By Eddie Pipkin

As we plan fall campus events and outreach efforts, mission projects, and seasonal music productions, let’s not forget one of the core things needed by people who are hurting and seeking connection and meaning in their lives: the power of friendships.  It’s simple; it’s essential; it’s a key component to mental and spiritual health, and in a world in which technology can deposit us horrifically into the latest mass shooting while simultaneously making us depressed that we aren’t on an Instagram-worthy global tour, our local church can provide a gateway to relationships that both ground us and inspire us.  Sure, theology and sacraments are important, but there’s nothing more biblical than quality friendships for helping us make sense of life.  The church should do more to actively promote and nurture such friendships.

Of course, friendships have always been part of the local church experience.  But historically, they have been a byproduct of the life of the church, not an intentional focus.  People who have gathered together in a common purpose (the worship of Jesus) gravitate naturally to each other.  They have a shared interest which is at the center of their lives (discipleship), and many of us end up building our social lives around the friends we meet in ministry.  We meet people in studies, small groups, fellowship gatherings, service projects, and in our roles on leadership teams.  It’s a natural process, but it can be awkward.  The church gathers people together for specific programming purposes, but it’s entirely possible to develop “acquaintances” through these encounters without true friendships ever developing.  The very definition of acquaintance is someone you know casually through regular meetings.

People in the workaday world have plenty of acquaintances.  They hunger for something more.  Biblical friendship goes much deeper.  As Drew Hunter writes, when addressing America’s “epidemic of loneliness,” the local church is the perfect place to develop what he calls “thick relationships”:

But what if local churches felt like countercultural communities of spiritual life and love? Every church is equipped with all the resources needed to be a community of thick relationships. This is our heritage, after all: The book of Acts portrays the church as fulfilling ancient ideals of friendship (Acts 2:42-47Acts 4:32­-35). The apostle John refers to fellow believers in churches as his “friends” (3 John 15). Every local church can be a surprising and welcoming counter-cultural glimpse of true friendship.

This promotion of thick relationships happens in two ways:

  • The development of friendships becomes a goal in and of itself for the congregation.

Leaders talk about the importance of friendships in a discipleship context and encourage people to actively pursue and develop biblical friendships.  They provide them with the tools for making this happen.

  • Traditional activities and events within the church are tweaked to promote the development of friendships.

All of the things that normally happen in the life of the church, from studies to work outings to picnics to committee meetings become active settings for the development of friendships.

This turn to focusing on friendship provides unique opportunities (and every local context features possibilities and challenges):

  • Friendships within the church body.

Since people are gathered together in large groups and small groups on Sunday mornings and lots of other times during the week, we set the stage for people to be reminded that we are supposed to be moving well beyond casual “hellos” and sharing life together.

  • Intergenerational friendships.

There is no better setting in society for the development of intergenerational friendships.  Senior citizens are at greater risk for mental health issues related to loneliness, as heartbreakingly recounted in this recent NPR report:

Across the country, suicide rates have been on the rise, and that rise has struck the nation’s seniors particularly hard. Of the more than 47,000 suicides that took place in 2017, those 65 and up accounted for more than 8,500 of them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Men who are 65 and older face the highest risk of suicide, while adults 85 and older, regardless of gender, are the second most likely age group to die from suicide.

Churches can be intentional about developing relationships with seniors that counteract the effects of loneliness and give elders meaningful reasons to get up every morning.  For many churches, the focus on seniors has been to connect them with other seniors in “senior ministry,” which is fine work.  But beyond that, we are uniquely positioned to connect older people with younger people, children, teenagers, and families who may not have an elder presence in their own lives.  The energy of such relationships flows both ways.

  • Cross-cultural relationships.

Just as with relationships that bridge the age divide, the local church is a powerful nexus for friendships that cross socio-economic, racial, and cultural divides.  One of the most profound day-to-day divisions in American society is the economic divide.  Even when we experience cultural and racial diversity, we tend to hang out almost exclusively with people who share the same economic status with us.  Church life offers a profound opportunity to escape this bubble – and the shared life of rich and poor is profoundly biblical.  In our church-based friendships we can learn different perspectives we might never seek out independently.  (I was intrigued by this NY Times multimedia presentation about summer friendships in skating together – it went in directions I was not expecting, and it’s also beautifully crafted for those of you always interested in new narrative media.)

  • A reputation as a place for friendships.

Having built a culture for friendship development within your congregation, does the community / neighborhood around you identify you as a place where loneliness gets solved?  Even the general population is focused on the value of deeper friendships.  Here’s David Waters, writing on the fashion and lifestyle website, Mr. Porter, about the need for friendships for men:

Researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey stood people at the base of a hill and asked them to rate how hard they thought it would be to climb. Then they stood a friend next to each participant and asked them to rate the incline for a second time. Every participant rated the incline as far gentler while their friend was present. The same result was found even when the researchers asked participants to just think about their friend before rating the incline.

The researchers concluded that knowing you have friends who’ve got your back makes life’s challenges feel far less arduous.

As in our romantic relationships, when we are able share our struggles, confusions and difficulties with those we care about, and who care about us, deep connections form.

Do lonely people know you as a safe harbor?  Or are they under the impression that as soon as they come in the door you are going to be recruiting them for some task or asking them for money?  Are we letting them know that we are happy to have them as part of a shared community that celebrates friendship for friendship’s sake – and along the way, we will, of course, naturally introduce them to our friend of friends, Jesus.

What does your congregation do to promote and celebrate friendships?  Do you just assume that biblical friendships will form as a byproduct of your ministry, or are deep friendships a stated goal?  Share your own experiences and questions in the comments section, as always.

In next week’s blog, I’ll dig deeper into some practical suggestions for promoting the development of friendships.  See you back here next week!