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.