The difference between spiritual friendship and friendly conversation

Today, I give this space to Rev. Christopher Goss, who serves on our team at Mosaic as the Pastor of Worship Arts, Youth, and Young Adults. I can personally attest to Chris’s passion and pursuit of spiritual friendship. His words here are good wisdom for group and ministry leaders about the challenge to “go deep.”

A while back I saw a cute, satirical video called “Shallow Small Group.” It was a group of people gathered in someone’s home for what looked like a typical suburban church small group. As you would expect, the conversation was not very deep and there seemed to be a much greater focus on the presence of the cheese dip than the presence of the Lord. The tagline of the video is “Shallow Small Group, because when people go too deep they drown.” 

As a student and young adult pastor, I have been given the privilege of helping many young and mostly single people develop community in the church. I frequently think about the question, “What should make friendships in the church different and deeper than any other friendships?” Although there are many “right” answers to this question, the most fundamental answer must be that spiritual friendships are friendships that are, in the words of Paul, “in Christ.” 

This might be obvious, but it’s worth stating that spiritual friendships, in a Christian context, will most deeply flourish between Spirit-filled people. What seems to often go overlooked, however, is how developing your personal spiritual life gives you the opportunity to develop an incredibly rich social, spiritual life. Knowing that, how do we so often miss it?

Far too often we use what could be called an “external use of scripture.” For example, imagine you and I are in a small group that is doing a study on the Book of Romans. I skim through the study just enough to discuss what the author wrote.  Then I show up and make comments about what Paul actually meant by the word “predestination.” I like discussing theology so I would personally enjoy this conversation. If I’m not careful, however, I could learn a lot about predestination and virtually nothing about your personal spiritual life. Furthermore, by talking about “predestination” I could keep you from knowing much about my spiritual life. Worst of all, I could actually use a theological conversation to keep you from knowing that I truthfully don’t have much of a personal spiritual life. Is this spiritual friendship or a book study with some intellectual stimulation?

After our study, we might hang around and socialize a bit, but now its cool to talk about “whatever.” I’m from Georgia, so talking about “whatever” means its time to talk about UGA football. Suddenly I discover that I have a “connection” with some of the guys in the room that I did not have before. Please understand that I love football and enjoy a good conversation about the Dawgs, but this is not spiritual friendship. At this moment, I am having the same type of conversation in church that I could just as easily be having at a sports bar. 

(Not so) Side note: Tim Keller says, “Idols aren’t necessarily bad things. They can be good things that we make into ultimate things.” An idol is whatever we look to, other than God, to provide a sense of love, joy, peace, and fulfillment in our lives. What is almost always true, however, is that I will either get my sense of love, joy, peace, and fulfillment from God or I will inevitably search for it in another direction. That means I will either seek after God or I will seek after idols. There is no “neutral” gear in the spiritual life. 

What does that have to do with spiritual friendship? I might tell you, “I wish I had more time to spend in the word and in prayer.” But what I won’t tell you is that I would have that time if I spent less time on my ESPN app. Or that our conversation about the Dawgs might simply be encouraging our mutual idolatry. This unfortunately builds a friendship more rooted in a particular idolatry than “in Christ.” It is deceptive; because it happens in a church context it passes for “Christian fellowship” while sadly missing the mark of true discipleship. Does that mean we ought never talk about football at church? Nope. Just that I can spend a lot of time deflecting so I don’t have to confront my shallow faith or faltering disciplines. In other words, more time on cheese dip than the presence of the Lord.

So how does one build true spiritual friendships that give us the powerful intimacy for which we so deeply long? Here are a few thoughts:

Friendships that are “in Christ” are rooted in solid theology. That’s right, good friendships need good theology. Biblical friendship flows from the cross of Christ. That first and foremost proclaims we are all sinners in need of a savior. Biblical friendship believes “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and therefore it is ok to be honest about the fact that I am not ok. We need a theology that says conviction is a good thing because where there is no conviction there is no sanctification … that I’m still on the road to Christian perfection, but I am made right through the righteousness of Christ alone.

Mature, spiritual friendships are rooted in a theology that says we are beloved children of God. To be a child of God means we primarily get our spiritual “life” — love, joy, peace, and fulfillment — from God our Father. That means I am responsible for seeking out life-giving encounters with God — encounters that throughout church history have most reliably come through searching the scriptures and spending time in prayer. These encounters create a rich personal spiritual life that now make it possible to have an incredibly rich social spiritual life. 

Spiritual friendship requires a theology that says, “I’m not only saved from sin, I’m saved to a body of believers.” Like organs in the physical body, we are responsible for receiving life and then sending it on to others. We encourage our young adults to BYOSL (bring your own spiritual life). Bringing your own spiritual life means we seek God on our own and then share the fruits of that seeking with the community. We must be aware, however, that if we are not receiving our life from God, it is possible we are instead passing on the toxicity of our idolatry to those around us. 

By God’s grace, I pray you will build spiritual friendships, where you fearlessly talk about both your need for God’s redemptive grace and how God is powerfully providing that grace through the “means of grace.” As you bring your own spiritual life to your small group I believe you will have conversations that will be deep, intimate, and mature, and that will encourage you and others to grow in the art of holiness.  

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Six ways to breed sanity into your life

That strain we feel — like we’re walking against the tide — has an explanation. We are all trying to get back to the other side of Genesis 3. We are all straining toward our created design.

On the other side of the fall line, relationships are transparent, we serve one another well, and dysfunction is not even in the vocabulary. So we will recognize that glorious world when we get to it, what if we were to practice a little Genesis 2 living now?

Here are a few ideas:

Stop being polite.

