Are the people you go to church with your friends or do you have to go somewhere else for that?
I was reading this morning about friendship. Actually I was reading about church. Okay both. I was reading in the book of Acts about how Peter and John were put on trial for preaching the gospel. After the authorities threatened and released them I read something that surprised and challenged me. Read this:
“When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them.” (Acts 4:43 e.s.v.)
What struck me was that the text didn’t say, “they went to their church” but “they went to their friends.” Now of course it was their church, but Luke, the writer used the word, “Friends” to describe the church. Peter and John were the Apostles, the leaders, but when they found themselves in trouble they saw the church as their friends. I was told in seminary, “You can’t be friends with your congregation.” Tell that to the Apostles. In the early days of this fledgling church, they saw themselves as friends. Perhaps I read to much into one verse. But the point is still valid. If any place ought to be considered a haven for friendship, it’s the church. But is it?
Who are your friends? As a pastor my calling is to help initiate friendships between God and people and to help people live in true friendship with each other. I know. I know. If I was truly spiritual I would use words like fellowship and community. But sometimes you just have to kick off your theological shoes, sit back and get real. I think we church folk use words like the aforementioned, as a covering. We want a sanctified way to meet a basic need that all human beings have and that is the need for friendship. We think we have to use religious jargon or it’s not of God. Funny creatures we are. The fact is God made us for friendship. The first thing God ever said was “not good” was for humans to be alone. News flash, he didn’t create eve, just so Adam could have sex and populate the earth. He made her for friendship. Abraham’s faith resulted in him being called “the friend of God.” Jesus himself said to his disciples, “I have called you friends.” Whew! Now that I’ve given a Biblical precedent, we sanctimonious folk can give it a rest and talk about being friends without feeling unspiritual. That’s important these days because in our society we have traded in friendship for a screen. We actually think a friend is something you add to a Facebook. It’s more of a status symbol than a relationship. Some of the loneliest people in the world have over 1000 friends in social media. Is a friend really someone you stuff away in a data base ? Is a friend just a name and a photo that you can unfriend the moment they become inconvenient. Despite our addiction to social media we are becoming the loneliest culture in history. Don’t believe me? Just go on your Facebook and count the number of people who have posted something like this: “I know no one reads my page so here’s a test…..” In other words, “I’m lonely! Somebody please validate me.”
You would think that in the church, where we love to say, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” That we would be all about friendship. But sometimes we’re not. As I said earlier, we use safe words, like “Fellowship” and “Community” which once meant deep connection and friendship, but now just mean a church activity to help us get more people. The only problem is that when we get them in we quickly push them into their own corner of the church and go looking for another one. Our goal is to fill an empty building, but what good is a full building with empty occupants? Is the church meant to be a group of strangers who have no real connection to each other beyond a common set of beliefs? I’ve been a pastor for about 25 years or so and after extensive personal research I have concluded that one of the loneliest places in America is the local church. In our desire to become relevant we have become shallow. In our desire to become progressive we have become apathetic. We know how to be tolerant, but we don’t have a clue about how to love our neighbor. In our desire to affirm individuality we have forgotten how to stand together. We corral a group of people into one place, teach them to repeat a well crafted prayer, and recite a cool mission statement, then send them home alone, hoping they come back next week for another round of fellowship. The fact is we’re all afraid to be true friends. Why? Because unlike shallow fellowships and surface tolerance, true friendship hurts. It struggles. It sometimes bleeds on the floor making a mess of the church carpet. We’ve forgotten that our Lord showed us the kind of friendship he called us to when he said to his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Let me ask you again: Who are your friends? I don’t want to know who you added to Facebook last week. I want to know who has your back? Who calls you late a night to make sure you arrived home safe from along drive? Who sits beside you in the emergency room? Who do you hang out with because you just want to ? Who loves you even when you act like a complete jerk and do something really stupid. Are those people in your church or do you have to go somewhere else to find that?
I was told in Seminary, “You can’t be friends with your church members.” Then I was told as a parent, “You can’t be friends with your children.” Then I was told as a teacher, “You can’t be friends with your students.” I understand the rationale behind these statements, though I don’t completely agree with them. But sometimes, as a pastor, teacher, and parent I want to scream out,”who the heck can I be friends with?” I need more than names on a screen. I need connection. I need to know there is someone out there, in addition to God, who sees me for who I am and loves me anyway. I need to know there is someone out there who lays down their life for me, and allows me to do the same for them. I need somebody who can pray with me, cry with me, laugh at me, and even confront me when necessary. I don’t need polite, hyper spiritual platitudes from plastic saints. I need someone who can fail, and who can see me fail and help me get it back together. I need friends in church and outside the church, real ones who wont unfriend me when I become inconvenient.
I think the church in America will experience true renewal when we stop being hyper-tolerant social zombies hiding in our cell phones and start being real live human beings who lay down our lives daily for each other the way Jesus showed us when he walked this earth. I have an assignment for you today. Make a list of your true friends, only do it this way, don’t ask yourself who is a friend to you, i.e. who is laying down their life for you, but who’s friend are you? Make a list of people you are giving yourself to help and encourage, especially in your church. Who are you a friend to ?