A good bit of ink has been spilled over the questions surrounding
postmodernism’s impact on the church and her theologian’s reaction
to postmodernism. What has not been addressed as extensively ---
beyond the topic of evangelism --- are the practical implications
for Christian discipleship that the community of faith might garner
from the legitimate insights of postmodern thinkers.
One of the strands of postmodern reflection worth considering in
this connection is the importance of community and relationships in
establishing truth (Rorty and others).
I’ve noted that the biblical authors similarly contend that it is in
community that individuals best come to apprehend truth. Core truths
are passed on in the context of relationship.
See, for example, Paul’s charge to his protégé:
You, however, continue in the things you have learned and
become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned
2 Timothy 3:14 (all biblical quotations are from The New
American Standard Bible, Updated Edition unless otherwise
noted , emphasis mine).
What is instructive here is that way Paul conjoins Timothy’s
knowledge of his teachers with the content of their teaching. The
knowledge transfer is inextricably tied to the relationship that is
its context. This echoes Jesus’ comment
A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he
has been fully trained, will be like his teacher
Luke 6:40 (emphasis mine)
Just as there is no distinction between the teacher’s content and
character; there is similarly no arelational transfer of knowledge.
Christian discipleship that is collapsed into the mere transfer of
naked information divorced from its relational context is impotent.
This has profound implications for how churches train their leaders
and for how Christians disciple. (This preceding section has been
Delights and Dangers of Postmodern Currents, pt. 3).
What are some of these implications? What does Christian
discipleship look like in an age of what some are calling "a
chastened rationalism" and how do we get there practically?
A Praxis of Spiritual Friendship
It is appropriate to seek out spiritual mentors and protégés.
Further, friendships will inevitably develop where it’s obvious that
one of the partners are further along in their spiritual pilgrimage
than the other. But, in addition to such an implied spiritual
hierarchy, I’d like to also suggest that we are also always
called to engage in spiritual friendship.
In spiritual friendships there will be seasons and/or categories
where one or the other of the dyad will be taking on the guiding
role. I speak of categories because perhaps one is strong in their
financial acumen where the other has a better marriage. A natural
give and take of alternating leadership can obtain in the context of
a natural relational equilibrium.
Recognizing that every spiritual friendship will naturally
develop into such a rhythm can take some pressure off any desire to
always determine who is the more spiritually mature. In many cases,
the entire question is irrelevant. In many friendships, it will be
obvious that one individual is the natural spiritual leader; in
other relationships, there can be more of a back and forth.
Paul presents us with a helpful model to be used when considering
how to relate to one another: the model of family. We treat those
older as fathers and mothers and those younger as brothers and
sisters (1 Timothy 5:1,2). The familial paradigm guides us to
appropriate levels of intimacy and commitment in developing
spiritual friendships. This model is particularly helpful as a guide
for the extent and limits of relationships with those of the
Some Foundational Behaviors of Spiritual Friends
Without attempting to set forth an exhaustive catalog, I’ll
mention a few foundational behaviors of spiritual friendship might
be helpful. In what follows I will speak in terms of mentor and
protégé. But from what’s already been said it should be understood
that these behaviors are often performed by each party reciprocally
in a spiritual friendship.
Demonstrates Faith in the Disciple
- In his classic The Theory and Practice of Group
Psychotherapy, Irwin Yalom reports that therapists that have
the highest percentage of positive therapeutic outcomes share
certain characteristics irrespective of their respective
ideological orientation. One of these characteristics is what Carl
Rogers called unconditional positive regard. This is when
the therapist conveys acceptance of his or her client no matter
- This characteristic of the most successful therapists has a
spiritual analogue: believing in the other person. However in
spiritual discipleship the dynamic extends far beyond mere
positive thinking. When the discipler believes in his protégé, her
faith is justified by the fact that she is actually believing in
God working in the disciple. This faith is well justified. Paul
charged the Philippi Christians to "work out their salvation"
- it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for
His good pleasure
- Philippians 2:13
- Earlier in the same letter Paul writes,
- For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a
good work in you will perfect it until the day of
- Philippians 1:6 (emphasis mine)
- That this was a common theme in Paul’s thought is indicated by
his benediction at the end of his first letter to the church at
- Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and
may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without
blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:23
- A wonderful, positive, hopeful prayer. But then, amazingly,
- Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it
- 1 Thessalonians 5:24 (emphasis mine)
- When we believe in another Christian, we are actually
believing in God’s work within that Christian. She is a new
creature and is being daily renewed in knowledge in the image of
her Creator (2 Corinthians 4:16, 5:17; Colossians 3:10). Our
confidence in the other person is abundantly warranted because
our trust is placed in the Spirit working in that person,
relentlessly driving them toward more and more Christlikeness.
