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In search of spiritual friendship

Rick Warren once argued that relationships, especially friendships, are the glue that hold churches together. Many people will begin attending a church because of the pastor, worship style or a particular ministry, but they will stay because they develop friends. In the Christian Reformed denomination, elders are charged with “the spiritual well being of God’s people. They must provide true preaching and teaching, regular celebration of the sacraments and faithful counsel and discipline. And they must promote fellowship and hospitality among believers” (CRC form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons).

If this form has it right, then fellowship, hospitality and even friendship are essential elements of healthy Christian spirituality and church life. Moreover, it is the responsibility of the leadership to promote these. Is it possible that this is a neglected area? One wonders how many times a year church leaders evaluate this area of church life. These are not things leaders can create or coerce people into, but they can create the contexts in which friendships can grow. Here are some suggestions to get started.

Each church should have regular social events where people can freely mingle. Committees and ministry teams should spend time in personal interaction when they meet. Meetings should begin with people checking in with each other. It is a mistake to focus only on getting through the agenda while ignoring the people around the table. People need to know each other’s joys and sorrows and how God has been active in their lives. When members are invested in each other they work better together; they are more willing to listen to one another.

Recently CC had a lengthy article on small groups, certainly a setting in which friendships can blossom (“Organic church” by Tom Baird, Dec. 28, 2015). Friendships are also forged during short-term mission trips and in retreat settings. If you are planning a retreat, by the way, don’t necessarily think about sitting around in a room talking. Consider instead a weekend camping trip with planned spiritual elements and team building exercises. Be creative.

Both anchor and buoy

Regardless of how it happens, relationship-building needs to lead to friendship. In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis wrote, “To the ancients, friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.” If Lewis saw that half a century ago, it’s probably much worse today. Technology is complicating this matter. Young people spend hours together at school and then spend the evening texting those same people. That has the potential for good friendship. Many adults, however, text Facebook friends but they have no time to meet them face to face. That does not have potential for friend development. Technology can be helpful but face to face interaction will likely remain superior.

Hidden in the bowels of church history is a practice called “spiritual friendship.” These start with the simple premise that Christians want to become mature in Christ. Christian maturation is by definition a communal activity. When we engage in spiritual friendships, we give a trusted friend permission to probe our inner spirits and motivations in order to help us mature.

In Ephesians 4 & 5 and Colossians 3 Paul writes about Christians maturing, concluding that they are to “speak to one another” and “to teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.” One of the reasons that Christians may have neglected this discipline is the old clergy/laity divide. We erroneously believe that only pastors and maybe elders can really give any spiritual guidance.

“We might not feel qualified to show up. I know I never have and probably
never will. But God uses those of us who aren’t qualified so that he’s glorified.”

Jill Lynn Buteyn in Just Show Up: The Dance of Walking through Suffering Together.

Spiritual friendship is not about a connection between two already-perfect friends (see the quote from Just Show Up above). Rather, it’s about imperfect people slogging through life and serving as both anchor and buoy to each other, reaching towards God together. They can coax each other along the spiritual path, nudge each other to face a daunting spiritual challenge, lift each other up during struggles or maybe even pull each other back when veering off course. Spiritual friends keep one another in God, growing in God and finding fulfillment in God.

Entering such relationships is difficult and potentially dangerous, thus Paul reminds Christians to be wise. Wise people pursue relationships in which safety and confidentiality are of utmost importance. Wise church leaders promote an atmosphere in which members become friends and develop spiritual friendships.

For more in this series on church health, see “Qualities essential for pastors today” and “Grace-filled living can overcome conflict in the church.”

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