Most Christians search for friendships at church. This is because as human beings, we are relational creatures who need some form of human connection. Therefore a great Sunday worship experience is almost never enough for a Christian to grow in faith. They need to develop relationships with people in the community.
I mean who wants to keep attending a church where nobody knows who you are? Who wants to keep exiting the church vicinity without engaging in any type of conversation? Even the most introverted believer would have a difficult time maintaining this type of church involvement. We crave relationships.
This is why Christians search for friendships at church. You see, friends are people you can find commonality and compatibility with. They're individuals whom you can relax with and be yourself. They're the type of people you can talk to after worship and grab a boba together. Christians think if they could just find 2-3 people like this, they'd be set at church.
And that's why when Christians happen to find such friends, they often don't feel the need to meet anyone else. Why join a community group? Why attend a fellowship event? Why try to meet other people at church? "I already have my friends."
But one thing I'm realizing is this: Friendships are never enough. Christians who only have a few friends at church will end up slowly struggling in their faith. That's because we're supposed to find more than just friends at church - we're supposed to find community
The Benefits and Limitations of Church Friendships
Friendships are nice to have at church because they make us feel comfortable. Think back to high school or college when you would walk into a new classroom. You tend to feel a bit self-conscious in this new environment filled with unfamiliar faces. However, when you'd see one of your friends sitting back in the corner, the self-consciousness goes away and you're able to relax and be yourself. Why so? Well, you now have somebody who knows you and validates who you are.
This is what friendships do for us at church. They make us feel more comfortable on Sundays because we now have a few individuals who know us and can validate us. Therefore we're able to relax and be ourselves. Speaking from personal experience, it's a huge blessing to have friends at church. It's nice to know that when service ends, you don't have to sit awkwardly in the pews waiting for someone to greet you. It's nice to have "go-to" people to do small talk and discuss latest new movie.
But as great as friendships are at church, they're not enough. And I don't think they were meant to be enough. Perhaps this is why the Bible never describes the church as a "band of friends." That's because the church isn't meant to be a place where you primarily find comfort in one another. It's meant to be an arena where God sanctifies you through the practice of the biblical "one another's." As author Brett McCracken writes, "We shouldn't look for a church that will change to fit us. We should look for one where we will be changed to better represent Christ."
But in order for this to happen, we need more than friendships at church. We need a community. And this involves more than simply talking to the same 2-3 individuals every Sunday.
What Community Provides That Friendships Can't
I'm not saying individual friendships at church don't sanctify us. They certainly can. But there's something different about having a community - a diverse group at church whom you aren't necessarily compatible with but still constantly share life together. When you find a community like this, there are a couple of things that happen to you.
1) You Grow Out of Your Self-Absorption
In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis observes how the reason why we choose our friends isn't because we're drawn to their humor or beauty. Rather, they have a "particular kind" of humor and beauty that suits our personal taste. In other words, when it comes to human relationships, we have a particular type of palette. This is why we're drawn to some individuals and repulsed by others.
But we all have a few people in our lives whom we were at first repulsed by but later grew strangely fond of them. According to Lewis, when you find yourself doing this, you're learning to grow out of your palette. You're not just appreciating individuals that suit your preferences but are learning to appreciate the individual himself. In other words, you're growing out of your self-absorption. This can't happen with the same 2-3 friends but only occurs in a community.
2) You Become More Open-Minded
One thing I notice about people at church who only hang out with the same 2-3 people is how they tend to be pretty pessimistic about life. It's strange. You'd think since they surround themselves with people they like, they'd be a little more happy. But just try engage in a conversation with a cliquish group like this and you'll sense a negative aura around them.
Why does this happen? Social psychologists call this "attitude polarization," which takes place when individuals only spend time with people who are similar to them. What eventually happens is that they feel convinced that their way of viewing the world is the correct way. So over time, their attitudes toward different ideas and people become more and more negative. But in a community, you're constantly forced to confront all types of ideas and personalities.
3) You Experience a Refreshing Diversity of Gifts
As an introverted, middle-aged man who likes to stay home, there's a part of me that wants to only hang out at home with a small group of introverted, middle-aged men. But what's interesting is that while I'm definitely most comfortable in these types of settings, I feel most alive when I'm spending time with a more diverse set of people.
There's a more interesting dynamic when girls are mixed into the group. It's fun when the extroverts propose a wild idea to do something adventurous. And it's refreshing when you consistently spend time with people in different stages of life. While it's not always comfortable being with different types of people, you can only experience the body of Christ like this through a diverse community at church (1 Cor 12:12-30) .
4) We Make the Gospel More Central in Our Lives
When the only types relationships you have at church are due to natural similarities, there's nothing really unique about that. I mean, why bother going to church for this? There are plenty city leagues, night clubs and even online apps where you can find these types of relationships. But the relationships we find at church are supposed to be different. We're not united because of personality or hobby. We're united because of the gospel (Eph 2:13-14).
But the centrality of the Gospel isn't seen when we only hang out with friends at church that we'd hang out with in any other setting. As pastor Jamie Dunlop writes, it's seen in the "relationships where you're only spending time together because you're Christians without any worldly explanations." And when the gospel is constantly central in your relationships with others, how can it not becomr more central in your own life? When it's reinforced in such a practical way like this, how can the gospel not grow more real?
If all you have are a few friends at church, then you're probably missing something. In fact, I can guess that your faith isn't as strong as it should be and your involvement at church isn't as active as it needs to be. That's because as great as friendships are at church, they aren't enough. God gave you a church so that you can have more than friends. He wants you to have a community.
And here's the thing about being part of a community: it's hard. You're interacting with people who are so different and unappealing and even weird. At some point, you'll likely be bickering and fighting with one of them. You may come home sometimes after spending time with them and wondering, "Was that really worth it?"
But it always is. I think more than the friendships we have at church, God intends to use a community to grow us out of our old selves and grow into our new identity we're meant to have in Christ. That's because there are things that only a rich, diverse community can change in us.
And that's why people who only have friends at church are likely comfortable on Sundays but are hardly growing in faith. We need a community for this.