- There are few things more powerful than when Christian has
faith in Christian. This mutual faith manifests itself in a number
Paul advised the church at Phillipi:
Following Paul’s recommendation results in an altruism
relatively rare in contemporary society. This level of focus on the
other influences behavior in many ways. One of the ways this
familial quality of love manifests itself is through empathetic
- Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with
humility of mind regard one another as more important than
- do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but
also for the interests of others.
- Philippians 2:2,3
Empathetic listening occurs when we listen to another in a way
that reflects Jesus injunction in Matthew 7:12:
In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want
them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
- Empathetic listening occurs when we listen to others
creatively imagining what it would be like to be in their
- God Himself models for us this type of radical identification.
He demonstrated His great love for us by becoming God in the flesh
in the person of Jesus Christ. He entered our situation in the
most radical way possible.
- Similarly when we empathetically listen we associate with what
another is saying or experiencing by creatively imagining
ourselves in their position.
- In doing this we model God to them. We act as God’s
ambassadors to them (2 Corinthians 5:20). We become Christ’s body
for them. We manifest Christ’s presence to them (1 Corinthians
12:27). By modeling God’s love for the one in front of us, we
encourage them to look to God and receive his great love for them.
In Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, he implies that our
receiving the "fullness of God" is a result of our realizing "the
breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of
Christ which surpasses knowledge" (see Ephesians 3:14-19).
Consequently, when we model God’s love for another person and
thereby lead them into a greater awareness of God’s love, we
empower the other person to receive all that God has for them.
Empathetic listening is one way we model such a love.
Models Openness, Honesty, and Vulnerability
- A few years ago a friend of mine tried to commit suicide. I
later learned that she had been clinically depressed. I wanted to
understand and did some study on depression. I read a book by a
British psychologist who noted that in England the demographic
most susceptible to depression was mothers of young children. But
he also noted that one of the characteristics of such mothers who
avoided depression was that they had what he termed
- A spiritual friendship is intimate only to the degree that the
disciples are open and honest about their struggles,
weaknesses, and failures. One of the most valuable spiritual
exercises that two disciples can do on a regular basis is to
openly and honestly answer the question, "How are you really
doing?" James urged, "Confess your sins to one another" (James
5:16a); being open and honest about our moral failures to another
takes spiritual friendships to the next level. Doing so is no
doubt very humbling. But a failure to confess our faults to one
another is sometimes a result of a spiritual pride. But even if
our hesitancy is only motivated by sheer shame, when we are not
vulnerable with another, our spiritual relationships will only
rise to the level of our conversation: both will be superficial.
Such a reticence limits the strength and effectiveness of the
spiritual friendship. But when vulnerability in one evokes
vulnerability in the other, the spiritual friendship ascends in an
upward spiral of shared trust and mutual empowerment.
Regularly Spends Time with the Other Person
When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that
they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and
they took note that these men…
…had been with Jesus.
Acts 4:13 (The New International Version, hereafter NIV)
A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully
trained will be like his teacher.
Luke 6:40 (NIV)
- I’d like to suggest that modernity has brought two
characteristics into evangelicalism that mitigate against holistic
- First, the modern program has influenced evangelicalism to
believe that mere information is transformational. It’s not.
Jesus’ disciples were changed because they spent time with
their master. The bromide is true: spiritual maturity is
as caught as taught.
- Second, sometimes our response to contemporary society with
its ubiquity of conveniences, pleasures, and technological tools
has inflicted us with a nearly fatal case of incessant busyness.
This constant activity played against the backdrop of continuous
entertainment and infotainment through recorded media, radio,
television and the internet means that individuals can easily
choose to speed through their lives without a moment’s reflection.
The soundtrack of life is ever present. Relationships then wither
through inattention . Thriving spiritual friendships, on the other
hand, are characterized by a mutual intentionality.
Spiritual friends take the time to nurture both relationships with
God and with others. The faithful spiritual friend intentionally
and regularly shares her life time with her protégé.