If you want to release some sanity into your life (and into the lives of those around you), stop being polite and start speaking from a deeper place of love and prophetic imagination. As southern as I am, I’m pretty convinced that southern politeness is not a feature of holy living. I’m not talking about common courtesy, or even the kind of patience that endures rude people in a store. I’m talking about the difference between the kind of politeness that works against deep love. Deep love will always lead us toward truth; southern politeness will often lead us away from it.

When we learn to be both gracious and honest with one another, we stifle the enemy’s options for control. When we learn to speak prophetically into each other’s lives (honestly, hopefully, spiritually), we release the Holy Spirit to move and create both transformation and trust. Surely this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Whatever you release on earth will be released in heaven …”

Don’t tolerate crazy.

Think about how it would impact your relationships if you refused to keep tolerating other people’s crazy. You’d stop letting people cancel on you at the last minute. You’d have no tolerance at all for passive aggression (which I believe is straight from the enemy of our soul). You’d expect people to honor your time as you honor theirs. You wouldn’t let folks chronically complain about situations without challenging them to move forward. And when others are letting “crazy” make their decisions, you wouldn’t let southern politeness rob them of your deep concern for them. Doesn’t that sound like a much more sane way to live?

Hear me on this: Care what happens to other people. Care deeply. Let your heart be broken for other people. But don’t tolerate crazy. Genuine, mature compassion will always cause us to care enough about a person’s sin that we’re motivated not to let them stay there. Love without accountability is a socially accepted form of abuse that malforms people spiritually.

Stop making excuses.

Paul the Apostle announced more than once that he was focused on the future. He’d say, “Forgetting what is behind (I strain) toward what is ahead …” That is a great mental posture to take toward life. “Forgetting what lies behind” is refusing regret a voice in our life. “Straining toward what is ahead” is putting processes in place that allow room for new habits. Straining toward what is ahead is deciding that what we thought was inconceivable is actually doable so we set goals, then we get accountability so we can stay with those goals.

Accountability is committing to transformation. After all, Jesus didn’t come into his ministry saying, “Talk about your junk and believe, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” He said, “Repent and believe.” In other words, own your junk and move on.

Decide not to be lazy. 

I don’t know who said it first, but I like this: “Discipline is choosing between what I want now and what I want most.” The answer to that inner wrestling between what we want now and what we want most is best answered with discipline. As Kevin Watson says, “Some things need to be predictable.” If what I want most requires a change in my life and a commitment to daily discipline, then I have some choices to make and the first choice may be to stop being lazy.

Stop having good ideas.

Disciplines are for people who have too many distractions, so here’s my wisdom for myself and anyone else who fits this category: stop chasing good ideas and start pursuing disciplines. Disciplines keep us from distractions that aren’t meant for us, while chasing every good idea will only keep us in mental chaos and rob us of rest.

Get yourself an external hard drive.

If you want to breed more sanity into your life, find someone who will speak prophetically (which means, “honestly, hopefully, and spiritually”) into your life. To grow spiritually, you need someone external to yourself who will not be polite, who will not tolerate your crazy, who will not ignore your lazy, who will challenge your bottomless capacity for good ideas, and who will tell you what is sane and moral and biblical.

So here’s the real point to this whole post: To breed sanity is to be disciplined, and to be disciplined is to be in community. My friends, this is how we get back to the other side of Genesis 3. We learn to lean into each other in community and we get serious about serving one other from a loving, honest, holy place.

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The courage to shift care

I had the pleasure some time back of being with about 1300 college students for two sessions on healing. Their morning chapel service was a requirement so I didn’t expect folks to respond in any great number. I was thinking we’d prime the pump in the morning, but that those who showed up for the evening service would be the ones who really entered into the opportunity for healing.

I was wrong.shifting-care2

Something like a hundred people responded in the morning session. Another fifty or sixty were seen in pairs all around the room, praying for each other. The incredible thing about it for me was that all those college students came forward, fell to their knees and then began ministering to each other.

They weren’t looking for an adult or a professional to do their praying for them. They didn’t ask me, the chaplain or any other adult to do what they could do for themselves. They just needed space and an invitation to care for each other.

It was beautiful. And biblical.

Carey Nieuwhof talks about having courage to shift care. It is the principle of Exodus 18, where Jethro confronts Moses about trying to do everything himself. He says (my loose interpretation), “You’re going to kill yourself by leading this way. You need to appoint others to care for the people, so that your strength is reserved for leadership-level decisions.”

When the church professionalizes spiritual care to the point that we make “regular” people feel powerless to care for one another, we have absolutely failed to be the church. Calling it “pastoral care” reveals the core of the problem. Pastoral care is what pastors do; “people care” is what communities do.

Nieuwhof says, “Even Jesus adopted the model of group care, moving his large group of hundreds of  disciples into groups of seventy, twelve, three, and then one. Group-based care isn’t just practical, it’s biblical.”

And it is most definitely Methodist. This was the foundation of Wesley’s structure. Wesley’s model of discipleship was rooted in a system of groups; in fact he didn’t let you come to worship if you weren’t in a group.*

Groups are what it means to be Methodist because sanctification is what it means to be Methodist.

The gift of it for the faith community is that it spreads out the responsibility of spiritual friendship. This is our vision at Mosaic. It is for relationships to be 360-degree relationships. Not just person to pastor or person to group leader, but person to person to person to person, building a web of friendships that build a strong community.

In our tribe, that’s how it is done. Any other formula only leads to burn-out and a poor imitation of what church is meant to be.

* See this article, especially the quote by Kevin Watson. http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/hows-your-spiritual-life-the-class-meeting-for-today

See also Watson’s exceptional book: The Class Meeting.

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