Chicago Tribune writer Marla Paul took a risk when she wrote a self-revealing column confessing her sadness and frustration over her own struggle to build and sustain friendships. Over time, she discovered many people experienced a similar crisis in friendship. It is not easy finding good friends. However, friends are vital to our wellbeing.

Marla Paul writes: “I think we all instinctively know we feel better after spending time with a special friend. We feel energized and happier. If we share a problem with a friend, we feel less hurt. But there’s also this whole new body of research showing how profoundly friendships impact our emotional and physical health. Friendships protect us from depression and anxiety. They boost our immune system, and we have a healthier cardiovascular system when we spend time with friends. Our memory is enhanced and we sleep more deeply. The list goes on about how spending time with friends and having close confidantes supports our health.”

The benefits and rewards of enduring friendships are positively desirable. We long for deep and meaningful connections. We also desire spiritual friendships in the church community. The yearning to belong and to feel accepted accompanies our need to know that God loves us. When we feel welcomed and respected, we also feel encouraged and affirmed. As we reach out to one another with the love of Jesus, we initiate and form spiritual friendships. By becoming present to one another, we learn to be available and vulnerable to each other. The organic nature of relationships within the community of God’s People involves an intentional process of attending to the needs of others while trusting the Holy Spirit to show us how best to respond in love.

But the challenge of fostering significant friendships persists in the local church. Some congregants have expressed frustration and disappointment in forming friendships. Casual greetings and conversations on Sunday in the foyer do not always transition to deep friendships. We may find it hard to remember names. Cultural and social diversity might affect our confidence in reaching out to others. Language might also be a barrier to greater freedom in expressing our thoughts and values. Perhaps, we could facilitate a network for hospitality whereby newcomers and visitors are invited to dinner and conversation in our homes. At our Welcome Lunches, we have been blessed with the privilege of recognizing those who have visited us in recent months. Hearing their personal stories of God’s leading in their lives, we sense a profound hope to belong to a community of people who truly love Jesus and who genuinely love one another. It takes time, effort and perseverance. Everyone is included.

The pre-eminent friendship of Jesus Christ is the basis for authentic relationships and spiritual friendships. We are called friends by Jesus because the Father’s love for us makes us valuable and significant. In befriending Jesus, we discover the joy and blessing of abiding in him. Our confidence in loving one another and in praying for one another emerges from a deep experience of Jesus’ presence in our lives. We are friends of Jesus – uniquely called and chosen to bear the fruit of loving friendship with others. Consequently, we are no longer strangers, isolated from others. Instead, we have become spiritual friends who delight in the company of those who love Jesus. We are friends of Jesus for life and for others.