This deepens the friendship in a way sheer information transfer
Some Conversations and Activities of Spiritual Friends
As the two greatest commandments are to love God with everything
within and to love our neighbors as ourselves, four topics of
conversations and concomitant areas of activity are suggested:
God’s love for us
Earlier in my spiritual pilgrimage – for about the first 8 years,
sadly – God’s love for me was something I knew with my head but not
my heart. When I met with my mentors this may not have always been
our explicit topic, but it was almost always a subtext. To the
extent that either partner in a spiritual friendship is struggling
with an understanding of God’s love for them, this will need to be
explored. It is the emotional foundation for spiritual stability and
We love because he first loved us.
1 John 4:19 (NIV)
Our love for God
If we really understand with our hearts and minds that Christ loves
us, we will be able to say with Paul,
For the love of the Christ constrains us….
2 Corinthians 5:14 (Darby)
We will be controlled by the fact that Jesus loves us. It will be
the most compelling fact of our existence and our guiding light. As
such, it cannot help but be a major topic of conversation and focus
of activity. We are His bride. Our passion is for Him.
Our love of ourselves
Being made in God’s image, we have dignity and worth. And because
of Jesus’ blood, we are adopted sons of God. Irrespective of what
we’ve ever done, we can accept and love ourselves because He loves
us. It is arrogance if we hold ourselves to some putative higher
standard whereby we do not accept ourselves. Our love and acceptance
of ourselves provides the guide for our love for others, as Jesus
clearly intimates in the second greatest commandment. To the extent
that either spiritual friend is weighed down with a low view of
self, this must be worked through. On this point, it is the modeled
love of God that will typically make the biggest difference. When we
see that others love us, it gives us hope that perhaps God loves us
as well and – following His lead - we can accept and love ourselves.
Our love for others
Knowing that God loves us in Jesus Christ, being filled with love
for God in gratitude and wonder, accepting ourselves because we are
accepted, we are then both motivated and empowered to love others.
Because we are in relationship with One who has given us "everything
we need for life and godliness" (2 Peter 1:3a, NIV), we are
therefore free to be able to focus on others. We are taken care of
and no longer need to be obsessed with meeting our own needs. They
have been met.
This last area of focus in our spiritual friendship further
analyzes into the individuals in our lives, our opportunities, and
our vocation. Who has God brought into our sphere, or into– as
Dallas Willard writes – our kingdom, our sphere of influence?
How can we be a conduit of God’s grace and mercy into their lives?
And it is more than WWJD (though there’s certainly nothing wrong
with that); how are we to be intentional and proactive
about our time, talents and treasure so that we optimize our kingdom
impact during our brief time on earth?
But the spiritual friendship should not just be about
discussions. The pair should engage in practical Christian
service in whatever form. Jesus spoke to and with his disciples,
but he also ministered with them. He provides the model.
The Talmud wisely opines, "All beginnings are difficult" and this
sometimes applies to the beginning of spiritual friendships,
particularly when two people have just agreed to take their
relationship to a new level of mutual commitment and openness. One
very helpful way to begin such a relationship is to have each party
simply tell their story. Several times I have also found this to be
an effective way to begin small groups with great results. When I’ve
participated in groups that have done this, I’ve been amazed at how
long each individual could speak (!) and – at the same time – it’s
been my experience that each and every story is infallibly
interesting and compelling! The Spirit blows differently through
every person’s life. I have found that when participants tell their
stories, being honest and open about their struggles and successes,
detailing how they first developed a spiritual interest and how that
deepened, that the relationships begin at this new level in a very
healthy and committed way. The most spiritually mature, and the one
most willing to be vulnerably open, should be the first to speak.
This will set the tone and precedent for the remaining party or
parties. Of course, in mixed gender situations, discretion must be
Some Organizational Supports for Spiritual Friends
Finally – and much more could be written on this – a few brief
comments on systemic, organizational strategies that can assist
churches with the care and feeding of their spiritual friendships.
The core leaders of the church – both lay and staff – should be
encouraged to acquire at least one protégé/spiritual friend/disciple
during the course of a year. Leaders should seek out potential
leaders. Then these leaders should also encourage their respective
constituents - whether church band members, drama troupe
participants, small group attenders, whatever – to themselves seek
out to begin and nurture at least one significant spiritual
friendship during the course of the next 12 months. The leaders
should practice and encourage their constituents to practice the
core behaviors that are detailed above.
