I have a fundamental belief that churches need to produce disciples who build bridges that connect different people in different places to Jesus. Perhaps it's my age speaking, but I believe more than ever that discipleship is being Jesus’ witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.
We are comfortable with the Jerusalem part of being a witness if this means people who already attend our churches. But that’s only part of Jesus’ command. What about “building bridges” to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth? What does it look like to build bridges with people who don’t look the same, think the same, serve the same, act the same, worship the same as we do, or who are the same as we are?
My spiritual journey of staying connected with Jesus has led me down the path to building bridges with people who are different from me. This task hasn't always been easy, and I’ve fallen off the bridge a few times in my attempts to bridge differences. With the scars to prove it, I’ve discovered that to build bridges I had to accept that people are different and not deficient. For instance, some people are very outspoken, while others are not. Some people desire action, while others cherish ideas and reflection.
The world is full of all types of people, and most of us have a bias on what kind of person fits into comfort zones. If we are an expressive person, we tend not to understand a reserved person. In the same way, if we are a “heart” person who values people’s feelings, we may not understand a “just the facts” person, who values logic.
Perhaps these sorts of differences are at the root of some of our disagreements and misunderstanding of others. Or maybe it's a matter of respecting another person’s perspective: I was a curious child with an active imagination who loved R&B, and my Daddy was a workaholic, bottom-line type of guy who preferred Country. We learned to respect each other’s music because we cared for each other.
Our differences were what author Rosabeth Moss Kanter describes as being an X and an O in her book, A Tale of O. She highlights what happens to the O, in a world of Xs. One consequence of being an O, Kanter points out, is heightened visibility. When a person who is an O walks into the room, the person who is an X notices.
Whatever the O does, positive or negative, it stands out because of this increased visibility. When several Os are together, it captures the attention of the Xs. Without the "other" in the room, the Xs go about their business, perhaps not even noticing that they are all Xs. But when the O walks in, the Xs are suddenly self-conscious about their X-ness.
But there’s always a danger of over-generalization from the assumptions that we make about others. The truth is that Xs and Os are both disciples who commit to spreading the news of God's amazing grace available to all, just in different ways and to a diverse audience.
OK, so I admit that building bridges may not be in your top 5 of burning issues. There are a host of problems that divide people into Xs and Os that need our attention. But how do we start? How do we engage in meaningful dialogue that moves past our fear of otherness? Are we willing to take the risk of speaking up? Can we trust that there will be others to listen to and support us? Will it make a difference anyway? Is it worth the effort?
I’ve learned to address these questions by focusing on my sphere of influence. I can't fix everything, but some things are within my control. While many of us experience ourselves as Os at some point, we all have some sphere of influence in which we can work for change, even if it is just in our network of friends.
Ask yourself, "Whose lives do I affect, and how? What power and authority do I wield in the world? Whom do I talk to in a day?" Identify your strengths and use them. Being a disciple requires “both/and” thinking that counters our commonly held assumptions of dividing the world into Xs and Os.
On the Journey,
Message from illustrator Raw Spoon (Ross Boone): knowing how important it is to cross bridges and seek experiences with people unlike us, this image shows that we make a better body together. You may notice together these two unlike people make up the image of Jesus. You may also notice the shape of their hands each makes half of a heart. This shows that even though it can be a struggle to fully connect when we do we paint a beautiful picture of love.