Every church believes itself to be a welcoming and friendly fellowship, but this isn’t always true. If our churches are to become spiritual communities where faithful friendship is expressed, we need to move beyond merely welcoming newcomers and one another. We must deepen our understanding of friendship to appreciate its role in our personal lives and how friendship informs the internal life and outreach ministry of a church in the twenty-first century. We must consider how we can open our friendship circles so that new people may explore Christian discipleship.
Discipleship is a spiritual journey that requires trust, vulnerability, and a willingness to share one’s heart, mind, and soul with others. Accordingly, close friends of like faith make excellent accountability partners and discipleship group members.
Many of us have visited churches where the relationships between members are so strong that they seem to have no time or inclination to reach out and make new friends when other people visit. The members of the church will say their church is very friendly, and indeed, that is what they experience — because the friendship circles of the members are dense and the ties are strong. What they do not realize is that strangers are not easily invited to enter into the relational closeness of the members, so visitors experience the church as closed, cold, and uninviting. Visitors are given the message that they are not welcome to join, and even if they do, they may not be admitted into the friendship webs of the longtime members. In such churches, evangelism is very difficult indeed!
Generally speaking, discipleship thrives in a group that exhibits high friendship density and strong ties. Jesus and the twelve disciples are a case in point. Discipleship is a spiritual journey that requires trust, vulnerability, and a willingness to share one’s heart, mind, and soul with others. Accordingly, close friends of like faith make excellent accountability partners and discipleship group members.
In contrast, “low density” churches have members whose friendship ties are weak. The people in these congregations tend to have many friendships with people who are not yet a part of the church, and may have friendships with only a few people within the church. Weak ties are characteristics both of new churches and of churches that are growing rapidly.
Churches with low density and weak ties often find it easier to evangelize and reach new people for Christ, but may have difficulties in encouraging people to join small groups devoted to discipleship and spiritual growth. The level of trust between church members may not be high enough to form groups where authentic self-revelation takes place. They are strangers to one another even though they worship together. In such churches, retention of members can become a problem; there may be an inflow of new people coming in the front door, while others silently leave through the back.
Sociologist Mark Granovetter observes that ideas spread to new groups of people through weak ties rather than strong ones. At first, that may sound counterintuitive. And it’s true that if I wish to influence my own group to adopt a new idea, leveraging my strong ties will quickly spread the message throughout the high-density group. However, few people outside the group may be influenced. In contrast, if I can convince a friend with weaker ties to my own circle of friendship to share my idea with her or his friends, my idea will spread rapidly to people I previously had no contact with! Accordingly, strong ties aid discipleship but frustrate evangelism, while weak ties further evangelism but may have little immediate impact on discipleship.
Jesus’ discipleship group succeeds because it is a high density group with strong ties between its members. However there are not many instances in the Gospels where that group is described as seeking to expand its size! When Jesus wants to spread the word about the kingdom of God, he achieves success by leveraging weak ties. The woman at the well quickly and effectively spreads Jesus’ ideas to her own village (John 4:28-30, 39-42) — without having attended a single class on evangelism! Jesus heals a man with leprosy, then sternly orders him not to talk about it before going to the priests, and the man promptly disobeys Jesus and spreads the news all over the town (Mark 1:40-45) — a fine example of viral marketing in the first century.
In each new friendship, you will have the privilege of listening to and learning about another person’s life and journey. If you approach others with authenticity and integrity, they will be attracted to you and will desire to know what is important to you. This is when sharing Christ is a natural response. If you have been a good friend, others might just listen with an open heart and mind, and welcome your witness.
This article is excerpted Lee’s book, Making Friends, Making Disciples: Growing Your Church through Authentic Relationships, copyright © 2010 by Judson Press. Used by permission of Judson Press, 800-4-JUDSON, www.judsonpress.com.