Recently, as part of our current sermon series on Gathering and Forming, I preached on Friendship. Through my preparation and through conversation with several of you afterwards, I have realized that the topic of friendship touches a nerve. Recent articles in both Christian and secular media attest to the ubiquity of loneliness and the longing for connection. As I’ve reflected on these themes, I’ve been thinking about friendship.
An NPR article I read detailed a recent study by Cigna Healthcare that found loneliness to be widespread across America. From the Washington Post I learned about the connections between loneliness as a individual ache and a public health issue. In an editorial introducing this summer’s issue of Comment magazine which is focused on loneliness, Jamie Smith described an “epidemic of social isolation.”
Then I read Jesus words in John 15, where towards the end of his life, he turns to his followers and says, “I have called you friends.” Processing these articles alongside Jesus’s words to his disciples led me to this conclusion, which I shared on Twitter: “What if, after all this time, what we needed wasn’t ‘community’, but friendships.” Many of the Christian circles and tribes I’ve been a part of have long made much of community. I myself have trumpeted the need for and value of community. But now I’m wondering if it’s truly friendship is what we need. Jesus didn’t say, "I have called you members of my community." He said, "I have called you friends."
Community is Not Enough
Don’t get me wrong. Community is still important. But we can raise it to a level of significance that obscures the still deeper importance of friendship. Community is great for a Saturday night hangout. But friendship is what we need when life falls apart: when we lose a job, when our marriage sours, when death interrupts.
Friendship is what we need, whatever our age and whatever our stage. Sometimes we act as though friendship is only a need for the young or for the single or for the new to town. Longing for friendship isn’t just a “single” thing or a “young” thing. The vast majority of people we meet are desperate for deeper friendships; for people who will know them and love them. Even the people you might least expect—people with full social calendars and high relational confidence—are longing for someone to be there, to stay, to ask questions, to care.
Despite my standard line about friendship: “I’m not accepting any new applications”, the desire for new and renewed friendship is widespread, maybe even universal
If thick friendship—more so than bare connection—is what we need and want, what’s the path forward? That’a complicated question without a simple answer. It’s a big enough question that we might even dedicate a future sermon series to the theme of friendship. Without answering exhaustively, I’d suggest the way forward includes two things:
1. A Recovery of Covenantal Friendship
We need stronger and thicker forms of friendship during a moment when friendship has been devalued by “Facebook friends” and flippant descriptors like “BFFs”. The Bible gives us multiple examples of abiding friendship, built on promises to be there, to love, to sacrifice for.
- Jonathan models this kind of friendship with David. According to 1 Samuel 18:3, “Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.”
- Ruth pledges herself to her mother-in-law Naomi, saying, “May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1:17)
- Jesus explained the extent of covenantal friendship to His disciples, saying, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
2. An Acceptance of Friendship as Enough
We also need to accept that good, faithful friendship is enough. Long friendship across ordinary life, through troughs and triumphs, is a good by itself. It doesn’t need further elaboration or ornamentation. My current favorite book, Love Big Be Well, captures this idea: “It’s the current rage to talk about creating community and being missional and pursuing incarnation ministry, but these well-intentioned notions somehow morph into lofty ideals or complicated strategies that inhibit us from simply being friends, being neighbors.”
What if you and I could simply be friends and be neighbors? Could we accept that as enough?