Last evening at dinner, my wife and I were reflecting on our past. I commented, “I can’t believe all the stupid things I did as a teenager. I was just trying to fit in. All I wanted was for someone besides my parents to love me and be my friend.” Then it dawned on me: Since becoming a Christian, I’ve gained many friends, people who truly care about me and love me for the right reasons. The church saved me from friendlessness.
“The Friends Greet You”
When reading the New Testament epistles or letters, we “listen in” on the communication of the early Christians. Much has the character of friendship. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, for example, has all the marks of an ancient friendship letter. It’s filled with affectionate language, the kind that is appropriate between close friends: “I hold you in my heart” (Php. 1:7); “I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ” (Php. 1:8); “my brothers, whom I love and long for” (Php. 4:1); and so on.
In the little epistle of 3 John, the beloved disciple who leaned against Christ at the Last Supper concludes with a warm greeting: “I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. Peace be to you. The friends greet you. Greet the friends, each by name” (3 Jn. 1:13–15). While I have major theological disagreements with the Quakers, they are right to conclude that the church is a religious society of friends.
The church is many great and noble things: “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9). But it’s also a community of friends. We need to raise our view of the church without forgetting that we are a flock of Christ’s “little ones” (Mt. 10:42), struggling through life together. We need one another’s friendship and support. We were not created to be alone (Gen. 2:18). God wants us to find meaningful social interaction in the church.
We were not created to be alone; God wants us to find meaningful social interaction in the church.
Christians are not superhuman. No matter how closely we walk with God, we need friends, and we should be able to find them in our local churches. This is crucial for assimilating converts. In his article on “New Believer Retention: Keeping that Little Lamb From Re-Escaping the Fold,” Joey Ratcliff’s very first point for retaining new believers is to “replace their sinner friends with Christian friends.” He writes,
In Mark 10:29-30, Jesus promised a hundredfold replacement of family and friends for anyone who left theirs to follow Him. That’s an incredible promise, but here is the scary part: He left that promise for us to fulfill! When a sinner leaves behind sinful influences and chooses to identify with God’s people, they make a life-altering commitment. Our commitment to them needs to be just as strong. When our commitment is not sufficient to fill their need for spiritual and social support, loneliness can drive them back to the people who “were always there for them.”
There never stops being a time when friendship is important for the Christian. I recently spoke with a man in his 80s who thanked me for befriending older believers: “Sometimes people don’t realize how lonely people are who have been around the church all their lives.”
Pastors Need Friends, Too
The worst advice that I’ve ever heard given to pastors is that “pastors can’t really be friends with their congregation.” If I believed that, I think I’d quit. I’m human too. I need friends. My wife needs friends. We all do. And if I can only look outside my local church, my immediate (Christian) family, for friends, that’s sad.
The worst advice that I’ve ever heard given to pastors is that “pastors can’t really be friends with their congregation.”
Sure, there are some things that church leaders can’t share with their congregants. Pastors need to use wisdom and discretion. But I don’t feel that I’ve ever seriously overstepped these bounds, and it’s never kept me from having real friends in the congregations I’ve pastored. In fact, when I get calls from my congregants, one of my favorite greetings is, “Hello my friend, how are you today?” And I really mean it.
Augustine said, “For you I am a bishop, with you, after all, I am a Christian.” Shepherds need to remember that they are sheep, too. Pastors should be as authentic and down-to-earth as they are respectable and dignified. They need to be friends with their people, and true friendship is about mutually giving and receiving, ministering and being ministered to.
I remember a time when I needed to go for a walk to clear my head, but didn’t feel like being alone. So I called up a brother from our church and asked if he wanted to walk with me. We hiked through the woods and he ended up teaching me how to fish. Discipleship happened that day, since friends talk about the important stuff, but that wasn’t the primary reason why I reached out to him. I called because he’s my friend.
More recently, my wife and I decided to go out to eat. Sometimes we like to go out to eat as a family, but other times we like to invite our friends. Our first instinct was to invite a couple from our church. Again, discipleship happened at the dinner table, but we didn’t reach out to them with a ministry agenda. We invited them simply because they are our friends.
In a world where most friendships go no deeper than being Facebook friends, the church should be a place where deep friendships are built.
Finally, a new convert whom I baptized at Easter has become my fast friend. We’ve done a lot of Bible study, but we’ve also just talked about life by the campfire and sat around playing chess and Catan. I told him that I was glad to have him as a friend. He said, “I really appreciate that you view me as a friend. I need a friend.”
Being a Friend
In a world where most friendships go no deeper than being Facebook friends, the church should be a place where deep friendships are built. Because the foundation for Christian friendship is a shared love for Jesus, the Friend of Sinners, Christians can be true friends to one another across generational, ethnic, gender (with reasonable caution), and social barriers.
True friends sincerely care about one another. True friends eat meals together and meet one another’s needs. True friends spend time together and share life together. Like Jesus, who did not call his disciples servants but friends (Jn. 15:15), let’s be a true friend to others in the body. Invite someone over for a meal this week. Open up your home and your life to others. Be authentic and vulnerable, and you may be surprised how quickly others reciprocate. Friendship is an essential ministry of the local body of Christ.
Read also: “Is Loneliness a Symptom of Self-Isolation? Common Ways People Hurt Themselves Spiritually” by David Fry