Thursday, June 01, 2023

Mismeetings of the Christian Church

“Blest be the tie that binds
 Our hearts in Christian love:
 The fellowship of kindred minds
 Is like to that above.”

So sang the congregation.

And they sang it every Sunday.

They sang it whenever it was announced that they had a visitor or new congregant come among them.

A nice gesture, wasn’t it?

I hope they really were welcoming. I hope they listened to the words they sang and took them to heart. But routines have a way of deadening things, and it would have taken a continuous, vigorous effort to keep the realization of that little hymn in the forefront of their minds: and a whole lot of continuous investment in others to make it a reality. It would be all too easy to make that little song just part of a nice ritual, rather than put anything into it.

I fear that for many of us, good wishes are about as far as we go in thinking about fellowship. We know our fellow believers in our area somewhat. A few are our select friends, maybe. But when it comes to recognizing every Christian as important enough to know and love personally, well, that’s just a big, big commitment, isn’t it?

So congregations get a reputation for talking loud and long about love, but not always an equal reputation for loving people. And we’d be lying if we said some of the fault for that isn’t ours. It’s a lot of work to love, and it’s pretty hard to love widely. But part of the fault lies with the habits that get drilled into us by way of the fact that we all live in the modern world, and in citified conditions for the most part, or in their close imitation. And the modern world makes staying aware of our need to love our fellow Christians rather more difficult than it ought to be.

The Modern Way of Meeting

It’s an old observation to say that living in the city’s different from living in the country — not just the number of cows and chickens, but the way people treat each other. In small towns, people all know each other’s business, but in cities you may not know your neighbors at all. When we lived in an apartment for a year I couldn’t have told you anything about any other person on our floor. It’s an astonishing fact that the lonelier place is the place with the most people in it — but that too is an old observation.

Today, more and more people live in city-like conditions. I say “city-like” because nowadays you can even do it in the country or in small towns. Just drive to work, do your job and come home. Then stay inside your house, work on your computer and watch Netflix. You’ll be as citified as anyone in short order.

But with the growth of city-type living have come some unfortunate changes in our relationships. People still need things from each other; but more and more they don’t really know each other, nor do they interact with each other in ways that are likely to produce more than a superficial acquaintanceship. They meet each other, but — so to speak — their encounters are more like near-misses than real personal engagements. We know each other for a goal, not for a time. And this is a product of our peculiarly instrumental treatment of each other, which is a product of modern life.

Transactional Relationships

Here’s how it works. In city living, people’s primary relationships are transactions — goals must be achieved, timelines must be met, things must be bought, and we must move around quickly. Once you have what you need, you’ve got to move on. Time is money, and money governs everything.

Philosopher Georg Simmel has thought about this a lot. He has said there are two types of people with whom transactional or financial activities are problematic: friends and enemies. Money messes with friendships, which is why we all try to avoid lending and borrowing from people with whom we have deep connections. And transactions are unreliable with enemies because you can’t trust them at all. What works perfectly for instrumental exchanges and financial transactions is people who are indifferent to us — who can be relied upon to keep their end of a practical arrangement and who have no motivation to betray us because the transaction between us is all they really have. No other stake between us complicates the pure exchange of goods and services. Things get done.

Think of your bank clerk. You go into the bank, and you meet a real person behind the counter. You smile, and you pass your bank book in. She turns her back to you, does some magic, and returns with your cash. You say, “Thank you” and leave. End of story.

What makes it all work is the impersonality. And that, says Simmel, is the hallmark of modern relationships: to be just friendly enough to induce an exchange, but not so friendly or involved as to impede it.


Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls these sorts of exchanges “mismeetings”. “The city,” he writes, “is a place of mismeetings ... where every interpersonal meeting has the character of a financial exchange,” which, he says, is “the foremost epitome of the urban-type intercourse.” The ideal relationship under such condition is that of the “alien neighbor” or the “stranger”, someone with whom we have just enough sense of the rules of engagement to get things done but, ideally, with whom we are able to cultivate enough “disattention” to avoid incurring additional responsibilities.

When we walk through the city, he observes, we use our eyes in strange ways. We practice a style of walking in which we appear alert but can keep everyone we see from recognizing our gaze as any indication of conscious contact. We don’t stare: we keep our eyes slightly glazed and roving, so as to show that we observe people but not in such a way that they become conscious of us recognizing them as particular individuals. It’s as if we’re saying, “Yes, I see you, but you are not to me distinct from the rest of the background; I am not engaging with you. We are neutral entities to each other, and are to remain so. Let us both just keep moving.”

We are continually meeting, but continually missing at the same time: mis-meeting.

And as the word seems to imply, there is something slightly unethical going on as well. To “mismeet” is not just to “miss” an encounter, but also somewhat to mismanage an opportunity for genuine human interaction. For while the sheer number of our encounters makes it impossible for us to make every meeting with another person meaningful, it remains true that the man or woman we just passed by is potentially an entity of inestimable, eternal value, a soul for whom Christ died … and we have walked on by.

