One issue that often comes up in Spiritual direction is the shallowness of friendships in church. Most Christians I know have intimacy issues with God and with His people.
A casual internet search on Christian friendship revealed some shocking ideas about Christian community. Numerous blogs and articles put forth the idea that if you have no close friends in church, it must be your fault. “You have to get more involved,” they say. “Reach out! Join a club! Speak to others before they speak to you!” There is wisdom in this, of course, but the tendency is to blame the shy Christian and let the rest of the community off the hook.
One article I found was entitled “10 Things You Might be Doing Wrong if You Have No Friends at Church.” First suggestion on the list was the suggestion that maybe you aren’t really a Christian. The second suggestion was that you might have unconfessed sin in your life. Talk about blaming the victim!
It never occurs to the writer that some people don’t have friends in church because the church might not be friendly. Fellowship groups in some churches can be harder to break into than Fort Knox. Even so, the people inside their tight circles can only see themselves as warm and friendly. Most churches are open to those who resemble themselves, have similar backgrounds, and share the same theological and political views. But to everyone else, they can be cold and forbidding. For those who don’t fit, they can be lonely, isolating places.
“Not my church!” many will say. “We are a happy family, a welcoming family!” If it is, that’s great! But I urge you to take an honest look. Are there people who show up irregularly and seem uncomfortable? Are there people who come in late and slip out early? When these people drop out, does anyone notice? Honestly, would the kind of people who make up your fellowship probably be friends even if Jesus were not present? Are there people in your church who are only known for one characteristic: the “problem child,” the “wise father,” or the “helpful worker,” but no one seems to know any more about them than their role? If there are people like this among you, then loneliness and alienation is there, too.
It’s not that we don’t love the lonely, we just don’t know them. In our minds, we confuse toleration and inclusion with genuine love. We invite participation and activity but shut them out of our lives.
Let me suggest three kinds of friendships in a church.
- Positional friendships. These relationships exist because our position in the community requires it. These are positional acquaintances: the servers at our favorite restaurant, the cashier at the story, our co-worshipers in church, our bosses, employees, neighbors, etc. We treat them respectfully and cordially, but we do not take that acquaintance outside of our shared zone of interaction. If they leave their position, or we do, we do not give them a second thought. We know only one dimension of these people. We recognize their face in the crowd, but know nothing of them otherwise. Most of the time, we don’t want to know more. We have lives and friends of our own, and we assume they do, too.
Positional friendships make up the bulk of relationships. One-dimensionality is the prime characteristic of these relationships. We know only the side that touches up, we don’t want to know the person behind the job.
Positional relationships exist between people of all structural levels. Employers may see their workers as merely employees, and show no interest in their personal lives. At the same time, employees never look for the “human” side of their boss. Pastors may see their flock as impersonal members, but members may see the pastor only as a spiritual provider and not as one with human interests. In most churches, people know their pastor as one who brings sermons and visits the sick, but not as someone with needs, hobbies, and interests.
People can have only a “positional” relationship with God, too. They may worship God as Creator and Savior, but they still have no personal intimacy with Him. They know his Shadow, not His Person.
- Emergency friendship. Positional friendships become something else when there there is a serious need. In emergencies, a whole community can reach out in a temporary bond of friendship. Most of the time, we pay no attention to other people driving on the road, but if we see a car with a flat tire, we are happy to help. We pay little attention to a homeless man walking past, but we like to serve in soup kitchens or give to food drives. If someone in the congregation is sick, we will pray for them, even if we don’t know them. But after the spare tire is on the car, our shift at the kitchen is over, or we finish the prayer meeting, we go on our way, feeling good about ourselves, with no intention of following up.
Again, there is nothing wrong with help in emergencies; thank God for it! But this kind of friendship is usually limited and temporary. We don’t continue the relationship.
Churches practice a lot of impersonal charity. We pray for big needs, carry food to the sick, send flowers to funerals, and help in clothing drives. But what do we know about the lonely? We often have no idea what the inner needs are of those we are helping. Loving people isn’t just touching the surface needs, but seeing the person beneath the surface.
- Soul friendship. Positional and emergency friendship are good, but they are not what our soul craves most. We want something deeper: soul to soul friendship. Soul friends have three noticeable characteristics. Soul friendships are holistic, they are not just knowing one aspect of each other’s lives, but a whole person. They don’t just love each other—they like each other. We look forward to seeing our true friends. We don’t want anything from them except to see them. We brighten up whenever we hear from them. They have an intrinsic value to us. We don’t just love them, we like them. People don’t want only to be loved, they want to be liked as well. Christians have been taught to say we love people we don’t like, out of Christian duty. But people will always know the difference. If we cannot find joy in other people, we ultimately avoid them.
Prejudice and bigotry exists because we do not recognize that we should also like as well as love the outsider. We cannot exclude people who don’t fit our standards from our fellowship and still truthfully say we love them. People are looking for a place where people want to see them.
They are personal friends, not business friends. I have many acquaintances but few close friends. Two of my closest friends I meet with regularly over lunch, but neither is currently involved in my business. We get together and talk about everything–family, God, politics ideas, work–whatever. We have no agenda when we get together. One of us isn’t trying to recruit the other. Most of the time we agree, but not always. If we disagree, it doesn’t matter. I have known lawyers and politicians who are public adversaries and private friends. A common humanity transcends agendas.
In the church, we often see people as potential members and tithers. We seek out able people who can build our churches. We visit newcomers, but only to tell them how great our church is. But the church is not a business, it is a family. We must reach out to love and listen, not just recruit them into our group.
They accept each other first without criticism or judgment. Some of my closest friends have hidden terrible secrets from me–past failures, incarcerations, homosexuality, and inner doubts and disbeliefs. Sometimes, they have even hidden the truth from themselves. But they have hidden the truth from me, as a friend, because they were afraid revealing some inner hurt would ruin our friendship. I might disagree or even be disappointed, but sharing the truth should not ruin our friendship. A soul friendship is a safe place where anything and everything could be shared. I don’t have to approve everything a friend does or believes to be a friend. I don’t have to keep quiet about my opinions, either. In a loving friendship, I can be real, too. It is only within the safe cradle of mutual love and respect that I can share my displeasure. Whether my friends does or does not come to my way of thinking or acting, they are still my friend. I am not my friend’s judge. Friendship is loving the whole person.
God desires soul friendship with us. God wants to spend time with us because He likes us. He has no agenda, no purpose in the friendship other than being with us. God does not see us a a bundle of sin that needs to be cleaned or squashed, but as a beloved child and companion. He does not always approve of what we do or say, but He loves us anyway.
Friendship is not superficial, but sharing our whole self with another person. John wrote, “God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and are walking in the darkness, we lie and do not do the truth.” 1 John 1: 5 -6 “Walking in darkness” isn’t just living in sin. It is a of state hiding ourselves behind a false front, and encouraging others to do the same. Walking in the light is walking in self-disclosure, creating an atmosphere where others may feel safe to reveal themselves. When we encourage others to be happy when we are sad, praise God when we don’t mean it, hide our faults to avoid condemnation, keep our opinions to ourselves for fear of being cast out of the fellowship, we are walking in the darkness. Living in openness, tolerance, and genuine love is walking in the light.
Christians need from others the same friendship that God give us. We are his representatives on earth, modeling for others His loving nature. If the church isn’t a place where people experience His love through others, where we are individually loved, then how can we be His Body? God loves us as individuals even when we are wrong; He cares for us even when we mess up; and He likes us, even when the rest of the world finds us unlikeable.
Soul friendship is the model on earth of Christ’s love for us. We all need some of it.