By Eddie Pipkin
Last week I wrote about the need for friendships – now more than ever – and how the local church can be a great way to help people bond in deep relationships. Of course, neighborhood churches have always been associated with friendships. Many of us who grew up in the church or raised our own families there built our social lives around the people we met while in worship, Bible study, and service groups. But as leaders, it’s risky for us to simply assume those strong friendships are going to happen. Social media distracts. Competition for our attention is fierce. People don’t build their entire schedules around church happenings like they did a generation ago. If we want to be known as a place that fosters lifelong friendships, we should take an active role in helping them happen.
There are four tracks in the strategy to promote friendships.
- Sponsoring all the events, programs, and activities that have traditionally been associated with friendship development within the church.
- Promoting friendship development within the existing groups that meet as part of the natural life of the local congregation (but have not been necessarily associated with the development of friendships).
- Establishing new initiatives that are directed specifically at friendship development.
- Encouraging people to pursue friendships independently (within the context of the church).
As we noted in last week’s blog (“Making Friends” – Part 1), friendships have always been a critical part of the life of discipleship. They share characteristics with any friendship we have developed out in the world, but from a biblical perspective add a lay of accountability and support that moves beyond the casual exchange of pals from the Friday basketball league. That’s not to say that basketball league friends can’t become partners in accountability, character growth, mutual support during difficult times, and lifelong adventures beyond the narrow interest that originally brought you together. But there’s no expectation they will be – such broader expectations (in some form) are a basic hope we begin with when developing faith friends.
Most everyone who enters the door of a local church share these expectations as part of their desire for being part of a community of faith.
Let’s break each of the strategic tracks down individually.
Traditional Avenues of Friendship Development.
Church softball leagues, cooking clubs, book clubs, etc. (what Dr. Phil likes to call “affinity groups” in his excellent and highly recommended resource, Connect) have long been a way to get people together who share common interests. Friendships develop naturally within these contexts as people who are acquaintances within the larger affinity group hit it off. Churches should actively support these kinds of groups. They can add a layer of discipleship (a prayer time, sharing of scripture, etc.) or be completely based around the affinity without a layer of regulated spirituality (which makes them well-suited for inviting community members, who will still be connected to your faith community by virtue of the leadership of the group being church members or the location of the activity being your church campus).
Traditional friendship avenues also include groups that are gender or age-oriented, like Men’s Groups, Women’s Groups, Singles Groups, and Senior Groups. These periodic gatherings, which are still popular in many churches, gather people together socially (and frequently with some layer of discipleship programming) largely for the purpose of building bonds. It still makes sense to gather people in this way in many local settings. As Americans face what is frequently described as an “epidemic of loneliness,” there are common interests associated with common demographic groupings. That is, the need is still there. It is the programming for such gatherings that has become stale over the last couple of decades. The kinds of things that used to get people excited to get together (like a featured speaker who is a retired missionary) aren’t attracting crowds. We need to update how we spend this shared time.
Small groups, of course, are also in this category of traditional friendship venues. The very way we promote small group participation (life groups, accountability groups, etc.) is built on the premise that they will lead to deeper relationships. The model remains biblical and solid, but they, too, are experiencing a season of reimagining.
For leaders thinking about how these traditional offerings will take new forms or be born anew within their congregations, the key is to be entrepreneurial in spirit and not force the issue. If you have individuals who are excited about starting and leading such groups, empower them to do so. If there is not interest from perspective facilitators, don’t force the issue! At the same time, don’t be locked into old-school thinking as to what such groups should look like.
Friendship Development in Less Traditional Environments.
Beyond the groups mentioned above, we have plenty of groups who get together regularly at the local church. These include governance groups (all those committees who run the show), ministry leadership teams (from choirs to event organizers to youth and children’s leaders), volunteers within particular ministry areas, study groups, and work teams. Let’s talk about the value of friendships as we have natural interactions with these groups. Let’s take time to promote principles of biblical friendships as those groups normally gather together to address their work. And let’s encourage the people who are meeting (and sharing, at least for a time, a common focus) to get together outside of the narrow confines of the meeting, study, or work team outing.
