“You don’t look like missionaries.”

That’s what a guy our age said to us one of the first weeks we were in Decatur. He was standing outside the downtown MARTA station, soliciting Red Cross donations. He wore a red vest to prove it.

But we weren’t wearing red vests or matching T-shirts or long skirts. After talking with a few of us for a while, the Red Cross guy had asked us what we did. We told him, and his response was the surprised, “You don’t look like missionaries.” We glanced at one another amidst awkward laughter. We didn’t know what exactly what missionaries were supposed to look like.

A short while later, Taylor walked up.

“Sup,” said our bearded friend, wearing a hiking backpack that was buckled at the top.

“Now he looks like a missionary!” said the Red Cross guy.

It’s funny. Jesus didn’t say the world would know we were his disciples by the crosses around our necks or the Ichthus decals on our cars or our matching T-shirts displaying a Christian parody of a candy bar logo.

I took the fact that we didn’t look like missionaries as a compliment. That was why we were there: to blend in, become part of the community, to invest in organic relationships. And as we did that and those relationships grew, we would show the people of Decatur the light of Christ.

But Jesus also didn’t say that his followers would be incognito. He said everyone would know we were his disciples. How?

Loving one another.

This is how we show the world who we are. Not by loving the people in the world– though that’s extremely important. Jesus said, in John 13:35, ” By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

That’s a tall order. Sometimes we’re lovable. Other times– not so much. That’s why it stands out in the world. Because this love we have for each other isn’t something people can manage on their own. It’s supernatural. It’s different. It’s noticeable.

In his fantastic little book on this subject, The Mark of the Christian, famed apologist Francis Schaeffer wrote,

“It is in the midst of a difference that we have our golden opportunity. When everything is going well and we are all standing around in a nice little circle, there is not much to be seen by the world. But when we come to the place where there is a real difference, and we exhibit uncompromised principles but at the same time observable love, then there is something that the world can see, something they can use to judge that these real are Christians and that Jesus has indeed been sent by the Father.”

Observable love. When I think back on this summer and the ultimate turn our missions approach took, it comes down to that phrase and John 13:35.

If you still think loving one another is all puppies and rainbows, you’re sorely mistaken. Just within our team, we worked hard to understand, communicate with, and do life with one another in a way that was saturated with the love of Christ. We told our stories, let one another analyze them and ask questions and figure out what made us tick. We aired out our failures and asked forgiveness and held each other accountable. We learned to take notice of and look out for one another’s feelings and preferences. We kicked holes in the walls of individualism that prevented genuine community. It was painful sometimes. It was laborious much of the time. But it was worth it.

It was worth it for the growth it brought in our own lives. But it was also worth it for the testament it became to the people around us. A testament to a bond deeper than age, shared interests, race, sports teams, location, or blood. A testament to the mutual Spirit that dwelt in each of us individually and in all of us collectively– the Spirit that drove us to struggle for Christ-centered community and empowered us to achieve it.

Being community-driven among ourselves also fit perfectly with the overall culture of Decatur. It’s a city that prides itself on community. It has festivals and book sharing bins and farmers’ markets and government-paid street musicians and shops around a central square. People are proud of Decatur and they share that bond.

While the people of Decatur love Decatur, we didn’t see much evidence that they cared too deeply about one another outside of their own cliques and classes. As often happens in our society, people coexist without communing. It’s interesting when people who place such a high value on community have only a shallow taste of what it could be.

But when a Christ-centered community forms, it causes people to wonder. Who are these kids who travel in a pack? Why do they seem to enjoy each other so much? How do they handle disagreements in such positive ways? Why do they all care about the community? Why are they so friendly to their neighbors?

When people met us, especially when we were all together, I could see the wheels turning as they asked questions similar to these. We may not have looked like missionaries, but when they saw us together, they knew something was different. This difference often paved the road for us to have extended conversations with people in a way that both showed the love of Christ being worked out in a tangible way and confronted people with the truth of Christ without making them feel alienated.

I often worried during the summer that the overwhelming intentionality of our community might be hindering the natural growth of our relationships. It took me a while to realize that the Spirit had organically driven us to reach out for that intentional community in the first place. It was not something we were assigned to do. While perhaps some of us sought it out more than others, we all embraced it quickly. Our love for one another was not contrived; it was a gift. Really, it’s a gift that exists between all believers through the reconciliatory sacrifice of him who first loved us. All we have to do is unwrap it. And when the world sees that gift on display in our lives, that’s when they’ll recognize the Giver.


COMMENT: When has God used a community you’ve been a part of in an unexpected way?

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