David and Meg Robbins felt comfortable, living on a cul-de-sac in the Atlanta suburbs. The area was zoned for the best schools. The houses were nice, and they enjoyed their neighbors. Several neighbors even went to their church.
“And then one day we looked up and realized that it felt so safe and easy in that neighborhood,” reflects the FamilyLife CEO. “Every person who we meant to encounter—and even accidentally encountered—was just like us.”
After going away for a weekend retreat in 2011 to focus on their family’s values, David and Meg returned home with an anxious trembling. They had some difficult decisions to make. God used that weekend to remind them of His larger, universal narrative. That narrative, they realized, is a lot bigger than a comfortable home in the best school district.
It was time for their family to admit that the world is a more diverse place than what they were experiencing. They knew, too, that their children would be growing up in an ever-diversifying world. It was their responsibility to follow God’s call to recognize the unique glimpses of who He is in all the people He created. And to teach their kids to do the same, to value the differences in others.
“Oneness, after all, is God’s idea,” David and Meg agreed.
David and Meg couldn’t deny God’s heart for reaching every tongue, tribe, and nation. They were involved in effective ministry in Atlanta. But they knew God was asking them for something more.
The big move
With their three young children in tow, they moved their family to New York City. In the busyness of making a home in the middle of America’s melting pot, they had no choice but to completely immerse themselves in daily differences.
Their high-rise apartment neighbors were from numerous ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds. Their children’s classmates were a beautiful mixture of colors and harmonizing accents, sitting side by side at the lunch table. The sidewalk trek to the supermarket was now devoid of the status of certain cars, large homes, and right-branded work wear.
There was no majority here. No in crowd. There were just God’s people. Needing to be loved and known in an authentic way.
Which was refreshing. And challenging. “Suddenly the comfort of raising kids in a culture that supports your values wasn’t part of our story,” David says. “Big churches, Awana programs, vacation Bible school, or Christian teachers in the public school weren’t there to shape our kids’ lives. But we were there to continue modeling to our children a rooted faith that moves toward and recognizes the value in people who are different.”
Life on life
The Robbins spent their days building relationships in regular places. Meg joined the PTA at the local elementary. They spent afternoons at the park. Weekend dinners were shared squished on neighbors’ couches. They frequented local restaurants and befriended anyone who God put in their path.
“We built solid relationships,” David remembers. “But in all those years in all those friendships, only two people ever came to church with us. Our Atlanta selves would’ve been discouraged about that. Our New York City selves recognized that what happened on playgrounds and in living rooms was something we couldn’t foster in a 90-minute Sunday service.”
The pathway to every conversation about God always started with an honest concern or question about the daily challenges in someone’s family. “We had another fight last night,” a wife would admit to Meg in the school hallways. “I don’t know how to find time with my kids,” a dad would confess to David from the soccer sidelines. “Do you guys still go on dates?” a young couple wanted to know.
“We knew that our taking up residence with the people who God called us to love, just like Jesus did in John 1, was the biggest way to reach them. And then God changed our residence again.”
Back to the suburbs
David became the president and CEO of FamilyLife in December 2017, moving his family back to the South they had been so familiar with. It wasn’t as easy as one might expect.
Readjusting to a house in the suburbs, surrounded by people who mostly think and look like you, was another culture shock for their family. They had gotten used to, and enjoyed, the nightly questions from their children about a New York City classmate’s family background. They missed the German bakery around the corner and overhearing multiple languages. And they missed the walkable city they’d grown to love.
But David and Meg knew now how to continue growing an awareness of and love for people who are different than them. Even in the Christian cultural comfort of the Bible belt, the Robbins don’t want to settle for a life of sameness in their relationships.
“We just can’t,” David says. “We know now how much we’d miss. How much we wouldn’t learn. How much we wouldn’t grow if we’re only listening to, living among, and being loved by people who look just like us.”
The value of differences
David and Meg feel that it’s important for their kids during their formative years to wrestle with the questions that differences bring up. “We’d much rather our daughter be curious about Judaism as a third grader, asking the questions around our dinner table, than waiting till she inevitably faces that curiosity as a young adult.
“And the value isn’t just for our children. Or for those we love. The value is for us as men and women, husband and wives, moms and dads, as believers in Christ. When we are intentional about moving toward those who are different than us, for whatever reason, we see more clearly the beauty of God reflected in each of the faces He uniquely created.
Sticking with it
In an effort to avoid falling into the rhythm of cultural comfort, David occasionally repeats an introspective assessment. He makes a list of the ten closest people to him: his confidantes, buddies, and mentors.
Next to each name on the list, he records that person’s ethnic background. Back through the list again, he adds each socioeconomic status, then age, family background, and education background.
When he finishes his list, if everyone in his top 10 is just like him, David knows he’s missing it. He’s not only missing out on God’s call to love and care for everyone He created. but he believes he’s also missing out on what these people can teach him.
“Sure we can be on overseas mission trips and helping at the downtown charity,” he says. “All of that is absolutely good and right. But if at the end of the day we have not opened ourselves up to anyone who is different … if we don’t have someone inside our comfort circle who isn’t the exact same to speak into us, to shape us, and give personal access the way we would a trusted friend … then we cannot learn all that God has to teach us through the lives and voices of His people.”
This spring you’ll find David and his family out on the local soccer fields. A place you can find many families, so that doesn’t seem much different. But instead of going with only the convenient, free school league, David and Meg registered their kids for the community recreational league, too.
It’s a small choice, they know. But it’s a way to keep being intentional. To spend hours in their week with others who don’t go to their school, who don’t live in their neighborhood. Who don’t share their church pew.
It’s a way to open themselves and their children up to the people God can put in their paths. It’s a chance to trust where God has them and continue embracing differences.
“We’re going to keep working at it,” he says. “Besides, if our children are going to learn it, they’re going to learn it from us. I want to model for my children a trust with various kinds of people. A respect for all people. And authentic friendships with someone who doesn’t look exactly like me. I’m thankful I can make the choices to model that no matter where God plants our family.”
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