I find that many people are hesitant to enter into a new small group because they're afraid of being stuck with a "weird person." To be honest, I used to say the same thing—until one came into our group.
"Tom" (name changed) was definitely different. During our group time, he never talked, he crunched ice real loudly, he never participated in bringing food, and he usually showed up one or two hours early for group. Tom was a regular and it was rare if he missed. He was frustrating to deal with and I found myself getting annoyed with every thing he did—until the day I received a surprising e-mail from him.
The background of that email happened one night when my wife and I couldn't be with our group, so we asked another couple to take the lead. Our group was studying the "love language" of affirmation. The couple that was leading thought it would be cool to tape a piece of paper on everyone's back and have group members write words reflecting what they appreciated about that person.
The next day, I received the e-mail from Tom. He told me how much he appreciated our life group. He explained how he had never had any friends in life, and that we were his first. He told me he never experienced anyone saying such nice things about him. I couldn't believe I had been so blinded by Tom's "weirdness" that I failed to see his heart and hear his story.
When we take a look at the kind of people Jesus hung out with, we see that he reached out to the outcasts—those who everyone looked down upon. People like Tom need others, many times in more ways than the rest of us. People like Tom can be overwhelming, so it is important that we create boundaries—and that we are honest with them. Most importantly, it's important that we aim to see their heart.
There were times before group that I would talk to Tom individually and set boundaries with him about coming early or contributing to the group by bringing a snack. To my surprise, he already knew some of the areas that I talked to him about; he just wasn't sure how to deal with some of his struggles. One thing Tom said that I'll never forget is that he wished I would have talked to him about my frustrations earlier. He really appreciated the times I was honest with him, which allowed him to start taking risks in the group.
Tom eventually started to bring snacks, he even baked something once, and he also started to open up after I encouraged him to share with the group about his fears. Ultimately, it was all of us being honest and compassionate with one another that helped build walls of trust for Tom to feel safe and to grow.
What Will You Do?
So what will you do when it comes to reaching out to the "weird person" in your group? Here are five tips that have really helped me out:
- Understand that you are weird, too. In other words, take the beam out of your eye first before removing a splinter from another person in your group.
- Take time to understand their story and who they are.
- Be honest with them on a one-on-one level about what is "weird."
- Set a few realistic boundaries for them, and in some circumstances boundaries that include consequences.
- Continue to love them with grace and truth.
It's easy to see in this story how our group affected Tom, but he had an even greater impact on our group because we learned how to love like Christ—which has always been our ultimate goal.
—Matt Graybill is Director of Community LIFE for the "Lives Changed By Christ" church family in Pennsylvania. Copyright 2010 by the author and Christianity Today International. Used with permission.