This is worth repeating if you've heard me say it before: when we started New Summit Church in 1993, I made a significant mistake in the way I talked about friendship. In my eagerness to encourage people to participate, I would say something like, "You should try out a small group. You'll make new friends."
Well, you can imagine how that worked. Some people tried groups, and made friends, even lifelong friends. Others, of course, had different levels of experience. These don't make great marketing slogans, but I could have said these things as well:
"You should try a small group. People will annoy you."
"You should try a small group. People will attack your cherished assumptions and question your values."
So, what have I learned from my mistake? At least two things. First, Jesus wants us to be a part of intentional communities (like small groups) because they are vital to our spiritual formation. Spiritual formation happens when our lives are shaped in a number of ways, not all of which feel positive! Spiritual formation can happen through suffering, challenge, healthy disagreement, differences in personality, and mostly over the course of time.
The other big lesson for me was a lesson on friendship. The best friendships happen, not just when people try to make friends, but when people come together around a purpose:
"Loving is not just looking at each other, it's looking in the same direction."
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery
There is something about having a common goal and purpose that draws people together. When my focus is only on me, I'm likely to experience you through the lens of....well, ME. When my focus is on a goal, suddenly WE find ourselves side by side for a common cause. Our differences don't go away, but we see them in a larger context. Here's Eric Greitens, author of the book Resilience, on the subject:
"...the extent to which personal differences disrupt a team is inversely proportional to the importance people place on the mission. In other words, the more vital people consider a mission, the more they’ll learn to deal with people who rub them the wrong way. The less the mission matters, the more people care about being around those they like."
These days, I've changed my language about friendship. I still encourage people to participate in expressions of intentional community, but I try to be clear about the reasons. Jesus called us to community. We have a common mission. This is how God shapes us into the image of Jesus Christ. And, thankfully, we may still meet others who, over time and through many challenges, become friends.
By now, you're also making the connection with our immediate context. As our partnership between two congregations moves ahead, there will be days of challenge ahead. There will be decisions that seem odd, or even unpopular. Quite honestly, you probably won't like everything that is proposed. We'll expect feedback, conversation, and healthy debate that doesn't attack others but addresses the issues. But our path forward will NOT be centered on the idea that we always like each other, or always get our way. Our path forward will be centered on our commitment to a common vision and mission.
I believe that our best days as a single congregation (formerly two) are ahead of us. I believe some friendships will be forged in the days ahead. But friendship won't be the goal. Our greater purpose will be the goal, and our friendships, should they develop, will be a happy fringe benefit of our commitment to God's mission.