Friendship as a Model for Mission
Posted by Inagrace Dietterich
The material presented here draws heavily from the book that Chris Heuertz and I wrote together for the Duke Divinity School “Resources for Reconciliation” Series. See Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission
(InterVarsity Press, 2010)
Understandings of mission are changed when we put friendship at the center. Such a reorientation helps us recognize how important reciprocal relationships, hospitality, and community have always been to the mission of God and God’s people. In light of the deep socioeconomic, cultural, ethnic, and racial divisions of contemporary life, a recovery of a focus on friendship offers a promising way to rethink the missional life.
In the United States our tendency is to understand or view mission as a project rather than as a way of life. If we add the dimension of friendship, and think of mission and friendship together, we often view friendship instrumentally, as something that is useful to effective mission work, that will further our purposes. But when we put friendship at the center of mission, it reorients our perspective on mission and shifts the focus to relationships, to hospitality and community.
Forming relationships, practicing hospitality, and building community have been central in the mission of God and the mission of God’s people from the beginning. They remain crucial today—and are perhaps even more important in our current settings—given the deep socioeconomic, cultural, racial and ethnic divisions that plague contemporary life, divisions very present to us because of the diversity that is so close at hand.
Many of our models of ministry and mission have involved making forays into areas of need, offering words of witness or acts of service, but then quickly retreating to what is more comfortable and familiar. But these have been costly models, and have not recognized the significance of relationships and community to the transformation of everyone involved. When the good news about Jesus has not been embodied in a consistent presence of love, concern, and fellowship, but rather is only presented as information or given in the form of services, often folks come to feel that they have been targets of one more program. And no one wants to be seen as the target of a project.
So, what changes with an emphasis on friendship? Most important, in friendship, the other person is seen as a fellow traveler rather than first as a needy recipient or an evangelism project. An emphasis on friendship in mission is related to cultivating mutual respect and valuing the time spent together, not only because we are serving or helping another person, but because all of us are benefited and blessed in the relationship. Friendship as a model for mission recognizes the importance of sharing ourselves and not just our skills or resources, and of recognizing the profound importance of cultivating interpersonal trust.
Reflecting God’s Love and Grace.
If we really believe that the gospel is at its heart the story of God’s love for us, then mission is being faithful in loving God back. We are called to be faithful to God and to what and whom and how God loves. When our life with God is so compelling to us that we want and invite others to experience that same kind of life-giving relationship, we are in mission. I’m certainly not saying that words are unnecessary or that acts of service are unimportant, but they are not sufficient when they are detached from relationships.
If we think about it, most of us have come to faith in Christ through the loving example or friendship of others who lived out their faith well—family, teacher, coach, friend. If this is actually the reality of mission, then our missional strategies and methods would certainly benefit from thinking more intentionally about friendship and fidelity.
This is especially true when we reflect on mission at the margins, among people who have been overlooked and excluded, or who are undervalued or pushed aside by the larger society, people with no voice. If we think about the most vulnerable groups in our society—refugees, migrants, homeless people, persons with serious disabilities, poor elderly, neglected children—these are persons for whom the regular networks of relationships have failed. And surely they need a variety of outreach efforts, but what they often really need are friends who will make a place for them, incorporate them into a community, into a place in which they are valued, and have a chance to contribute—along with a chance to encounter or renew their encounter with Christ.
Faithful friendships reflect the grace of God because they are generous and life-giving, friendships that move us all toward the image of Christ—toward wholeness and holiness, and friendships that turn outward toward others—friendships that offer hope and model goodness. These are not the classical characteristics of friendship, but I think they are important aspects of what it means to be friends within Christian community and central to what it means to understand friendship as a model for mission. This is not an individual under-taking, this is something that happens in community.
The Importance of Strong Christian Communities.
But the whole notion of friendship as a model for mission also suggests that mission itself is dependent on friendship. We cannot sustain mission or ministry—especially at the margins or in the really hard places—for long without doing it within community. And strong Christian communities depend on friendship to hold them together.
It is difficult to imagine sustaining significant friendships on the margins if we ourselves are not part of a community. It is just too hard to do alone. A community of friends who share commitments to God and to those on the margins keeps us accountable and gives us strength and support. No friendship with another human being meets all of our needs. Along with the blessings of having friends who are chronically poor or live on the margins come some costs. Friendships with those who have been exploited and excluded can be challenging because such relationships often involve significant, even sacrificial, self-giving. In the midst of the rich mutuality of friendship that is available across differences, we also need folks whose friendships are easier because of our shared interests, backgrounds, and commitments.
And, unless our daily experience includes friendship with people who are poor or have been exploited, it is easy to romanticize those relationships. The reality requires honesty about the challenges, and humility to recognize our limitations. The needs of friends at the margins can overwhelm us and ignoring our needs in those situations can result in very deformed identities and relationships. So one of the things I would want to emphasize is that multiple interlocking friendships within community can help all of us move toward wholeness.
Community is important for another reason. When we become friends with people who have been pushed to the margins they need more than a single friendship. They need to be welcomed into a network of friendships and relationships where their presence and gifts matter to the community, and where various members of the community can walk with them toward healing and wholeness. Their transformation then becomes an invitation to the rest of the community to recognize areas of brokenness, further pressing us back to God’s redemptive work in our lives and in the life of the community.
