Friendship is one of those features of life that most of us experience and make assumptions about but rarely talk or think about in the abstract. Nevertheless, Western civilization has been entertaining a conversation about friendship since Aristotle began it 2,500 years ago. Modernity has made this conversation more important for us than ever. Mobility has increased, so people are living further from family networks and are seeking to create networks of friends to replace them. New communication technologies are redefining what a friend is in common parlance, with Facebook obviously being the prime example. What impact do these developments have on the drift of our friendships, on our happiness, and on our walk with God?
Lee Spitzer has added his voice to the ancient conversation in his book Making Friends, Making Disciples: Growing Your Church through Authentic Relationships, published by Judson Press (2010). My friend Lee has probably reflected more on friendship from a Christian perspective than any other living person, or at least more than any you're likely to come across. His book provides a welcome and fascinating window into a typically unexamined part of our lives.
The heart of Lee's meditation on friendship is an exercise that employs a deceptively simple diagram that he terms "Friendship Circles." The diagram assumes different levels of intimacy in our friendships with different people. By seriously asking, "Who are my friends?" and examining which we have shared more of ourselves with than others, we gain a fascinating view of our relational world. Like all good self-examination exercises, the data we put onto the page has been within us all along, but we are unable to recognize its import until we see it outside of ourselves.
Lee brings a wealth of insights out of the Friendship Circles exercise in connection with other research, such as the number of total friends (250) and close friends (20) a human is capable of having, the number of close friends belonging to the average American (10), and the number of friends necessary to stave off loneliness (8 to 12 close ones). He also makes forays into such provocative territory as the relationship between Facebook friends and actual friends, the unique qualities and risks of opposite-sex friendships, and who Jesus' friends were according to the Gospels.
The example of Jesus is interesting because of his dual nature. As a human, Jesus models good, healthy friendship patterns for us, and indeed most of Making Friends, Making Disciples has to do with how our friendship patterns might be made as beneficial as possible. But as God, Jesus also models how God has reconciled his enemies to himself to make us his friends, and even more interestingly how God has his own "Friendship Circles" in which some (Abraham, for example) are exceptionally close. This portion of Lee's investigation not only raises the question, "How close a friend am I to God?" but much more importantly, "How close a friend is God to me?"
Lee Spitzer is convinced that our friendships, actual and potential, are gifts that God has given us that can be submitted to and employed by him for his kingdom and glory. Properly understood, our friendships give clues to what God desires to do in, through, and around us. They form the substructure of all evangelism and discipleship, and a healthy, balanced web of friendships within a church is an essential ingredient for a healthy and faithful body. Making Friends, Making Disciples explores all these themes. Meanwhile, Lee has continued his meditations, expanding still further his understanding of friendship and how God uses it. Let's hope he's making plans for a sequel.