Thinking About...Friendship

During my first year of college I registered for something called a Freshman Seminar (clearly I didn’t attend Mr. Jefferson’s hallowed university) because it sounded liberal artsy and represented everything I hoped college would be. The course was The Ethics of Friendship and it promised a survey of Western thought on that subject—readings from Aristotle and Cicero and Emerson and Derrida. (I still have the Reading Packet on a dusty shelf somewhere.) I discovered later that the professor was a post-modern deconstructionist (once I had learned what those words meant), but he was also a good teacher who helped me learn how to think critically and write persuasively. Every so often I remember that freshman seminar, especially when I find myself thinking about friendship.

It turns out that as a pastor I think quite a bit about friendship. And it’s usually not because people have too much of it. I see and hear about loneliness, about longing for more relationships and deeper relationships. I’m often tempted to “fix” the situation by offering myself as a friend to all the friendless or friend-light. I’m also often tempted to denounce the latest technology or our over-scheduled lives as scourges that prevent friendship. But I’m coming see that instead of circumstantial causes, the scarcity of friendship is part of our post-fall human existence manifesting as our alienation from each other. We who were made to live together are at odds and feel alone. In Adam and Eve’s shame in the garden, we first glimpse the struggle of human friendship.

Known and Loved

Many have observed, and many more have felt, that our core human desire is to be known and loved. We want to be seen. We want to be listened to. We want another person to understand our deepest fears and deepest joys and still love us. A recent article brought this truth home. That author described some of her early forays into romantic friendship as “[t]rying desperately to make up for what my childhood lacked—some affirmation that I was important, a little appreciation for my unique gifts and talents, even just a bit of recognition that I existed.” Aren’t we all—each in our own way—trying to find a bit of recognition that we exist?

The Christian message is that we are known and loved. We are known and loved by none other than the Creator God. At a wedding I attended recently 1 Corinthians 13 was read. After Paul describes love that is patient and kind, that bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things, he concludes: “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” God knows our deepest insecurities and our deepest failings and still loves us through Jesus Christ. That gospel truth represents the great hope for friendship: not that we find our BFF, but that we have been foundby an all-knowing and all-loving God. He is, as described in the hymn God of My Life, a “friend of the friendless and the faint.” 

Of course, the gospel reality of friendship with God also needs concrete manifestation in and reinforcement from our enfleshed, human relationships. The Church needs to be a place of this knowing and loving friendship.

Friendship and the Church

Over the summer I realized how much church health depends on relational health and bandwidth. At least in a relationally-oriented church like City Church, ministry growth is connected closely to the relational capacity of its leaders. For a church like ours to continue to grow we must either increase our relational capacity or increase our number of leaders. Of course, increasing relational capacity can be hard, particularly for people in a life stage of maintaining important college relationships, or of establishing a career, or of raising young children, or of caring for aging parents, or of attending to grandchildren.

Do you see what I did there?

In survey form I listed how every stage of life presents challenges for increasing our relational capacity. We are limited, constrained beings. Those limits are both givens and goods.

Therefore, ministry growth and church health depends on increasing leaders. In order to practice embodied friendship the church needs more bodies. Specifically, the church needs to multiply friends—that is, people who are willing to become proactive friends to the lonely, hurting, and alienated. The Church needs—the world needs—people who will friend others. And here I choose a phrase intentionally knowing how diminished its meaning has become in the age of Facebook. To friend another is more than a virtual click of acceptance. It is to make space in your life—your schedule, your home, your finances, your priorities—for new friends. 

A final element to this equation is the direction of the relational capacity. It’s not enough to increase relational bandwidth if it is all used for downloading more content from already existing friendships within the community. Spiritual solipsism is a trap for many well-meaning churches. If some “fellowship” is good (indeed, a necessary part of faithful Christian life), then more “fellowship” must be better. Echo chambers are reinforced and faith communities become lazy country clubs comforting people with how many friends they have. Instead, increased relational bandwidth must be directed intentionally towards those outside the Christian community—to colleagues, neighbors, and peers within the city’s public institutions. It is that sort of friendship that best mirrors the friendship of God extended as it is to strangers, to widows, indeed even to enemies.