Friendship is the most important of all human relationships, but we barely ever speak about it in Church. If we want to thrive as disciples, flourish as leaders and show the world around us what the Kingdom of God really looks like, we need a better understanding of what it means to be friends, says Phil Knox
Someone recently asked me what an evangelical was. My response was this: “We are good news people in a bad news world.” And my news feed is the bleakest it has been for most of my lifetime. We have lurched from a global pandemic into a cost of living crisis, the threat of world war, the death of a monarch and political turmoil. The need for good news people has rarely been greater.
But we cannot do so alone.
In the middle of the myriad of messes facing our world there exists a dangerous set of narratives, none more potent than individualism; the have-it-your-way, search-inside-yourself-for-meaning, be-true-to-yourself-at-all-costs record on repeat in society, culture, media and occasionally, the Church.
There is no other record of a first Century rabbi ever calling his disciples friends
Our obsession with self may not be responsible for all the challenges that our world faces, but it dramatically amplifies them. In many of the battles we face, we do so isolated, and vulnerable.
In bad shape
According to recent research, one in three men say they have no close friends.
40 per cent of 16-24 year olds say they always or often feel lonely.
This means that millions of people have no one to call when they receive great news, no one to talk to about important things and no one to cry out to when a devastating storm arrives on the shores of life.
Loneliness is seriously bad for our health. Studies consistently show that social isolation has terrible consequences for our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Even if you eat badly, do no exercise and neglect other areas of your physical health, but have good friends, you will live longer than someone who is socially isolated. (For the record, I am not suggesting your physical health is unimportant. Our bodies are temples and need looking after!)
It really is better to eat kebabs with friends than salad on your own. Or as the Bible puts it: “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).
But I promised you at the outset of this piece that I was a good news person. So I want to declare to our fragile and fractured world that God has provided an antidote to our alienation; the beautiful and incomparable gift of friendship.
Let’s talk about friends
My deep encouragement to the Church is that we need to talk about friendship more. It is the most significant, yet least discussed, preached on or read about relationship in the Church. As I have been researching this area over the last few years, only a handful of Christians have ever heard a talk or listened to a podcast on the subject. There are over 10,000 books with the word “leadership” in the title, but only a fraction contain the word “friendship”.
Yet friendship it is at the heart of God’s plan for us. From Genesis to Revelation, we discover game-changing relationships throughout the story of God: Naomi had Ruth, David had Jonathan, Elijah had Elisha, Paul had Timothy.
And in John 15, Jesus makes the scandalous statement: “I have called you friends.” There is no other record of a first Century rabbi ever calling his disciples friends, let alone going on to lay his life down for them. Friendship is truly at the heart of the Christian gospel.
And we need it more than ever.
Room to grow
We need it for discipleship. We cannot follow Jesus alone. The Church needs deep, authentic relationships so that we might thrive as Christians.
We need it for unity. What would it look like for us to be friends with one another despite our disagreements, as a witness to the fractured world around us?
We need it for our leaders. Leaders who are isolated are more likely to struggle, burn out and fall. Leaders who are surrounded with friends can thrive, fight discouragement more easily and last the course, serving the Church and flourishing where God has placed them.
It really is better to eat kebabs with friends than salad on your own
And we need it for evangelism. The most significant factor in someone becoming a Christian is friendship. We don’t become friends with people in order to convert them, but we recognise that, through this connection, the kingdom grows exponentially.
So would you join me in championing friendship in our churches? Would you talk about it, put it at the heart of your strategic plans, and invest in your own relational connections?
I am not the perfect friend. I make mistakes and fresh connections in equal measure. But I am convinced that God is calling us to more authentic, intentional, sacrificial, deeper, grittier friendships.
There is room for all of us to grow in this area. Will you be my friend on the journey? It is not good for us to be alone.
Phil Knox’s latest book, The Best of Friends (IVP) is out now