Friendship for the Christian is about far more than just enjoying shared experiences with peers who share similar interests. Community is—or at least should be—central in the life of the Christian. A life devoted to a relentless pursuit of Christlikeness and service to others should not be lived in isolation from like-minded brothers and sisters in Christ.
Dying to ourselves, as Christ calls us to do, is difficult and often demoralizing. We aren’t made to walk the narrow path alone.
The problem is, as we’ve just identified, the social internet can allure us with shadows of friendship and community that, while they can be genuine, usually don’t reach the depths that offline, embodied friendships reach. If you’re responsible for the discipleship of others, whether in your church, home, or community, what can you do to encourage Christian friendship that proves to be fertile soil for faithfulness?
1. Establish a culture of community that welcomes everyone.
Solving the “friendship” or “community” problem in your church is not going to be done with a sermon series on the importance of community or a Sunday school class on biblical friendship. Those would make for great building blocks in your effort to create a culture of community in your church, but those aren’t going to solve the problems you’re seeing here.
It is so important to not rush culture-making, especially with a matter such as friendship. What does it look like to establish a culture of community that welcomes everyone? An entire book could be written on this subject alone, but it could be summarized as requiring two ingredients: 1) time and 2) intentionality.
Do not believe the lie that this “friendship problem” can be solved with some sort of silver bullet. Unwinding people’s minds from the malformations of friendship that their relationship with the social internet has conditioned them to accept is going to take time. After all, this is how their misunderstandings of friendship have formed to begin with, right? By spending countless hours scrolling their phones and feeds. Every retweet on Twitter and new connection on LinkedIn has, over time, trained them to think of friendship as a means to an end rather than as a matter of eternal importance and a vital aspect of the Christian life. In the same way, it’s going to take thousands of little, seemingly inconsequential experiences in a real, healthy, embodied community to deprogram and reorient people toward a right understanding of gospel friendship.
Likewise, establishing a culture of friendship and community takes intentionality. This doesn’t just happen by accident. We’ll get into the details and specifics of this below in the second point, but generally speaking, intentionality matters because we aren’t going to stumble into spending time with others. Pastors likely understand this, but a lot of folks in your church probably don’t like spending time with other people. Whether because they’re introverted or antisocial or self-conscious, a lot of people prefer isolation. I understand this. As a hardcore introvert, I regularly experience seasons in which gathering with my community group—people I dearly love—feels more painful than refreshing. This common desire for isolation means that creating a culture of community requires intentionally reaching out to people. It’s going to mean not giving up on people who decide to skip out on community group or other social activities for petty reasons. Meal trains for new parents don’t organize themselves and people rarely move homes without some help. These important aspects of building community require intentionality.
My guess is that you recognize community and friendship problems in your church. But you know that your church members have no problem getting in discussions on Facebook or liking photos on Instagram. Getting the people in your church to put their phones down for a couple of hours and show up to a game night or pancake breakfast is going to sometimes feel excruciating, but you must do the work. Praying for God to work in hearts is important. Preaching on the importance of gospel friendship is important. But when it comes down to it, if you have any hope of stealing your people away from their feeds, you must pursue them intentionally, and maybe a bit aggressively, over a long period of time.
2. Create intentional, low-stakes social environments.
The temptation for pastors and church leaders on this point will be to immediately think of what kind of programs they can create. Traditional church programming like weekend women’s retreats or Saturday morning men’s breakfasts are great, but holding these events infrequently isn’t going to solve the community problems you’re seeing in your church.
Think about it this way: our “enemy,” if you will, is the reality that many Christians are attempting to find community and relationship through their addiction to social media platforms. This is a problem for several reasons that we listed above, but it is a problem that won’t be solved by programming because the pull to social media is ever-present. An hour or two of church programming every week cannot hold a candle to nearly three hours a day on social media, no matter how delicious the pancakes or compelling the preaching. This is why intentional, low-stakes social environments matter. What are those? They may be “church programs” in that they are organized by the church, but they aren’t events so much as informal gatherings. Let’s think of some examples of how a church can facilitate intentional, low-stakes social environments.
One example is the old school “coffee hour” that was a part of many churches, especially smaller ones, throughout the twentieth century and surely still is a part of many churches. If you aren’t aware, a church coffee hour is usually an hour before, after, or in between services in which church attenders may bring breakfast foods, coffees, or other items to eat and drink together, socializing for an hour or so as they attend church. My wife grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church, and I was introduced to coffee hour in that environment. I love old school church coffee hour. It’s great because it doesn’t feel forced. It doesn’t feel like an “event.” It’s not something someone has to make time in their Saturday to attend—it’s just attached to the Sunday service. It’s informal and casual. It creates a great environment for people to get to know each other and doesn’t ask much of the attendees. It is certainly a better environment than milling around in the sanctuary after service or awkwardly being told to greet your neighbor at the beginning of worship.
Another way a church may create intentional, low-stakes social environments would be to give some leaders—whether deacons, elders, community group leaders, or others—the responsibility of getting people together for socialization throughout the week. Imagine if your church had a Fellowship Team or something of the sort that was made up of people who are passionate about getting coffee with people, inviting friends over to watch football games, or doing other things with the intent to develop deeper relationships.
The Fellowship Team’s goal would be to get church people spending time with one another outside of the church as much as possible. A lot of people have trouble making friends today, especially young people who are just out of college and are maybe living in a new place. A Fellowship Team member could hear of two moms who stay home and parent all day while their husbands are at work. These two moms are feeling lonely, like their only friend is their toddler, but the Fellowship Team member introduces them and encourages them to take their kids to the park together or the like. This hypothetical Fellowship Team could be a group of networkers that facilitate community outside the walls of the church.
In a perfect world, you wouldn’t need a Fellowship Team, and what I described above would be the normal way your church members interact with each other. But often that isn’t the case, so it may require some intentionality, and a team of people committed to be networkers could help.
Those are just a couple of ideas—a coffee hour and a Fellowship Team—that you might implement to create intentional, low-stakes environments for community in your church. The goal here, again, is to push back against the idea that online community can somehow supplant embodied community. Programming alone won’t do that. You need a culture of community that seeps into the everyday lives of your church members to combat the hours of scrolling they do every day.
3. Tell good stories of great friendships.
This third and final point is very brief and very simple. While the problem of community is not going to be solved with a sermon series, what the pastor says and does from the pulpit does matter. The pulpit (and by extension, the stage) is the rudder of the church. If the pastor says something is important from the pulpit enough times, the church will see it as important. I don’t know who said it first, but I first heard Eric Geiger, pastor of Mariners Church in Irvine, California, say it when he was my boss at Lifeway Christian Resources years ago: “You cultivate what you celebrate.” How great would it be if church leaders celebrated stories of friendship and community within their churches from the platform during a Sunday morning service? Say your Fellowship Team connected those two lonely moms—have those two moms share their testimony of friendship and the importance of community before the sermon on a Sunday morning! Why not? A church cannot expect to cultivate a culture of community if it never celebrates the benefits of community from the pulpit. Sprinkling a testimony of friendship once a month or so into the Sunday order of service can be a helpful ingredient in our effort to create cultures of community that push back on the shallow connections church members attempt to find online.
This is an adapted excerpt from Chris’ book The Wolf in Their Pockets.