We’ve all had them. Those awkward, tricky customers who turn up to your church. They seem to like being around Christians, or at least want to be around them for some reason, but they prove to be fairly disruptive to your meetings. Maybe conversation is continually dominated by them, they keep bringing things back to their particular hobby horse, or maybe they are seriously disruptive rather than just being a bit awkward.
I’m not talking about unbelievers who come and, periodically (even frequently), ask questions. I don’t mean those people who are either genuinely searching, or taking tentative steps of enquiry, and the questions they ask are real ones. I am talking about people who want to dominate all that goes on, who suck time and attention continually to themselves, who ask questions – not because they’re really seeking – but because they want people to look at them.
What do we do with this sort of person? In no particular order, here are some suggestions.
For whatever reason, the Lord has brought them into your church. They may have led them into your home group (or, whatever you call them). For good or ill, they’re there because the Lord put them there. And, as far as I can see, there aren’t any awkward blighter caveats put on the Bible passages about loving either the lost or the brethren. If the Lord loves them enough to bring them in, we’ve got to love them enough to bear with them – even when they are seriously difficult.
Be clear what love means
Of course, love doesn’t always mean what we think it means. Letting people carry on repeatedly and persistently derail meetings is not very loving. Love does not mean allowing any and all behaviour/comment to pass without a word. It doesn’t mean letting people carry on in destructive behaviours. Love will necessarily involve telling people the truth; both about Christ and about themselves, even when it is difficult and awkward to do so.
Be clear that there are other people to be loved
It’s very easy to be so taken up with loving the difficult person that we forget to love the rest of the church. When I was a teacher, there was often a desire to support difficult pupils but that could sometimes overtake the fact that there were 29 other pupils whose learning was being derailed by a difficult one or two. The church, much like that, should want to include those who are awkward and difficult. But we shouldn’t forget that there is a church full of other people to be cared for too. Whilst one might well go after the one and leave the 99 safely in the pasture, we are foolish to go after the one if it means the other 99 will be lost in our absence.
Now, again, we must be clear on what loving our people means. It may well be that the most loving thing to do for our people is to teach them the importance of bearing with awkward and difficult people. It may well be the best way to love our people is to encourage them in their service, including the inclusion of such people. But we must also accept the possibility that loving the church well might mean stopping one individual from derailing everything or acting as a vortex into which all time and energy is sucked.
Loving people who are hard to love involves perseverance. It is going to require a lot of prayer. We need to pray for patience in dealing with them. We need to pray for wisdom in handling them. We need to know when to speak and when not to speak. We need to ask the Lord to show us when to be gentle and when to be more forceful. We are going to need our people to pray these same things along with us. If the church is to welcome the stranger and outcast, it is going to involve the church getting used to feeling uncomfortable. That is going to require a great deal of grace and wisdom from above. We need to ask the Lord for it: ‘you don’t have because you don’t ask.’
Ascertain genuineness and respond accordingly
Jesus spoke about not casting pearls before swine. He recognised that there came a time to cut our losses and stop wasting our time with people who have no interest, and will never have any interest, in the gospel. At the same time, those who are genuinely seeking may come across as awkward, difficult and might take a very long time to show any progress in spiritual things. Working out when to persevere and when to cut our losses is tricky indeed.
But this does make some difference to what we do. If people are genuine, we may press on with them. We might persevere through much difficulty because, despite their awkwardness, there is a spiritual interest going on. Others may simply be taking up time, energy and resource and be entirely disingenuous. Whether they realise it or not, this latter group are the Devil’s own agents impeding the work of the gospel. Actively opposing it and stopping us from reaching those who will respond.
If you can, get a sense of whether the person in genuinely seeking. If there is a sincerity of heart – despite all the awkwardness – there is much reason to persevere. If not, we may be best placed making sure our gospel resources and energies go into reaching those who may genuinely respond and grow.