When was the last time you heard a sermon about friendship?
Most churches have regular teaching on marriage and dating. Not to mention a good deal to say on parenting, family, work and community. But have you ever noticed that we put friendship way down the priority list?
It’s almost as though we think it’s too childish for us to tackle. You’ll hear about it in Sunday School and youth group, and then we think we’ve got it covered for life. As Kevin DeYoung said once:
“Friendship is the most important, least talked about relationship in the church.”
Only recently has it struck me how strange this is. Friendships are important regardless of our age or stage; and yet we don’t discuss how to navigate these, or why they’re important. We talk in general terms about “community”, “discipleship” and “spurring each other on” as a church, but we don’t seem to tackle friendship head on.
As I think about it more, the church could become so much stronger if it talked more about friendship. Here’s why I think so.
We need to be reminded how our friendships impact us
Friends make our lives happier, but we don’t always stop and think about their significance for how we grow and change.
If you read Proverbs, you’ll see a snapshot of how important friendships are. Our companions can help us get wiser (Proverbs Chapter 13, verse 20), support us in tough times (Proverbs Chapter 17,verse 17) and give us honesty that’s caring (Proverbs Chapter 27, verses 5-6). But we need to choose them carefully, or we can become more like them than we should (Proverbs Chapter 12, verse 26). Equally, good friends can help us hit new heights, since “as iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend” (Proverbs Chapter 27, verse 17).
Actually, we are told more than once in Proverbs that friendships have the power to build us up or tear us down. Friendship is an important place to show Christ to others, whether they’re Christian or not. It’s also a place where we let our hair down, which can bring out our best (having honest conversations, celebrating wins in life) or our worst (toxic dependency, falling to peer pressure). How we conduct our friendships is part of our whole life ministry, not just what we do to blow off steam when we’re not busy.
CS Lewis commented that “in modern Christian writings… I see few of the old warnings about … the Choice of Friends,” and he’s still right. We don’t need to over-spiritualise our friendship life, but equally, I wonder if we stop to think about it much at all.
We’re confused about the practicalities of friendship
Even when we do think about it, friendship is confusing to many Christians.
Like anyone, Christians can have rocky periods with friends, and this is the time when the confusion emerges.
We ask ourselves if we have too many Christian friends, or too many non-Christian ones. We ask whether it’s ever okay to cut off a toxic friendship (aren’t we supposed to love people regardless?). We want to know how we love our friends even if our friends vehemently oppose our faith. We want to know how to stick by a friend even when it hurts or we disagree with their choices.
Married Christians wring their hands about whether they can be friends with the opposite sex. Mentors or small group leaders want to know what discipleship and friendship look like, and how do you negotiate a grey area between the two.
A friend of mine told me about how she thought she had made a new older Christian friend, only to discover that this person didn’t think of it as a friendship, but as a mentorship. After a while, the mentorship ended, the relationship was over, and my friend felt terrible.
If we don’t understand friendship, the capacity to damage relationships is huge, and yet we don’t seem to realise it until it happens.
Just as we think about what we want out of romantic relationships ahead of being in one, we can encourage each other to think about friendships in a proactive way. How much better would we be when things get tough!
We forget that marriage isn’t the only relationship we should pursue
Talking about friendship also acknowledges that there are important adult relationships that aren’t marriage.
Churches put a lot of emphasis on marriage and dating in their teaching. They’re not necessarily wrong: the majority of people will be married in their congregation, or will be married one day. But what ends up happening is that pursuing other relationships – like friendship – never ends up on anyone’s radar, whether they’re married or not.
As one writer commented:
What’s the average church-goer’s greater perceived felt need if he or she is single? Friendship or dating? Dating. What about the perceived felt need of the married couple? Improving friendships or improving their marriage? Marriage.
When you look at the Bible, you see a bigger picture. You realise that friendship is a theme through books like Proverbs, and that “two are better than one” may be quoted at weddings but says nothing about romance.
You realise that friendships changed the lives of people like David and Jonathan, or Elijah and Elisha, or (!)Jesus and his disciples. You realise that Jesus calls us his “friends” that he laid his life down for. You realise that singleness is praised, that being unmarried doesn’t have to mean you simply failed to find someone.
Not everyone gets married. Everyone needs deep, healthy friendships.
So I’d love to see friendship elevated, because it’s biblical and it’s important. Single people need to hear that God cares about their relationships – whether those relationships are romantic or platonic.
Married people need to hear that they shouldn’t depend only on their partner for their friendship needs, that they’re strengthened by their networks.
And that’s not even mentioning how important this can be for the number of other Christians who aren’t in a romantic relationship. Think of the person who’s chosen to live celibate. The LGBTI person who is working out their sexuality. The widow. The single missionary. The divorcee. The minister who’s decided singleness will help him pursue God better.
It doesn’t take much – it can be as simple as starting a conversation with our church friends. Take a moment to think about how your friends have helped your life. Track how friendship appears in the Bible. Start up a conversation with your small group about what friendship gives us, whether we’re married or not.
Such an important part of the human experience shouldn’t be forgotten in Christian thought.
Cheryl McGrath is a communications professional with a background in editing and publishing. She works as a copywriter and lives in Melbourne.
You can follow her blog on Christian issues, creativity and culture at Twenty-Six Letters.
Cheryl McGrath's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/cheryl-mcgrath.html.