Wednesday, June 10, 2015

I Have No Non-Christian Friends, But I Need Them

After 25+ years of being a Christian, nine years of pastoral ministry in three different churches, and countless sermons, discussions, articles, and rants about the necessity of being in relationships and living out the good news of Jesus, I have made a sobering realization:

I have no non-Christian friends.

And that, frankly, sucks.

Oh, I've had plenty of acquaintances. Neighbors and folks in the community I would bump into, where I knew their name and they knew mine. Perhaps some high school students in schools, where I would volunteer once or twice a week. The barista or the video store manager or the parent at my kid's elementary school.

But friendship? A consistent, mutual bond of affection and affinity, something that goes beyond immediate proximity or a social media connection? I've woken up to the fact that I just don't have any.

I recall seeing a graph or chart created by pastor and author Dan Kimball, where he pointed out the following:

The longer you're a Christian, the less non-Christian friends you tend to have.

As a pastor in large evangelical churches, I have found that to be true to my experience. Much of my time throughout the week was spent focused on the programs and people of the church--preparing teaching lessons, setting up details for events, training volunteers, counseling and discipling teens, etc. This isn't necessarily bad or wrong, per se. But it does feel rather hypocritical for me to preach about sharing the good news of Jesus with the world when my own "world" was primarily people who, essentially, had already heard about Jesus.

I suppose it's my own fault, really. I was so caught up in the churchiness of church, that I missed out on the very people the church is meant to be for.

I was reading a book recently, and the author touched on this sentiment: Jesus's focus was quite different than the common evangelical pursuits:
[We] discourage people from building relationships with those who do not know the Lord. We've developed our own subculture within the larger culture.... In the evangelical church we focus on attending services, teaching Sunday school, becoming an elder or deacon, singing in the choir, getting involved in a small group, and exercising our spiritual gifts for the benefit of the body. Almost everything we do is focused on ourselves. And all of this is good. But God says, through the prophet Hosea, that this is not enough. What God wants more than anything else is that we show mercy to those who desperately need it.
As I look back on the past decade, I can see how the friendship decline happened. The nature of my job as a pastor entailed that my co-workers--often a primary context for Christians to rub shoulders with non-Christians--were all Christians; they were fellow pastors and church staff! I haven't had non-Christian co-workers since I worked in a pizza place in high school. I speak and teach in churches and Christian camps or colleges; I write for a primarily Christian audience; I went to a Catholic high school, and while everyone in the school certainly wasn't Christian, they were all very familiar with the Christian story. I was living primarily in the Christian subculture, and I didn't even realize it.

I did build some connections with my neighbors in each city I've lived--Portland, Mesa, and Langley--but with limited time in a location--five years (four different residences), five years (two residences), and two years (three residences), respectively--building long-term friendships with neighbors can be difficult. Just looking at my timeline now, I think, holy crap, I've moved a LOT. Nine different living spaces in the past twelve years. This transitory lifestyle makes long-term friendships difficult, unless those friendships have been established through means other than immediate proximity.

Which brings me to social media--I am nearing 1600 friends on Facebook, and am slowly building a network of folks I like to engage with on Twitter. But the vast majority of folks on both of these networks are also Christians, or at least have a history with the church and Jesus. They are people who attend the churches I've pastored, or fellow pastors and youth workers, or other graduates from the Catholic prep school. Sure, I'm following people like Hugh Jackman on Twitter--because, Hugh Jackman!--but it's not like we're on a first-name basis because of some social networking app. I have been able to have great conversations and build connections with non-Christians over our shared passion of film, so that's a good start, I suppose.

I hesitate to even write all this, as it inherently creates a dichotomy I'm uncomfortable with: the Christians and everyone else. This sort of us/them framing is one I don't tend to use in conversation, as it creates categories that are inherently polarizing and needless. Yet I can't help it with this subject. It legitimately pains me that I have no deep connections or conversations with those outside of the Christian subculture. I am grieving my own relational decisions and passivity that have led to this position. I wish to keep affinity with the church community, while also expanding my relational horizons, but am unsure even how to proceed. It feels like being in early adolescence as the new kid in school, awkward and hopeful for a friend, but very aware of one's faults and flaws and shortcomings. I'm a Christian doofus looking for someone to be my friend.

