“Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods. Certainly to me it is the chief happiness of life. If I had to give a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I should say, ‘sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends.” (C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 2)
A few days ago I wrote that there is a serious disconnect in the way that most Reformed churches live, between the idea of the church as a living body and place of mutual care, and the reality of spread-out people who have difficulty sharing with and encouraging each other honestly as we struggle to be faithful to Christ. I talked about some of the consequences I see flowing from that and also identified what I think is the simple cause of much of our dysfunction: we don’t see each other very much – don’t get a lot of face time.
I want to suggest now some ways around this lack of face time. In a culture where living 20+ minutes’s drive from one another is normal for friends, family, and church members, how do we live? What will we decide to do? Now, I understand that people are busy – often really busy. And pursuing these things takes time; time you might not be willing to give up. But as with so many things (education, exercise, financial planning), investments now pay off dividends later. In fact, not just later but eternally : “Godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come,” (1 Timothy 4:8). Here are some things to think about as we pursue being better Christian friends:
Pick up the phone. Did you know that your phone is capable of instant voice messaging? Not just newer models – the old ones too! For some of us talking on the phone with people who don’t live on the other side of the country feels like a throwback to high school. But I encourage you: try it. As you get used to it, you will find it really rewarding. Call people in your church – see how they’re doing! It is practically free and involves no drive time. Try doing this once a week for a month and see how it goes. Here’s the flipside: if someone from church calls you, pick up the phone if at all possible. But not while you’re driving: I don’t want to do your funeral sooner than I have to.
Just don’t allow distance to be a barrier. I won’t put too fine a point on this. If you live somewhere where you have to drive 20 minutes to get groceries, you should be willing to jump in the car and drive 20 minutes to see friends from church, all the time. Otherwise you are in danger of using distance like the rich in some cities use high walls – to keep people (even your fellow Christians) at a distance.
Quantity time is better than quality time. Not every visit with a friend has to be for intentional, well-planned “activities”. We’re friends, not kindergarten students. Time playing a game, mocking a movie on TV, sitting around and doing nothing but chatting together is priceless. A while back, parenting experts talked a lot about “quality time”. Since then, many have done a 180 and now emphasize “quantity time” instead. Both are important, but I think there should be a bias in favor of quantity. If you have lots of time together, good time together tends to happen.
“Fellowship” should be both leisure time and serious time. Kind of goes with the last point. Lots of unplanned time together with friends is good. But some of our time together should be planned and intentional. Giving our attention to the Word and prayer, to singing some psalms and seriously discussing the gospel makes our friendships fundamentally different from those around us. At the center of our relationships as Christians is the cross of Christ – it is common attention to the gospel that makes us a people, not just individuals. So: Bible studies and times of prayer!
Don’t be a New Englander: just drop in. When I was in seminary Esther and I had a good friend (a classmate of mine) who was a single guy from North Florida. He frequently did something that flummoxed both Esther (raised near Boston) and me (from upstate New York): he just showed up at the door. To visit. Without a purpose. He was a great guy, so we didn’t mind, but we were clearly confused by this behavior, till he patiently explained that in the South, this is not unusual. People just show up at each other’s houses, to say hi and visit for a bit.
Clearly, this is not the way people operate in New England. Back in Pawtucket, many people got rid of their sidewalks (they had the choice by city law) and didn’t have working front doorbells – if I know you, you’ll come to the side door, and if I don’t know you, I don’t want you coming here! Add to this a nationwide “play date” culture, where unstructured play time for kids is out and parents are too protective to let the youngsters wander around the neighborhood, in and out of the neighbors’ houses like they used to. What if we had a culture of just dropping in on each other, at least inside the church? Given the distance we frequently deal with, you might not want to make special trips all the time (“Uh, sorry, it’s not a good time – my grandma just died and the kids all have a stomach flu.” “But we drove 25 minutes to see you!”). But if you’re in the neighborhood, is it crazy to drop in on each other?
Maybe a good path is as follows. First, be ready for people to drop in any ol’ time. Doesn’t mean the house is in perfect shape. Does mean that everyone has clothing on. Second, tell people that they should feel free to drop in any time. They might not be bold enough to just try it, but if you tell them to, they might. Third, be ready to say no when you really can’t visit. People are legitimately afraid of imposing. If half the time they show up, you say you can’t visit, they’ll know that you’re being honest the other half the time, when you say, “Come on in!” Going along with that, make your visits short unless your host insists. So much for “Dropping In 101”.
Go places where you feel uncomfortable. Just what it sounds like. If the South Side or Central Falls makes you uncomfortable, make a point of driving through them sometimes, and take opportunities to meet people or do business there. If Barrington seems like the other side of the moon to you, go get ice cream there. We serve the King of the earth, and we need to be ready to go wherever he calls us, and trust him to guard our lives and souls. Be honest about your “comfort zone” and make it bigger.
Don’t just help, ask for help. This is another tough one for New Englanders. This is a place where independence, achievement, merit are prized – where small towns stand on their own and refuse to admit the existence of bigger cities nearby (“Are you from Providence?” “No! I’m from Johnston.”) And while people here are incredibly loyal and would do anything to help a friend in need, they also dread asking others for help. It feels weak and lowly; it can be humbling! But do you understand that when you ask for help, you are telling the people you ask that they are important to you? That they are needed? The best times together are often the ones where we tackle a problem side by side – whether it’s your problem or mine.
Eat together. Self-explanatory. My church (at least) can cook and I am grateful whenever anyone feeds me and my family. Have people over on Sundays and weekdays. PB&J if necessary – just do it!
Pray for each other by name. Also self-explanatory. Make a little list of people in your church. If you’re in my church, it really is a little list. Pray for one or two households or individuals a day and you’ll cover the whole church in a few weeks. Doesn’t have to be long, but this is part of how we care for each other, and something we promise to do when someone joins the church. Furthermore, the act of praying for someone changes you: first, by bringing someone to mind that you might not otherwise be thinking about; second, by causing you to put a little effort into thinking about what happiness and a good life would look like for them. I’m telling you, you will change for the better.
Bible study should always touch on praise and repentance. I will get into this in another post – it’s that important. But briefly, Bible studies should not be mainly brain-enlarging exercises: the purpose (telos) of knowledge is obedience.
Finally, if all else fails, move. I hesitate to write this, but I have over the years seen a number of people buy a great house far from their churches and regret it. I am not bringing up the debate about what kind of community (city, suburb, countryside) is best to live in. I’m making the simple point that life far away from your church friends is a massive negative factor, whether you know it or not. It would be better to have a long commute but be close to people from church than vice versa. There is a strength and ability to mutually support one another that can’t be replaced by a great house with a great view. Be careful about where you buy, and hold on loosely to your property. Always be asking whether you are in the best place you can be to serve the Lord and love his people. I would add that this sensitivity to location is extra important for pastors. Churches where people seldom see each other are fragile; churches where people have everyday contact are much stronger.
In case you think I’m making all of this up, I’ll close with a quotation from the Form of Presbyterian Church Government, a 17th century document adopted by the Church of Scotland at the same time as the Westminster Confession:
The ordinary way of dividing Christians into distinct congregations, and most expedient for edification, is by the respective bounds of their dwellings.
First, Because they who dwell together, being bound to all kind of moral duties one to another, have the better opportunity thereby to discharge them; which moral tie is perpetual; for Christ came not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it.
Secondly, The communion of saints must be so ordered, as may stand with the most convenient use of the ordinances, and discharge of moral duties, without respect of persons.
Thirdly, The pastor and people must so nearly cohabit together, as that they may mutually perform their duties each to other with most conveniency.