Dear James (4), Friendship and True Community

Dear James,

I’m glad to hear that you made that visit to your pastor. You mention that he felt a little cold and distant, but that after a while he began to “open up a little” although “he didn’t share all that much.” That’s a good enough beginning, though, isn’t it? I think ministers, despite their work with people, are a pretty lonely group—in fact, we’re probably lonely precisely because of our work with people. It is so easy to become externalized, to live for one’s own image, and to live for other people’s expectations. When you think about it, it’s really the same process we talked about in that last letter, only personal. It is entirely possible for a pastor to outsource his own faith—in the cause of his congregation, their needs, their lives, this ministry—and in the process lose touch with his own. I’ve been taught before that pastors shouldn’t seek friendship with their congregants—something about the need to stay separated and objective. I’m more and more inclined to disagree—pastors need friends, and especially friends from among their own fellowships. Wasn’t Jesus ministering to the disciples even as they grew to become his friends? All that to say, wouldn’t you say that your pastor is at least worth a second visit? It might do both him, and you, some real good—besides, perhaps there is a friendship in store for you both.

I don’t know that anyone has really wrestled fully with what it means to be a community of friends together. We’ve got an idea of “church,” and the language of “community” is very buzzy lately, but what would it look like to live in a community defined by committed, spiritual friends? And even if we are able to agree on what that would look like, how do you move people into that position? How do you guide an existing community—gathered around bingo nights, Sunday worship, a weekly prayer meeting, and whatnot else—and lead them into the kind of authentic, lived faith that we see between Jesus, the disciples, and the early church? At times the challenge seems insurmountable.

Maybe we’ll get some help if we consider how friendships are formed. It seems to me that friends come from three different sources. We often build friendships around shared experiences—the people who lived on our block growing up, or the people with whom we attended school, or even siblings. The wealth of shared experience becomes the seed-bed for friendship. Another source of friendship is common activities—a hiking club, or a parent’s group for children in the same school. Here the activity binds first, and the friendship grows on the side. A third source is a shared interest—we are both interested in the same thing, and our common interest becomes the basis for friendship. When C.S. Lewis as a child met his friend Arthur Greeves for the first time, Arthur had a copy of Norse myths on his bedside table. Lewis and he were instantly friends because they both shared a love of the same things.

When it comes to the Church, it seems to me that we can go wrong in building our community when we rely too much on the first two kinds of friendship. Shared experience is great, but it can create insiders and outsiders. If a church is full of people who grew up together, and their meals and fellowship consist of talking about the past and the latest gossip in the present, how will a guest find his way into that fellowship? What will be his bid into joining the community, when there is no way for him to share the “experience”? Activities are also important, but it creates the conditions where our faith can slip into the cause-based stuff we talked about last time. Are we a social club, or a church? Are we an activities group, or a fellowship? These kinds of things can also exclude some people who are hurting or unable to participate.

All that to say, it seems to me that the only real grounds on which to build the fellowship of the Church is a mutual commitment to Jesus. He is our shared interest, our shared focus. Actually, that might be a little misleading, because when we look at Jesus’ ministry life we see him speaking to his disciples at the end and calling them “Friends.” At that point, he is inviting them to share in Jesus’ vision of the Father’s mission. Not slaves, but co-workers—sharers in ministry. Likewise, our attention is on Jesus, so that we can come to see as Jesus sees, and grow into God’s mission.

If this is right, then friendship would be a hugely important part of ministry. My job as a minister of the gospel is to befriend the people of God, bring them into shared relationship with Jesus, and help them to see what God is doing in the world. Then, when we have that friendship, we’ll begin to participate in activities which come out from our friendship, and we will build shared experiences which bind us closer and closer together. But it all begins with Jesus, and is only maintained by Jesus.

Will this be hard work to accomplish? Doubtless. Will there be obstacles? Certainly. Even right now, in your own fellowship, there are divisions and struggles on the horizon. You must ask yourself, “How can I build friendships with some of my fellow church members?” Be selective, of course, but not exclusive. Your commitment is not to exclude people who don’t fit in, but to come together around your attention to Jesus. The people who don’t fit, and don’t want to fit, will self-select that option in time—not because you made them feel uncomfortable! In time, you will certainly begin to experience a new strength to your own spiritual life, and you just might possibly begin to change the character of your own church as well.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios


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