When I first started going to the small group, it was mainly because one of my good friends was already going for a while and convinced me to. He and the preacher were already good friends at the time. I was familiar with the preacher as I’d met him some years before, but to say that we were friends at that time wouldn’t be accurate. After a few weeks, I would hang out with my friend, the preacher and the preacher’s wife after the meetings, usually to have a late dinner. They seemed really friendly and the more I went to the small group, the friendlier they seemed. Then something odd happened. I realized that as I became of more “use” to the preacher and his ministry, our “friendship” grew, while the relationship between the preacher and my friend (who first invited me to the small group) steadily diminished. Now it could be that because my friend got the opportunity to go to University in another country, which he was trying to do for some time, contributed to the decline of his friendship with the preacher, but I saw something similar happen again some years later:
It was the day before my daughter was born, following a service. The preacher and I went with some others folks from (what had now become a small) church, to a fast food restaurant nearby. The preacher and I saw another mutual friend and his brother who also used to attend the small group (before I even started). They came over and talked with us for a while and while they did, the preacher spoke with a smile and conducted himself with a kind of familiarity towards the brothers, seeming to demonstrate a close relationship with them. Not long after, they left where we were sitting so that they could order their food, no longer being within earshot of us. Then the preacher said something to me:
“When I think of the amount of time and effort invested in them… WASTED…”
What the preacher was basically saying, was that because the brothers were no longer a part of the church, the time and effort he “invested” into his friendship with them was all wasted.
I was surprised by this because it meant that to the preacher, “friendship” really meant “co-worker” or “employee”. I remember asking myself that day, “If I was no longer part of this church, I wonder what would happen to my friendships?” Well, I found out when I did leave the church the following year. To be honest by that time, I wasn’t really surprised to find that most of these “friendships” weren’t friendships at all.
This is a common false ideal that exists in many congregations today. They suggest that your “legitimate” friendships are the ones with the other people inside the congregation, or only with Christians, because you are all “the same”, interested in doing the same things for the same reasons, or at the same times, leaving the remaining relationships outside of the group, as being much less legitimate.
Can you see a problem with this? It’s highly conditional upon your commitment to the common goals. This is nothing more than a task based friendship which by its design, exists under the threat that when one party is no longer committed to the goal, or the task is complete, the friendship may be as well. Manipulative leaders in churches love to create and feed these kinds of relationships because they are able to do more than simply leverage friendships in order to accomplish a goal; they actually use the friendship itself as the leverage. This can be an incredibly useful tool should one wish to motivate a group of people to work toward a common goal or get on board with a particular idea.
Unfortunately, like any ideal that is established and performed by leaders in a group, it starts to become an accepted standard that others begin to also operate in. Soon enough, these task based relationships become the norm throughout the congregation.
The truth is healthy friendships are not meant to be based simply on the existence of common goals. Sure we can say that part of our friendships are based on some common interests that we share, but the truth is that good strong friendships that stand up to time and strain, seldom require both persons be driven to do the same things together. Some of my oldest and strongest friendships are with people who don’t believe the same things that I do. If anything, these friendships have proven that if there is at least one prerequisite for a good friendship, it’s the need for there to be respect for the differences between us. Remember, Proverbs 17: “A friend loves at all times…”