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Pick Your Friends, Show Your Priorities

“To the world you may be just one person, but to one person you may be the world.” Brandi Snyde

“What is uttered from your heart alone, will win the hearts of others to your own.” Goethe

“Truly great friends are hard to find, difficult to leave, and impossible to forget.” Unknown

“The Son of Man … is… a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”  Jesus Luke 7:34

Whenever we make a decision that significantly affects our lives, such decisions always bring with them unintended consequences. You marry the girl of your dreams and certain things follow that you expected: a lifelong companion, a soul mate, someone with whom you share intimacy like no other, etc. But unexpected consequences abound as well: personality differences, habits, and preferences (which can be a source of humor or annoyance depending on how you handle them).

I recently became more active in our local church than I have in many, many years. While I still travel some, I am far more devoted to our community than in the past. One of the unintended (and beautiful) consequences of this shift has been the ability to make new friends, especially those outside my normal traffic patterns.

I have always been a pretty friendly fellow, so making friends with fellow ministers, with colleagues, and with my students, has been both a joy and an easy thing to do. But I have this deep, insatiable passion for the gospel that is far more than academic. I believe not only that the gospel is true, although I certainly believe that. I also believe it to be the best way to live, and I believe we were created to love God and love others with all the affection we can muster.  I have no advice for others, no wisdom, or no insight, apart from the starting point of following Christ.

So, while like most Western Christians I thoroughly enjoy hanging out with people like me — believers who grew up in the church and have a natural proclivity toward one another — my conviction about the gospel keeps pushing me.  A question has been gnawing at me, and while I have all my life tried to answer it with my words and my life, recently I have been convinced at my failure to take the question seriously. Here it is:

If Jesus is God, and following Him is the best way to live, and if I was in fact created to worship Him with all the passion of my life…

why do I spend almost all of my time with people who already get that?  In other words, why does my calendar demonstrate an anecdotal rather than instrumental devotion to people who have yet to know this great reality, to find this remarkable way to live, and to help them to give their life and passion to worshiping Him?

I have recently been making some really cool friends. Friends, I say. Not developing projects for the gospel. Not simply going on “church visitation” (I still believe in that!) to meet people I hardly know. I have been making friends because I love making friends. But my friends nowadays do not tend to share my background. More than a few at this point do not share my beliefs, though some have in recent days. Some are my students now, men studying for ministry but who grew up totally outside the church, who come to seminary and observe how many students assume so much about people who are unchurched and how so many of these assumptions are honestly quite wrong.  Some are new believers, some just have a lot of questions. Some currently deal with a tremendous amount of pain.

My friends demonstrate a great love for people, a hunger for truth, and enjoy thoroughly times of meaningful conversation over a cup of coffee. More than a few do not quite understand the church or my faith because what they have seen in some cases is profound legalism almost devoid of grace.  But when my friends meet someone who has been genuinely changed by the gospel to the point that they love others regardless of their convictions or lifestyle, these friends find such a believer to be more than compelling.

I am discovering that there are far more people all around us who genuinely want to talk about things that matter, like the gospel, than there are Christians willing to engage in these conversations in a context where friendships can thrive.

Over the past month I have had more conversations than I can count with new friends who have actually asked me to meet with them. I never have to figure out how to find people to talk about spiritual things. I currently do not spend a lot of time with strangers, because I have been blessed with so many wonderful new friends. I am totally rearranging my schedule. I do not have as much time to sit around and chat with my students (sorry gang).  I am encouraging them to chat with people they work with, their neighbors, and so on.

I have also discovered that this is a fatherless generation, that so many young adults just need someone older (I qualify) to help unpack life.  It seems the more I simply help people see how the gospel affects all of life, how it is a better way to live, how Christianity is less a moral code for external behavior and more a way to live all of life, conversations abound.

Sometimes I think we have too much Christian B.O.: our theology is right, but we stink about how we talk to others about our convictions.  Sometimes we are Odd for God: we do care about people, our heart’s are in the right place, but we have been so immersed in the wilderness of the Christian subculture we cannot navigate through the highways of culture. I think it is in part because in our own lives we have turned our faith into a minimalistic lifestyle obsessed with externals, with impressing the convinced, and enjoying the benefits of eternal life without displaying the broken heart for others so clearly seen in the life of Christ.

Read the encounters Jesus had with people in the Gospels (note: there are more than 40). Notice how RARELY Jesus challenged people to change their external behavior and how OFTEN He called them to follow Him. Yes, He spoke to the Rich Young Ruler about his keeping of the commandments, but even in that instance He did so to point out a heart flaw in the young man.  He called Matthew, Peter, Andrew, James, John, and others to follow Him. In the gospel we see the order is to follow Jesus, and then watch Him change our behavior. Yes, if we follow Christ we will see a behavior modification, but that comes from following Christ, not vice versa.

This is why some speak today of a new paradigm (“new” is a relative term here) in which many belong before believing, rather than believing then belonging. So many people, especially younger adults, live in a parallel universe to our churched culture.  They know few to no one who love Jesus who also understands their world or even care to try and understand it. But when someone does, a door is opened to real, lasting, deep friendships. And out of these friendships conversations flourish about things that matter.

The end result for me  is that I have less time to sit around and discuss my take on Calvinism or eschatology or other theological matters with people very similar to me. But I am making more time to hang out with people who very definitely want to talk about theology, about Scripture, and about life. They just need a friend to talk about these matters.

Something very real happens when we step out of our Christian subculture and its almost antiseptic atmosphere to grow closer to people whose backgrounds differ from ours. Do you want to grow spiritually? Do you want to understand how the gospel affects all of life, not just church life? Do you want to see and feel and know the greatness of God and the work of the Holy Spirit in you?  Don’t sign up for the next class at your church on one of these subjects. Instead, make some friends.

I have been praying God would allow me the honor, and I do mean honor, of making friends who share my passion for living life even if they do not currently share my passion for Jesus. God is remarkably answering that prayer. The result? I have some really awesome friends.

I love having friends.

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Alvin L. Reid (born 1959) serves as Professor of Evangelism and Student Ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where he has been since 1995. He is also the founding Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism. Alvin and his wife Michelle have two children: Joshua, a senior at The College at Southeastern, and Hannah, a senior at Wake Forest Rolesville High School. Recently he became more focused at ministry in his local church by being named Young Professionals Director at Richland Creek Community Church. Alvin holds the M.Div and the Ph.D with a major in evangelism from Southwestern Seminary, and the B.A. from Samford University. He has spoken at a variety of conferences in almost every state and continent, and in over 2000 churches, colleges, conferences and events across the United States.