The thing is, I need non-Christians in my life. I desire friendships who view me first as a friend, not through the lens or label of pastor or believer. I want non-Christian friendships who challenge my paradigm and worldview, and remind me that not everyone thinks or acts exactly like me. I want to be and share good news in these friendships, but not to compromise or devalue the friendship as a means to an end, i.e. I became your friend so I could subversively slip you the Gospel. Gotcha! I need non-Christians in my life because they are human beings who need friends, and I am a human being who needs friends, so maybe, y'know, we can just be friends. I wouldn't call these great folks my "non-Christian friends." They'd just be my friends, just like the Christian friends I already have.

When Jesus was walking around his neighborhoods and community, he had plenty of non-Christian friends. (To be fair, Christianity wasn't even really a thing yet.) But Jesus was embedded in a Jewish culture, and lived as a faithful Jew. The religious leadership in his Jewish culture were often criticizing him for the friends he had, people who were the "outsiders" for the Jewish elite. The poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. Women and men, ordinary everyday people. Jews and Gentiles, the powerful and the weak. He seemed to befriend them all. I want to be like Jesus, and Jesus was friends with people outside of the religious institution of his era, so I want to do the same.

So, if you would not label yourself as a Christian, if you don't attend a church, if you're questioning the existence or nature of God, if you've embraced a faith and religion other than Christianity, then by all means: let's be friends. We need each other.

Photo Credit: Kristina Alexander (Creative Commons)


  1. I appreciate your post, particularly the second to last paragraph. As one who belongs to a Free-Thinkers group consisting mostly of athiest and agnostic individuals (and a mix of non-christian religious and spiritual but not religious individuals), I feel I can say that a large part of the challenge is that for many people who are not Christian, there is little to no trust that someone who identifies as evangelical Christian could be their friend without intention to convert. Compound that with concerns about biblical literalism, particularly for science-minded individuals and queer people of many varieties, and potentially with negative personal experiences with evangelical Christians (I'm sad to say I've heard many stories, not including my own) and the result is non-Christians avoiding or not seeking out relationships with people they feel won't actually respect or seek to understand their views, and won't want relationships with them without ulterior religious motives.

    I think many non-Christian folks would ask: If you believe that your purpose in life is ultimately to live as a good Christian, which includes bring the word of Jesus to others, is that not mutually exclusive from seeing someone else's beliefs as equally valuable and valid? And if it is not possible to be in a place where people are on equal footing, where one is inherently viewed as wrong and lesser, something to be fixed, there can be respect and care, but can there really be a friendship?

    1. Thanks for your awesome response, Holly, and for voicing your honest concerns about evangelical Christianity. Your final questions about seeing someone else's beliefs as valuable and valid are so important, because the exclusivity of the Christian message, connected with the not-so-subtle propensity to build relationships in order to convert--which, I would contend, is not a true or healthy relationship, but rather a means of manipulation, good intentions notwithstanding--make this such a difficult struggle for me to remain in evangelical circles. Yet, I still want to remain, because I have hope for those circles to widen and expand and rethink their boundaries. I don't think many evangelicals are aware of how they're perceived, and often quickly become defensive or use us/them language when questioned about their belief claims, which only adds to the barricades and disallows true relationship to form. In this blog post, I suppose I'm realizing and confessing *I* need to do some significant work in this arena too, not just the tribe of 'evangelicals.' So, thanks for your help in my process. In this culture of polarization and tribal factions, I still have genuine hope there can be true friendships between Christians and non-Christians, where gracious dialogue and the inherent value of a human being trumps ideological combativeness. I think conversations like this one could be a small start.

      And hey, even though we're in different parts of the world now (ironically, I lived in Arizona when you lived in Portland, and now we've switched!), I still deeply appreciate our friendship and memories from high school, and value your honesty and input in this. Let's keep in touch more often.