Sad, but what can you do in the city? There are just too many people.

Mismeetings of the Church

Now, what really worries me about all of this is how this transfers into the thinking of the modern Christian. The patterns we have learned in our daily routine of modern living can so easily be imported to our corporate spiritual activities as well.

We see elements of it when people come to the church meetings to “get something out of it” — as good a synonym as you’re going to find for “transaction”. We see it when people recognize each other enough to say hello but not quite enough to sustain a conversation beyond the superficial: “How are you today? Beautiful morning, isn’t it? Lovely to be here.” And certainly not enough to engage in a real, personal, mutually-aware, caring or prolonged contact, let alone to reconcile with each other in spirit.

And yet we propose to worship together. We think we are coming to meet communally with the Lord of Glory, to do what is the most important cooperative activity in the universe. And we claim to believe what he has said about those gathered with us: that they are not just people, far less units of exchange, but his beloved ones, his redeemed, the eternal children of the Father and the friends of Jesus Christ our Lord.

We know that; and yet we don’t know them!

We meet, to be sure: but when we meet, just how do we meet? If our coming together is mismeeting — a mere transaction or temporary transaction, but without genuine mutual recognition and engagement, without commitment and above all without love — it would actually be better if we did not meet at all!

I don’t say so: God says so.

When we come together, it can turn out to be for the worse, if we don’t recognize each other as we should. I’m guessing that that means that the Lord sees not valuing each other as a very, very, very bad thing. What do you think?

And yet it’s all so easy to do. We’ve been trained to it by our daily routine. All week we practice the techniques of mismeeting, because that’s how we survive modern, urban living; but when we gather with members of the church, it’s just something we cannot — we must not — do.

Meeting Well

When you meet your brothers and sisters in Christ, you are meeting eternal creatures. You are meeting treasures that were bought and paid for with the blood of Jesus Christ the Lord. You are meeting members of the congregation of the righteous whose names are inscribed in heaven, and with whom you will never, never cease to have a common stake. Their welfare is even now your welfare; and the fulfillment of God’s plan for them is the fulfillment of his plan for you.

Now, I know they don’t look like it. And sometimes, honestly, maybe they don’t always act like it. Like you, I’m prone to forget who they are, and treat them as though they are strangers on the street — or worse, problems I have to get around. But no matter how I feel, that’s what they are.

I don’t say so: God says so.

Meeting the Challenge

So here’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m going to try to believe God about that. I’m going to make a conscious effort to see my fellow believers as … fellow believers. And I’m going to go a little extra distance in trying to get to know them and to get involved with their lives. After all, what could be more important than they, save the Lord himself?

So I’m going to try to obey the Lord better by loving them more. I’m sure it will be tough, and maybe it’ll even wear me out. But really, I can’t see what my alternatives are. It seems so very clear to me what is fitting, what is right, and what the Lord expects in this regard. I’m going to try to be a little more patient than I have been. I’m going to try to concentrate a little less on my own life, and a little more on their needs. In short, I’m going to try to love them better.

As with all these things, it’s only the Lord who can give me the power. There is not in me the stock of goodness and lovingkindness to succeed in this. Old habits will need to be broken; and at first I’m sure it will take quite an effort on my part to hold this new perspective. I’m pretty sure I’ll fail a few times … maybe more.

But I’m going to try. And when I fail, I’m going to pick myself up and keep trying. I’m going to make a practice of reminding myself every time I see them who these dear people really are, regardless of appearances. I’m going to invest in them, and rejoice with them as they rejoice. And I’m going to have to learn to weep, because their lives aren’t always easy. This is going to cost me.

I’m going to attempt actually to live like that: not because it’s easy, nor even because it’s what I want from a human perspective. I’m going to try to do it because it’s right.

I don't say so: God says so.

So how about you?


  1. As always, another excellent post to encourage and edify us stubborn and selfish members of Christ's Church. There's something to be said for a smaller, more intimate meeting of believers as opposed to the larger meetings where it's so easy to hide or get lost in the crowd.

    It's also easy to get discouraged and overwhelmed when embarking on a challenge like this by trying to do get to know everyone all at once. Focus on one person or family at a time and pray about who the Lord would have you interact with next.

    1. Wise words, David...and kind, too. Thank you for that.

      Yes, by starting small, we can become obedient while not becoming overwhelmed. I sometimes wonder if the Enemy has not crippled us ethically by making so many of the problems we perceive to day big, multi-person, mass-management, and even trans-global in scale. We get overwhelmed at the very prospect, and give up. But if we can start with the next person, the one right in front of us, we can still discover a way to be obedient. Maybe we've got to get our eyes off the grand scale, and spend more time thinking about what we are doing in the next five minutes, or with the next contact.

      Very helpful, David.