Jesus calls us to be salt and light, to live out his presence, his goodness, his love in the world. We cannot do this without being in relationships. For Christians, life in community is not optional. If we want to be faithful to Christ, deciding that it is too much trouble to persevere in a congregation or community, or that we can get more done on our own is not really an alternative. We are not free to pursue some individual isolated spirituality (spiritual without being religious). We are the embodiment of Jesus in the world, individually and collectively.
Developing a vibrant Christian community is truly the most important apologetic for the gospel—it always has been. If people could glimpse the unity and love among the Godhead embodied in a community or congregation of believers the world could be transformed. Love within community, flowing from the love and communion of the Trinity, is evidence of the truth of the Gospel and of Christian discipleship.
Community has mattered to God from the beginning. We see community, the deepest level of shared life, in the members of the Trinity. We see it in the creation when the only time God sees that something is not good (Gen 2:18), is when the man was alone and God provides a partner. We see it in the formation of the people of Israel, God’s treasured people, who are instructed in how to live in relationship with God and with one another. We see the importance of community in the Psalms when we read that God puts the lonely in families (Ps 68:6). We see it when Jesus restores people who are rejected or despised or sick to their families and their communities, and as he makes new communities wherever he goes. We see it in the formation of the church out of people from different backgrounds—his beloved community.
Sharing Meals Together.
One of the most powerful expressions of friendship as a model for mission is sharing a meal together. We tend to eat with people we like and with people who are like us. But shared meals break down social boundaries; each of us needs to eat and when we break bread together we embody our solidarity and common humanity.
Meals are also at the heart of the Christian story. Jesus frequently ate with his followers, adversaries, and outcasts in the community. He was sometimes a guest and sometimes a host, but in either case, meals were important settings in which he shared deep truths and insights about the kingdom, discipleship and God’s priorities.
In Luke 14, Jesus is a guest in the home of a religious leader. During the meal, Jesus teaches about the banquet of the kingdom of God and how God will make room for the least and the lost. Jesus tells the host—the Pharisee—that when he gives a party, he too should invite the crippled and blind, the poor and overlooked. He should make room for the people nobody wants to be bothered with, and for those who don’t seem to have much to offer. These folks, Jesus says, are the ones God wants to be included.
In this passage, Jesus invites us to think about the people with whom we share meals. He isn’t saying that we should ignore our family and friends, but to make our circle larger. An important spiritual discipline around meals is to ask ourselves regularly—With whom am I eating, who is invited, and who is left out? They are kingdom meals especially when people who are usually overlooked find a place—a place of welcome and value.
In Luke 19, Jesus invites himself to dinner. He calls out from the middle of a crowd, “Zacchaeus, ….come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Jesus doesn’t host Zacchaeus, he invites Zacchaeus to be the host. There’s an important insight here. To be willing to be someone’s guest is an expression of respect for them and was transformative for Zacchaeus. Many of the pious people of Jericho were shocked at Jesus’ behavior. Out of the whole town of perfectly good people, Jesus—in their minds—clearly picked the wrong person with whom to eat. But Jesus viewed it differently, and you can hear echoes of this insight in South African theologian Allan Boesak’s comment that the pinnacle of lovelessness is not our unwillingness to be a neighbor [or friend] to someone, but our unwillingness to allow them to be a neighbor [or friend] to us (Farewell to Innocence, p. 5).
Guest/host relations in friendship at the margins are very important. It is easy to imagine the resources flowing one way, and to insist on always being the one with something to share or contribute. In a sense, that keeps the other person the permanent needy one, even when we do it because we don’t want them to use up their limited resources on us.
Meals, as I’ve said, are important expressions of shared humanity and common experience. But also, in our shared meals, God seems specially present—surely because they carry connections to the Eucharist and the heavenly banquet. There is often an element of mystery. Meals are important times of healing and restoration and are central to most efforts at reconciliation. In the New Testament church, the early Christians struggled with eating together because of their ethnic and social differences. But they did eat together regularly as an expression of the oneness they had found in Christ and their behavior was so countercultural that the outside world noticed.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What are the differences between thinking of mission as a project and thinking of it as a way of life?
- In what ways do faithful friendships reflect God’s love and grace?
- Why are strong communities required for friendship as mission?
- Read Luke 14:15-24 and Luke 19:1-10. What do we learn about shared meals from these stories?
- How is your understanding of mission changed by viewing it through the lens of friendship?
- If friendship is placed at the center of mission, how would that affect the life and ministry of your congregation?
Christine D. Pohl, the 2014 Convocation presenter, has both the theological and practical credentials to stimulate and guide the discussion during the Convocation. She is Associate Provost and Professor of Church and Society/Christian Ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary. Before attending seminary and earning her Ph.D. at Emory University, Christine worked in various ministries for eleven years. She owned a Christian bookstore and worked in advocacy and refugee resettlement.
As the recipient of various grants, she has organized research projects that have led to the writing of several books, including Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 1999) and Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us (Eerdmans, 2011). In collaboration with Chris Heuertz, international director of Word Made Flesh, Pohl wrote Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission (InterVarsity, 2010).
The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.