After a welcome banquet for new students, the two of us sat beside a fountain and chatted about our shared backgrounds.
Among the mostly white student body, we’d noticed that we were both multi-racial. From there, we discovered that we were both theater girls, having even played some of the same roles before. We loved books and beauty, and we were in the same honors program. We both took our faith seriously. Amid the excitement of so many shared passions, I met one of my best friends.
In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis defines friendship as the moment when two people realize a shared love. Over time, this kind of instant connection evolves into something more. A friendship based on mutual interest turns into the chance to shape and sharpen each other’s interests. You grow and change because of the other person.
It’s this transformational nature of friendship that makes it a significant part of our lives as Christians. God uses friendship not just to change us, but to make us like him. Dallas Willard states in The Divine Conspiracy that making people like Christ consists in “bringing people to believe with their whole being the information they already have as a result of their initial confidence in Jesus.” Friendships are where we live out the information we know to be true, where what we believe turns into what we do. As Christians we are called to love our neighbors. In friendship, the belief “I should love my neighbor” becomes more than just a concept. It’s sitting with a friend when she is mourning a breakup, or celebrating a new job.
When friends share a deep desire to grow to be like Christ, then these friendships transform and refine our virtue. I am more like God because of that college friend made over 10 years ago. No wonder so many churches focus on small group ministry. This structure, now a mainstay in evangelical congregations, builds relationships among members and serves as an effective form of discipleship. Christian researcher Ed Stetzer regularly blogs on how small group involvement correlates with higher levels of spiritual practices like prayer, Bible-reading, and forgiveness.
I know in my life, Christian virtue is more alive in me because of the encouragement and community of good friends. Some of those friendships were found in small groups… but many of them were not.
In our good desire to foster healthy community and friendship within our church, we can create unnecessarily distinctions between our relationships through small groups and our everyday friendships. We may see small groups as merely “church friends,” as people we discuss the Bible with and nothing else. Or, we may see small groups as hugely significant, as holding an exclusive reign on your discipleship and development. If the latter reason is true, we may feel guilty when failing to participate in a church small group.