Spiritual friendship must be made a prominent part of a church’s
corporate culture. Those who speak on Sunday morning - and at all
manner of gatherings - should periodically cast the vision of
spiritual friendship. They should speak about the biblical basis for
such relationships. They should promote public forums where
mentoring behaviors are taught and practiced, such as educational
opportunities, literature, periodicals, retreats, conferences, small
groups, etc. Finally, leaders should not underestimate the
significant power that stories from their own personal lives about
their spiritual friendships can have on their auditors. They should
also share the stories of others, including the great historical
figures of the church. The Wesleyan tradition is a particularly rich
resource for such examples.
Leaders should also make spiritual friendship a constant topic of
conversation in their every day discussions. They should daily look
for opportunities to tout its advantages, to ask people about their
spiritual friendships, to encourage others to seek out and find
spiritual friends, and to talk about forums where spiritual
friendships can be explored, celebrated and learned.
Churches need to provide educational opportunities where gifted
facilitators provide helpful information about beginning and
developing spiritual friendships and, most importantly, provide a
supportive environment where people can actually do spiritual
friendship! People tend to participate in educational forums
more than attend small groups because they seem safer. Yet these
workshops can be as personal and interactive as small groups as long
as each individual is respected and the facilitator is sensitive to
their chosen level of involvement. Facilitators can only
provide open doors to intimacy; they cannot and must not force
anyone through such entrances.
Some have had success spinning such educational groups off into
vibrant small groups. If this is attempted, potential leaders of the
future group must be identified and nurtured as soon as possible
during the initial educational phase of the group. Ideally, the
facilitator would locate and invite such a potential leader before
the workshop begins. Some effective topics for these workshops could
1 – theological foundations;
2 –the spiritual disciplines;
3 –determining and developing one’s vocation (calling);
4 – evangelism
A series of workshops could pick one of these topics to focus on
or over a series meetings attempt to address all of them. One must
balance the reality of more people signing up for shorter series
versus the advantage of having enough weeks to adequately cover a
The best churches will make all of their adult education forums
seedbeds of spiritual friendships by tasking all facilitators to
provide participants with a small groupesque atmosphere. The culture
of such learning experiences can helpfully include: 1) the gifted
and multi-media presentation of excellent, biblically-based
information, 2) a high percentage of interaction among participants
with each other and the facilitator during the meeting, 3) an
emphasis on personal application outside of the meeting time with a
specific focus on spiritual friendship, and 4) the sharing of
personal struggles and successes related to spiritual friendships
during the meeting itself and 5) prayer. Spending some of the
meeting time in dyads might also prove effective.
Nearly everything that I just said about educational
opportunities could be profitably applied to small groups.
On at least a yearly basis, the church should put on a banquet
where all spiritual friends are invited to celebrate the gains of
the past year. Many stories should be shared at tables and up front
at such events.
People are hungry for something more than mere information. We
are creatures made for relationship with God and with one another. A
friendship that is spiritual enables us to transcend a merely
time-bound existence and to achieve a spiritual maturity expressing
itself in passionate love for God and sincere love for one another.
The healthy spiritual friendship is characterized by a mutual
belief in one another that manifests itself in empathetic listening,
demonstrations of vulnerable openness, and regular choices to spend
time with one another. Conversations and activities will center on
God’s love for us and our response to Him that moves us out of our
comfort zone into the lives of others. Many times, this depth of
friendship begins simply by sharing our stories. The church provides
a context that encourages spiritual friendships when her leaders
themselves publicly engage in spiritual friendship, encourage their
constituents to do the same, cast a vision of such friendships in
their public speaking and daily remarks, and provide specific
contexts where spiritual friendships can be studied, engaged and
is a Technology Manager with
a free lance writer, and formerly a bi-vocational pastor with
Cedar Ridge Community Church,
founded by Brian McLaren. His work there focused on leadership
development, small groups and teaching. Stephen also does
occasional consulting work in customer service, conflict
resolution, and developing personal and corporate mission
statements. He lives with his wife Bethany and three daughters -
Michaela Siobhan, Skye Teresa, and Alia Noelle - in the
Baltimore-Washington corridor. Stephen is the webmaster and
principal of a new venture,
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