The most common way that we introduce a concept of biblical friendship into these gatherings is by having a time of prayer – often perfunctory at best, but it’s there as a common element of any church gathering. That’s a good start, especially if treated as a true opportunity to know and support each other better, rather than just a box to be checked off. Beyond that, we have a chance to mix “getting to know you” moments with “growth and challenge moments.” Provide people with opportunities to share their stories in relation to the group objective. (“Why are you here?” “What unique thing do you have to offer?”) Give them a chance to talk about their hopes and fears, their ideas, and the things they wish they understood better. These kinds of conversations, even if brief, not only deepen any activity, but help people connect with one another.
And since people are working together towards a common purpose, suggest to them that they make it a point to get together with other members of the group beyond the normal meeting time. Imagine members of the Trustees Committee getting together for a cup of coffee, or Youth Counselors discovering they both like to run in the morning and therefore getting together to do that a couple of days a week while they trade ideas about how to keep the middle school small group on task.
Activities Built to Expressly Promote Friendship Development.
Don’t underestimate the direct approach: Dr. Phil’s Connect resource, mentioned earlier, is chock-full of ideas about how to do this and do it well. Here are a few:
- Affinity Groups: We discussed affinity groups earlier, but it’s worth stressing the idea that their creative flexibility is their strength. Anything from “investment strategy” to “Japanese anime” is fair game. It’s all about context and the passions of your neighborhood. Social justice concerns critical to your area? Get a group together. Stage-of-life commonalities in your community (lots of single moms, people dealing with addiction)? Get a group together.
In fact, if you can’t identify such specific groups tailored to your unique congregational context – that is, if all your breakout groups are vanilla generic, you are missing one of the keys to being a healthy, vital congregation.
- Dinner Groups. An oldie that never goes out of style. There is nothing like getting people together over a leisurely meal to form bonds and broaden perspectives. (Personally, I can attribute several long-term friendships to such an origin.) You can take a formal, organized churchwide approach, or you can take a more casual approach, but however you encourage people to get together and share a meal, you will see benefits. Promote diversity in groups; promote neighborhood cohesion by connecting folks who live close to one another; promote ministry leadership by link folks with similar spiritual gifts and passions.
- Lunch Invitations. Encourage folks in your congregation to take hospitality to the next level by inviting folks they don’t know (or don’t know well) to lunch. This could become a regular habit (once a month or once a quarter, for instance): head out with the folks on your row / pew you have seen a few times and whose names you struggle to remember. Make it a challenge to invite new visitors to lunch. Invite the family of that kid your kid is friends with. Breakfast works, too!
- Neighborhood Parties. Expand the same philosophy beyond folks you know at church to folks you barely know in your own neighborhood. Help families in your church develop the skills to have the neighbors over (not everybody naturally is a social butterfly). Provide them with a trailer full of party supplies from bounce houses to water toys to a grill! If they’re shy but interested, this is a great way to get two families to get to know one another better by combining their resources to throw a neighborhood party together.
Encouraging Individuals to Pursue Friendship Development as a Goal.
It’s a great idea, if you have not done this, to plan an entire worship / sermon series around the idea of biblical friendship. In doing so, you can stress why strong friendships of accountability and support are essential to the discipleship life, you can resource people as to how to develop and strengthen friendships, and you can time the launch of friendship initiatives to the worship / sermon series. Biblical friendships also make for a great annual vision-casting goal for a congregation: As in, this year, for the entire year, our focus in every ministry will be the enhancement of biblical friendships!
We give people the opportunities to kick-start friendships, and then we add in the layers of biblical accountability and supporting each other along life’s road that deepen those relationships. We help people understand what true, God-oriented relationships look like. And we have plenty of resources available to assist those who want to know more.
Keep in mind that faithfulness to a local congregation is inevitably tied to the sense of belonging that comes from these well-established friendships. Even when we are disillusioned with other aspects of our local church leadership and direction, we will hang on fiercely to the community we have crafted.
What specific strategies does your church use to promote the development of lifelong friendships? How do you encourage friendship development in the context of your existing activities? What resources do you offer to help leaders, members, and friends develop biblically-based, deep relationships? Share your answers, analysis, and suggestions in the comments section!