Upon reading the description of friendship as a type of love in “The Four Loves” by C.S. Lewis, I began to reflect on the relationships that I have built over time and the unique type of love that I have for every single one of my friends that differs from any love I have ever given or received. I also began to think about the ministry that has been woven into these friendships- the five hour long calls, the silent “I’ll always be here for you” while watching the flames of a fire consume the last of a pile of wood, the hugs and the tears (from both sides). The prayers that have been lifted up for me and that I have lifted up for my friends are too numerous to count and the amount of advice I’ve received and given seems endless.
Each one of these relationships were built from the ground up. They were not always this easy, deep or meaningful. What used to be hard work, awkward silences and arguments, has now turned to slowly established trust and love. Friendship is a ministry- a huge one. But I fear that too many churches and groups have micromanaged existing friendships and created a business plan for building relationships.
The phrase “building relationships” even has an odd an unfitting definition nowadays. The first definition that I have seen in most college campus and church ministries is a horizontal type of building.
Make as many friends as you can! Meet new people! Establish connections in every possible avenue- Jesus was all about meeting new people!
Now as exaggerated as that may seem- this is what ministry has become and I have seen hundreds and hundreds of diagrams, maps, flowcharts and checklists all describing in different ways how to build relationships.
The second, and more fitting definition is a vertical type of building.
Build up relationships. Deepen the connections you have and make them meaningful. If you make new relationships- invest in them.
The first definition may have a segment somewhere in the detailed flowchart about making the relationships meaningful, but the emphasis is skewed greatly toward expansion. When I picture the horizontal version of building relationships, I imagine an extensive housing development. All of the houses are on the smaller side (one to two stories) and they all pretty much look the same.
When I picture the vertical definition of building relationships I imagine a few skyscrapers in a city. Each one looks different and has multiple stories (pun intended-prepare yourself for more).
The problem with the first picture is that you are left with a bunch of superficial friendships that you can’t go to the next level in because you’re focus is always horizontal. I can’t see how this model for ministry much benefits you or the kingdom of God. Superficial relationships (in my opinion) are harder work- you haven’t learned how much of yourself you can disclose with the other person so there is this need to “put on a good face”, you’re also not sure of their sense of humor, sensitivity or struggles. The other person feels this “superficial strain” as well so there are less meaningful conversations and more safe small talk.
But, on the other hand, when you have a few great friendships where that strain has eased then it is easy for me to see the benefits for both you and the other person. The friendship is extremely enjoyable for you because it no longer feels like work and you can (usually) talk freely with that person about Christ even if that person is not a Christian because you are on a deeper level. There are now multiple stories that contribute to this friendship. Put simply- trust has been established.
I’m sure there are counterarguments that could be discussed. The one that automatically comes to mind is that the person will make a few deep connections and never venture outwards to make new friendships, and while there are dangers to that I would argue (in short) that this is a separate issue entirely that has less to do with strategies for ministry and more to do with the type of lazy Christianity that fails recognize the great commission.
I also realize that this second, vertical model of building relationships could also be perverted and micromanaged into another five thousand flowcharts. Please, DO NOT DO THIS and do not think that this is my ultimate goal. Just like skyscrapers, friendships are unique and beautiful works of art. They cannot be watered down to a simple recipe even if there are a few common ingredients. The circumstances differ, the timing differs, the personalities and various other factors vary from one to the next.
In conclusion, let us not go forward thinking how we may expand our networks, but rather how we can deepen them. Let us fall in love with our friends and their many quirks. Let us reflect on the stories that connect us to one another and have our hearts open for new stories to be written with new unique characters in them.