What do you want?” (John 1:38). Author J.K. Smith says of this, 

“Jesus doesn’t encounter Matthew and John– or you and me– and ask, “What do you know? He doesn't even ask, “What do you believe?” He asks, What do you want? This is the most incisive, piercing question Jesus can ask of us precisely because we are what we want. Our wants, longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Our wants reverberate from our heart, the epicenter of the human person. Thus Scripture counsels, “Above all else guard your heart, for everything flows from it” (Prov 4:23). 

To look at Jesus was to look at someone who did not look at you as though judging your clothes, hair, or outfit, but to look at someone who wanted to know you in the core of your being, and not just to know you, but to help you know yourself. His ministry kicked modern superficiality in the face. He called people to answer his questions honestly, and through that offered hope and healing (John 4). 

Jesus went deep. He saw past the superficial and went into the longings and desires. He sought to transform them. In him people were able to discern the idols in their hearts, abandon the fears that bound them, overcome the demons haunting them, find the forgiveness they longed for, the acceptance they craved, the family they never had, the hope that was covered in darkness, and the purpose eluding them. 

Jesus invited people to follow him in this, and then he invited them into life with one another. He called them to build churches, organized communities of believers seeking to know and make him know. These were tight knit communities that abandoned everything for him. They didn’t just share the gospel in words, but they shared their very lives (1 Thess 2:8). The fellowship they had with Jesus brought them into the deepest level of human relationships, which is relating with others about their knowledge and experience of God. It’s the richest and most meaningful and satisfying community there is, and it is what the church is called to.