I grew up in a military family. When people ask where I’m from, I tell them “I’ve been everywhere… I’m generally American in the most general way.” (About 50% get the Johnny Cash reference, which is sad.)
Which is to say, most of my growing up years was spent getting to know new people. Every three years: goodbyes, hellos. Apart from the wonders of Facebook, I’d have literally no idea what my middle school friends look like.
For some people, that’s unfathomable. But if the US Census Bureau is right, about 14% of Americans have this same experience every year. Apparently, 40 million people move every year, meaning there’s a large portion of people in our daily lives who are new.
Because this is God’s world, and these are God’s people, every new encounter is an invitation to learn more about God. You and I must get to know new people because God is infinite, and the diverse range of people in the world, 7 billion and counting, only goes to show the infinite creative range of displaying God’s glory.
Whether you’re new to a church or new to a town, getting to know new people (or being known as the new person) is fundamentally an invitation into knowing God’s creative glory.
Who Are These People?
Rather than starting with what you need to do to get to know new people, let’s just step back and consider what people are. Who is this person in front of you, next to you on the bus, across the fence, at the table? What are they?
Psalm 139 takes us into this question with vivid clarity. The psalmist says, “You (God) formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (v. 13). Each person, in all their intricate parts – emotionally, physically, spiritually, intellectually – is God’s DIY project. Each person is created, not merely by God, but in his image. So, the Psalm goes on to say: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (v. 14).
When we see people first and foremost as God’s creative design project, relationships take on a new level of excitement.
Thus, when we ask the question, “How do we build relationships?” our question is framed as one of discovery. In relationships, we are called to discover and delight in God’s animated handiwork.
This is true regardless whether a person believes in Christ. Yes, sin has shattered us, and the image of God in us is marred, but that image is not erased.
With this in mind, let me offer two postures for how to cultivate relationships.
Ask Exploring Questions
If people are designed by God uniquely, then every person is an adventure of discovery. What makes them tick? Why are they in ___ place today? What have they struggled with? Why do they work at their job? What’s the story of their family? Why do they like cats?
Here’s the reality: People love talking about themselves. Sometimes people get locked up wondering “What do I ask?!” But this isn’t that difficult when you realize that (nearly) every piece of information can be followed up on. “Where did you grow up”? Nebraska. “Really?! What was that like?” Lame. “What made it lame?” Blockbuster only had 10 movies. “Which movies did you watch?” ET – like, 10 times. “Did you like ET?” My favorite. “Do you like any other Stephen Spielberg movies?” Yea, I love his stuff! “Me too. I love his influence on J.J. Abrams. Do you think they’re similar?”
You get the idea. I’ve rarely had people that were difficult to open up. While all of these questions are surface level questions, you’re beginning to understand who this person is: They come from a small town with little outwardly exciting things but made the most of it. And they like ET.
I think we see this principle in Scripture when James says that we should be “quick to hear” (James 1:19). In context, he’s speaking about conflict, but it’s a truth that’s generally true – especially in heated conversations! We should be quick to listen to others. What’s their story? What has life been like for them?
I’ve always been struck by C.S. Lewis’s comment in the Weight of Glory where he says
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare…It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people.
When I ask questions, in some ways, I’m always wondering: If this person were spontaneously glorified in front of me, what would I praise God for in them? Discovering God’s unique design in them is how we build relationships. It’s also how we get a taste of what the Redeemer sees in each person, and how he might glorify them in himself.
While the above, strictly followed, may help us understand who people are, we need to contribute to the relationship for it to actually be a relationship.
The way we respond to knowing another person is to reveal how we relate to what they’ve shared. Should somebody say to me, “I hate cats” I would immediately respond, “Me too! They’re the minions of Satan himself!” I’d be discovering a great and glorious truth about them, and I’d be revealing a heart shaped by Jesus to them.
Friendships develop when we have commonality. Not agreement necessarily, but common experiences, hopes, dreams, opinions. While we may not share much in common with the specifics of a relationship, Paul does say that “no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man ” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Which means that while people are unique creations of God’s, they are not so unique to be unrelated to each other. While we may not have the specific temptations of another, we share a common humanity that’s equally temptable.
In some cases, this may not require very much to reveal common passions (e.g. hating cats), but in other instances, it will require deep trust and humility. To reveal how you’re a victim of X, a previous or ongoing addiction, unresolved drama, dark regrets, etc. These shared and revealed commonalities are the deep realities of friendship. But we only share those things with people we genuinely trust. And we only trust people who are genuinely interested in us.
Hence, I hope you’re seeing, there is a dance between these two postures. Asking questions leads to moments to reveal commonality, which leads to more questions, and more revealing. It’s an upward spiral of adventure and discovery.
And this only makes sense. If people are designed to reflect the image of God, shouldn’t we have infinitely interesting things to discover about people? This is the design of friendship. Not stagnant tolerance, but a lifelong love of discovering and delighting in another person.
So here’s the final question: How are you going to build the relationships around you?