I have a lot of church acquaintances.
They know who I am and how I’m doing, for the most part. They keep up to date on big events in my life. We know the names of each other’s spouses and children. And I keep them on the Christmas card list, naturally. But they’re acquaintances: largely casual relationships that require little engagement.
That’s not unusual for me, but I feel sometimes like it ought to be. I’ve attended four churches over the course of my life and been an involved and longtime member of three (the fourth we only started attending about a year or so ago). In spite of that, I can count the number of deep and meaningful church friendships I’ve had on one hand.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m a big believer that real, enduring friendship is rare and to be treasured, and my inner introvert doesn’t really desire the maintenance and emotional energy that an enormous cloud of soul-deep friends might require.
Still, I’ve noticed that an awful lot of people have trouble making friends in church. New members of a congregation can gather acquaintances by the dozens, but even after years I’ve witnessed some believers struggle to find enduring, authentic friendships in God’s house. Over time, I’ve learned that there are five factors that determine the structure of godly friendships. Where one or more of these is absent, acquaintance-ships tend to reign over anything much deeper. Here they are:
1. Openness. In many churches I’ve attended, I walked in with the sense that all the vital friendships had already been formed. Around me existed networks of people and cliques that had deep roots and a long history. Whether you’re a new member or you’ve attended a church for a long time, you might have the same sense that entrenched history means people aren’t really interested in finding new friends. For new friendships to form in a church, both longtime members with friend groups and new members without must be open to the idea of making new connections and inviting others in.
2. Common ground. Yes, we all share a Savior. But the best Christian friends I’ve ever had were the ones with whom I also shared other things: an educational background, interests, a hobby or an activity, shared philosophies, a sense of humor, values and approaches to life. You don’t have to – or want to – find your perfect twin, but sometimes the easiest path to an enduring friendship is to find someone with whom you share something in common beyond an affection for Jesus.
3. Willingness to go deep. Conversations. Talk. Questions. Struggles. Friendships are defined by depth: by the sharing of things both large and small. It’s no surprise that my two closest Christian friends are also the two people I’m closest to in life: my mother and my husband. I have a history with them; they’ve shared in my struggles, I’ve asked them hard questions, we’ve gnawed on Scripture and spiritual questions together. If acquaintances are puddles, real friendships are oceans. And any enduring friendship requires a willingness from both partners at times to go beneath the surface, to have real conversations, to share struggles, questions, and dreams.
4. Trust. It’s an old joke that your true friends know where the bodies are buried. Hopefully, as Christians, we don’t have this issue – nevertheless, trust is important. Knowing that your thoughts and feelings are held in confidence matters. Nothing kills a friendship faster than malice, gossip, or backbiting. Having a friend means knowing that you have a vault: someone you can trust implicitly.
5. Flexibility. I once had to let a friendship go because my friend didn’t feel connected to me unless we talked on the phone two hours a day, every day. I couldn’t manage it, and found myself wishing that she’d be a little more flexible for poor lil’ introvert me. By the same token, I regret that I was less flexible with some friendships that I had in the past: despite being an introvert, I could have made the effort to call more, or to go out every now and again. Friendships is all about flexibility and giving a little to get a little. No, you don’t have to change who you are, but being able to bend every now and again to accommodate someone else is worth a lot.
When these five fundamentals are present, godly and meaningful friendships can grow. When they’re absent, believers tend to fall into acquaintance-ville. Neither is inherently bad. My Christian acquaintances are lovely people all. They pray for me, and I for them; we keep up with each other; we care about each other. But one of God’s gifts is the sort of enduring friendship that can exist between believers, and it serves to complement the presence of acquaintances in life – we would all do well to keep an eye out for it and be open to it when the time comes.