The Complexities of Christian Friendship and Fellowship

On the one hand, it seems easy – instinctual, even – for Christians to become friends with one another.

Most of us already have a faith and sets of values in common; many of us share life experiences, like motherhood or professional lives, too.  On top of that, the spaces in which many believers meet each other and get to know each other – like small groups and Bible studies – foster a sort of immediate intimacy.  Since Christianity fosters a service-minded attitude, we’re also often doing for each other, too: bringing casseroles, offering prayer.

For that reason, I think we often assume that the people we fellowship with – our fellow believers – are also our friends.  And why wouldn’t we assume that?  We see them often, we share meals with them, we know their families and their friends, we show up for their weddings and funerals.  We pray for them and talk about our spiritual struggles with them.

But Christian fellowship doesn’t always translate to Christian friendship, even when it should.

I learned this the hard way at a church where my husband and I grew very close to several of the families in our small group.  When I say close, I mean close: we were one of the first to see these families’ infant sons, we wept with them through the death of parents and grandparents, and we kept in touch by phone, email, and in person.  We saw them more than we saw our own families and shared some of our greatest struggles with them.

Imagine my surprise when the small group naturally disbanded after a couple of years and we never heard from any of those families ever again.  I tried to keep in touch – by email, by phone – but the efforts just weren’t reciprocated.  Once, when I talked to one of the men from the group, he said wistfully, “It’d just be so much easier if you all were on Facebook.”  Because we weren’t, I came to understand, we weren’t worth the effort: the “friendship” ended when the fellowship did.

I experienced something similar when I met someone at my last church who was, for me at that time, my closest non-family friend.  We were introduced to each other by one of the small group ministers and grew close quickly, the sort of friends who had long meandering conversations about life and God and family.  We shared personal and professional interests and eventually our spouses became good friends, too.

Then, when my husband and I left the church to find another home congregation, you could hear the screeching of brakes.  Again, I reached out in as many ways as I could.  Again, next to nothing in return. We saw her recently by chance in a restaurant and it was like meeting a stranger; it had been two and a half years since we’d seen each other.  Just as before, the “friendship” ended when the fellowship did.

There aren’t only sad stories, of course.  At my home church where I grew up, fellowship is friendship.  Many of the congregants who worship together and fellowship together and serve together are also, more often than not, friends outside church.  And even when the church ties have disbanded, the friendship has remained.  I have a few particular friends with whom close ties remain regardless of the fact that we attend different churches and life has taken us in enormously different directions.  I am grateful for those.

But all of this makes me distinctly aware that the quick intimacy cultivated in a church setting, and often in church small groups, can be misleading.  It can feel like friendship – and often is, within the context of fellowship – but dissolves the minute that the fellowship does.  It is not based on the mutual bonds between people and their commitment to growing that bond, but to the bond they feel to the group.  Take the group away, and the bond disappears, too.

I imagine that for people in need of a friend – especially people new to a church, or new to Christianity in general – this can be deeply disheartening.  It also makes me conscious of how quickly we can enter into a false intimacy with people while really having no intimacy with them at all, and how tempting it can be to dismiss people who move outside the circle of our group or our congregation.  It’s tribalism at its worst, and we’d be wise to be wary of it: to be conscious of the intimacy that we cultivate, to understand our duty to people, to be careful that what we promise or imply we do not simply abandon once it becomes inconvenient.

Christian fellowship is inherently valuable for believers.  But if we’re not also cultivating friendship within that fellowship – or if we assume that fellowship is the same thing as friendship – I suspect we run the risk of losing people, relationships, and a lot of richness that might otherwise be in our grasp.  It’s smart for us to be intentional about the way we approach our relationships with others, even and especially in fellowship-heavy circumstances where a sense of intimacy is par for the course.  We can have both, but we’ll need to be mindful of how we go about it.

 

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8 thoughts on “The Complexities of Christian Friendship and Fellowship

  1. This is a very interesting post. I have found myself in the same situation. I recently took myself off Facebook, and in doing so, I have to take responsibility for the fact that my friends’ birthdays will not be spoon-fed to me. If I am to know what is going on in their world, I have to put in at least 50% of the effort. It isn’t easy when that effort isn’t reciprocated. I have found a similar dynamic at work. I spend a significant amount of time with colleagues, who over the years have become friends, but in the event someone retires or moves, the relationship definitely changes. Through no fault of anyone, just logistics. It makes me sad sometimes.

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    1. Yes, it’s a real shame. Facebook does seem to be a real part of the issue, at least where I’ve seen friendships fail: there’s this sort of assumption that everyone has Facebook and so “keeping in touch” has become “read what I am doing” (which really isn’t a fullness of friendship, either). And it does become SO much harder when you’re the one expending time and effort, but nothing is reciprocated in return. A shame all around!

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  2. I like it! Friendships can be what keep us afloat in moments when we feel like we are drowning. Check out my take on friendships on my blog titled, FRIENDS. Let me know what ya think!

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  3. Beautifully written. Thanks for sharing! If you’re ever looking to guest post, be sure to check out DailyPS.com. No pressure though. I just wanted to say great work and keep it up. 🙂

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  4. Missed this post. I so agree and have experienced similar. I am the one that tries to keep in touch and maintain the relationship, that I thought was genuine friendship. But when there is NO reciprocity whatsoever, it can not continue. It leaves me disheartened, and it has happened too many times over the years.
    And like you, I worry “Imagine that for people in need of a friend – especially people new to a church, or new to Christianity in general – this can be deeply disheartening.”
    For years, besides trying to maintain relationships, I have often been the one reaching out to that new or lonely person, drawing them in.And I now find myself at a point of life that I never imagined… I am that person that needs to be drawn in!
    I am middle-aged and find myself the most friendless I have ever been in my entire life. And after a lifetime of always being the one to reach out, I am tired. And unfortunately I know all to well that church people can be the worst at drawing people in and maintaining friendships. I am a bit cynical.
    I do have one friend that came into my life a couple years ago. She is it. I actually happened to find someone interested in reciprocal friendship, someone with time for friendship. A rarity. But I also don’t want to over-do it, presuming upon her, because, well she is my only true friend at this point.

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    1. Oh, that’s tough.

      But yes, I am there, too. A bit younger – we’re in our mid-thirties – but we struggle to make and to keep Christian friends. We’ve had better luck with work colleagues and other local folks, for some reason. It’s so strange – friendship within the church has been consistently difficult for us, and not for lack of will or want. I always grieve a bit over it.

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