What keeps our communities as deep as a casual chat in the church foyer? The problem, as my friend Mark Buckner explains, is that we have competing needs: the need to be loved and the need to be respected. It feels like I have to choose one or the other. If people really know me, I won’t be respected anymore. But if I opt for respect and don’t vulnerably share my true self, I won’t really feel loved. In fact I will keep feeling unknown and lonely. I compromise at showing my cards a little to feel loved, but not too much for fear of losing respect. We’re paralyzed in the pincer grip between these two warring needs, and most of us opt to keep it safe and shallow in our relationships.
Gary Smalley writes about five levels of communication, ranging from the shallowest to the most meaningful. The first level is the arena of clichés, which he defines as “typical, routine, oft repeated comments, questions and answers given out of habit and with no real forethought or genuine intent.”[i] Those are the how-are-you’s in the church foyer and the what-a-cute-outfit’s at the woman’s Bible study.
The second level is the arena of facts, which is sharing of information that also requires no in-depth of thinking or feeling.
Conversation with other believers can easily stay mired in these first two basic levels. It feels safe and friendly, but it doesn’t meet the deep needs of our hearts. Venturing into the deeper levels requires risk taking. The third level is sharing opinions (in which people may oppose yours), the fourth is sharing feelings (which hits closer to home and heart) and finally the most vulnerable level is sharing needs (which requires a lot of trust in a relationship).
What percent of your own conversations stays in the shallow water of reciting clichés or disseminating facts? What would it look life for you to venture into these deeper levels of communication? We typically don’t “open up” because we haven’t taken the time to build trust with other believers and transparency costs us something, a little piece of our reputations.
I was eating breakfast at a busy café in Austin, Texas, with five men in a deep-hearted discussion group and we were all taking turns answering the day’s question, “In what area of your life are you being the most passive?”
Even with the loud chatter and clanking dishes around us, it wasn’t hard to think of so many areas in my life where I was being passive. But if I were really honest, what would these guys think of me?
Everyone else was opening up and it made it easier for me to lay down my cards when it came my turn. “I would have to say spiritually. I rarely initiate times of prayer with my wife and almost never lead family devotions. On that front I am just missing in action.”
Everyone around the table listened attentively as I continue, “I mean in public, behind a pulpit I can wax eloquent and appear very passionate spiritually, but at home I’m just as passive as could be.”
“Wow, Mike,” said one friend. “That surprises me. I would have thought that that you were leading you family spiritually.”
One of the other members tried to comfort me. “Well, Mike, you’ve been very busy and I think we can all relate.”
“Hey don’t go easy on him, here,” the first friend cut in. “We’ve got him squirming on the altar here and we need to thrust the sword through.”
I’m so grateful for the tip of that sword in my life. For the last few years, whether I have lived in the U.S. or in Southeast Asia, I’ve walked closely with a group of allies that I can be completely real with. Usually we have a long breakfast once a week like with these friends in Austin. We celebrate victories together, share failures and get gut honest about the real issues of our life. Sometimes that’s painful but it has been a place of tremendous life to me.
More than just pulling me out of ditches, these men inspire me to leap on mountains. We do need safe places to come clean with weaknesses, but the end goal is holiness and advancing in the calling of our lives, not just avoiding sin. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”[ii] The sharpening may be painful, but the end result is a sharp sword useful and deadly in the battle.
Are you walking alone in the battle, far from any true heart comrades? Who would you call right now if you were alone and tempted by a besetting sin? When is the last time you came clean with a trusted ally? I remember when a new guy came to this group, we would always ask as an initiation question, “Do you go deep in your friendships with other men?”
The answer was always the same. No.
I used to think just crowded the shallow end of the pool when it comes to relationships, but I’ve heard that our more relational, feminine counterparts aren’t swimming in the deep end either. I once put this question to Janine Parrish, a pastor who has a few decades of experience with women and community. She said in her experience women typically don’t go that deep. It’s hard to get them together, for one thing. There are so many reasons to keep them apart— the kids and their homework and the driving complications and all the errands. Who has time for a heart-to-heart chat?
Whether male or female, whether this comes naturally to you or not, it’s time for you to open up a little more. This requires the humility to realize that you can parachute into Normandy all by yourself and win this battle. You’ve got to search through the darkness to find your company first. Your enemy “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”[iii] That’s some one. Don’t walk alone anymore! Make this a priority! Seek out a group of trusted allies. It will require some aforethought and proactivity but the comradeship of authentic community is richly worth it.
[i] Gary Smalley, Secrets of Lasting Love
[ii] Proverbs 27:17
[iii] I Peter 5:8