In defence of acquaintances and casual friendship for community

For many years, I remembering bemoaning the fact that I didn’t feel I had many friends. No doubt some of you think, what a shocker! It seemed to me that others had lots of friends (or, at least, they said they did) whereas I felt I had very few if any. But over the years, it became apparent to me that we were often speaking at cross purposes. What I defined as a real friend, others simply had a much broader view of what the word ‘friendship’ actually meant to whom it applied.

It seems to me that one of the marks of maturity is growing in your sense of what true friendship really is. We don’t necessarily need deep and intense friendships for us to reckon people to be real friends. There are lots of different ways we can have friendships with people and, though they aren’t all the same, they are all valuable and are all rightly recognised to be real friendships.

Robin Dunbar, an English anthropologist, posited the social brain hypothesis. In it, he argued the average person can only cope with 150 meaningful contacts, 500 acquaintances and 1500 people you can recognise. He suggests you are likely to have close loved ones, 15 good friends and 50 friends nesting within your 150 meaningful contacts. Whether Dunbar’s number (the name for the 150 meaningful contacts hypothesis) is right or not is up for discussion. No doubt different people will have a greater or lesser number that likely works for them. But I think the principle behind the suggestion is probably right. We are only able to cope with a certain level of social interaction.

Alongside that, the New Scientist recently reported that little social interactions were significant for our health. I have never been much of one for small talk, but I can see how just a short chat whilst you’re out and about can really boost your day. It may seem like nothing in the grand scheme of things, a short chat with a shopkeeper or a brief chat over the garden fence with your neighbour, but these all make a significant difference to our overall mental wellbeing. The context of the New Scientist article was in relation to the issues that lock down is causing in respect to this. But as someone who, until taking up my current pastorate, seemed to be moving area every two years (on average), I can speak to the positive sense of rootedness and wellbeing that being known in a community, even if ultimately superficially, can have on you.

The reason I mention this is because I think it has real ramifications for how we view community in the local church. Community is one of those buzzwords that we’re all keen to stick in our church vision and values these days. It is certainly something that most people seem to be after. But trying to define exactly what community is can be like trying to nail jelly to the wall. Everybody seems to think they know what it is but nobody seems able to define it very helpfully and every church seems to have a distinct, and yet very different, sense of what it should look like even though they all claim to definitely be about it.

We have had people join our church because they liked the sound of ‘community’ at our place. But we’ve also found people leaving when the community on offer wasn’t the kind of community they were hoping for. Very often, people are looking for the kind of deep, intense, sometimes one-to-one relationships that we either can’t offer or actively want to avoid. But as I look at the Bible, there doesn’t seem to be such a focus on one-to-one ministry so much as communal things involving groups of people. That isn’t to say one-to-one is wrong – I don’t think I read that in my Bible either – just that it isn’t essential and (potentially) not preferable. In the light of current issues that have been front and centre in the evangelical world of late, some are beginning to see the potential problems with an expectation of one-to-one discipleship and intense friendships.

The point here isn’t to say that intense and deep friendships are wrong. I think we all need those. It is to say that we can’t all have exactly that with each other – that is neither realistic nor possible – and that less intense friendships and acquaintances aren’t less valuable, they are just different. I want to avoid calling them superficial because in these less intense relationships I have still had some incredibly deep and helpful conversations with my friends. But the friendship itself isn’t the kind of fulsome and (potentially) more intense friendship I might have with somebody else. It doesn’t make it less deep or less valuable, just different. And I think that’s okay. In fact, not only okay, but actively good and beneficial for us in altogether different ways.

I think this has real implications for how we view community in the church. Some people want deep relationships with every member of the church. Not only do I think that unrealistic if your church grows beyond a handful of people (c. 10 or more) but I think it can be actively damaging. People grow discontent when community, as they’ve come to understand it, isn’t present in the church when, in fact, there is perfectly decent community it just isn’t all-encompassing and intense. Such a setup, in my view, is ripe for abuse. All close friendships in the church make social pressure to conform much more significant. It is, at least from where I am sitting, what (in part) did for The Crowded House, Sheffield. An expectation of intense community and a view that fellowship was only genuine if it took that form.

One of the other, ongoing issues in the wider church is that I am not convinced we have ever got to grips with the fact that people are different. I am not convinced we’ve ever gotten to grips with introverts properly. Extroverts are sociable animals and much in the life of the church is built for people like this. I have lost count of the times I have heard people lauded as so beneficial to the church merely because their personality lent itself to certain aspects of church life. There was no recognition that others of a different personality type might be incredibly valuable in other areas of church life too. Introversion is typically deemed a problem to be overcome rather than a type that can bless the church. That isn’t to say, as a friend of mine is fond of pointing out, a personality test is a get-out-of-the-ministry-and-commands-of-Jesus-I-don’t-like-free card. But, I think, it is to say that we shouldn’t squash people’s personalities simply to fit in with the way we have decided when the Lord might not have particularly commanded it. As I have noted a number of times on this blog, we are very quick to go beyond the commands of scripture and start making our ideas of what is best compulsory and binding on all. We don’t like Christian freedom too much and don’t always trust the sovereignty of God in the personalities and people that he gives us, instead wishing for all those that we don’t have instead.

When it comes to community, trying to force people who are not social animals into a particular form of community is not often helpful. Equally, trying to squeeze extroverted socialisers into a particular form of community that will quench their personality is rarely a good idea either. One of the funny things about community – and I think typically where we go wrong – is that the moment we try to artificially create it, we almost always tend to kill it. Community is at its best when we allow our people – with their different personalities and gifts – figure out for themselves the best way fulfil the one another commands of scripture. There is more than one way to bear one another’s burdens, or to love one another with brotherly affection, or whatever. We would do well, rather than forcing our vision of community onto everybody, to open our eyes to the different ways people might be showing love to us and discovering that, though we might like to see other things, there is friendship and community there after all.

But one of the ways we foster community is by allowing people to express themselves according to their own personalities, backgrounds and culture. If we insist on conformity, we are likely to end up crushing community. If we try to create community artificially, through meetings and gatherings, we may not really create it either. But when we simply allow people the room to cultivate and foster friendships, some will be intense and deep and other won’t. Some will be friendly acquaintances and others will be best pals. When we stop trying to force everybody into the same mould and seek to create community according to how we see it, we might start to find community is fostered as people are given the freedom to be themselves, love one another and open their eyes to the ways that others, albeit in very different ways, might be loving on them too.