They were about ten years my junior. But we were at ages where such age differences didn?t really matter. The three of us would meet up for an extended lunch once a month. As we enjoyed the diverse cuisines available in Malaysia, we would, on purpose, ask each other three key questions:
How is your family life? How is your church life? How is your work life?
Each one would take his turn to answer while the others listened attentively. We would affirm and caution if needed but there was a lot more listening than speaking going on.
Occasionally one of us would be facing a key decision and we would lay it before the rest for their feedback. Sometimes there would be admissions of sin and failure. The fact that we were all guys who shared similar temptations and failures, helped sustain the confessional dimension of the group.
The three of us came from different churches. We had met while I was a freshman pastor, and they were seniors at a local university. My role had moved quickly from minister to friend. And now, many years later, we were spiritual friends. Our “friendship triad” was a key source of spiritual sustenance.
In his book ‘The Voice of Jesus’, Gordon T. Smith writes about the power of spiritual friendship:
“…along the way, God will grant us the privilege of genuine friendship with one, two or three individuals who are truly codiscerners. They allow us to be individual; they free us to be other. Yet they also enable us to overcome our radical aloneness. As a friend, we have the opportunity to be the presence and voice of Jesus to others, enabling them to know they are loved, because we demonstrate it and free them to experience the inner assurance of God?s love.”
Most of us are too familiar with “radical aloneness”. This is indeed ironic for followers of a faith that proclaims the crucial place of community and fellowship.
Most Sunday worship services focus more on our individual encounter with God, albeit in the company of others. On a good day we come away inspired by a good sermon, grateful for the opportunity to lift our hearts to God through our singing. But Sunday worship services are not geared for spiritual friendship.
Many churches recognize this lack of fellowship in the church’s big meetings and run some form of cell groups. Unfortunately, few cell groups allow for in depth relationships. Some are more task oriented than relationship oriented. The purpose of such cell groups is to support the evangelistic efforts of the church.
And the inclusive nature of most cell groups means that they are made up of people of diverse spiritual and personal maturities. One thinks twice about opening one?s soul in groups like these, not sure how our sharing will be received or how the information will be used.
Still, membership in a cell group is better than merely participating in a church’s big group activities. At least we will begin to know some church members a little better. But were will we go to be who we truly are?
Some of us will seek out spiritual directors. We seek out folks who will help guide us in our spiritual journey. Spiritual directors are listeners above all; people who accept us as we are and who will listen to our lives to help us hear what the Lord is saying.
But spiritual directors are not that easy to find. Indeed many of us may come from spiritual traditions that are only just beginning to understand the need for, and the work of, spiritual directors. But all of us understand the need for friends.
Hence I am hoping that all Christians should be part of one or more “friendship triads.” Why groups of three? Why not quads? Or dyads? Of course there is no biblical reason why it shouldn?t be dyads or quads. Many do find quality friendship in dyads and quads or groupings of other numbers.
Practically speaking, groups that are too big tend to lower the level of intimacy. And in today’s highly mobile world, it is extremely difficult to find a common meeting time for groups with too many members.
In his book ‘Transforming Discipleship’, Greg Ogden gives a number of reasons why a triad is better than a dyad for the purposes of spiritual friendship. (He sees dyads as more appropriate for intensive spiritual mentoring.) Among the reasons he gives are:
“There is a shift from hierarchical to relational.”
“The triad naturally creates a come-alongside mutual journey. The focus is not so much on the discipler as it is upon Christ as the one toward whom all are directing their lives.”
“There is a shift from dialogue to dynamic interchange.”
“With one-on-one, there are only four possible combinations of communication. Each individual has a unique perspective and an opinion about the other person?s perspective. When you add a third party, the number of possible interplays of communication increases to ten.”
It is also interesting to note that Jesus worked with groups of seventy (Luke 10:1), twelve (Luke 6:12-16), and three (Luke 9:28).
I would suggest then, that most of us should be in one or more friendship triads. It is a simple and manageable way to experience the spiritual friendship we all need.
If you are not in one, you may want to start a triad. First pray about two people you want to invite to make up such a triad. Members of the same sex are preferable for the kind of intimacy hoped for. Introduce them to the purposes and mechanics of the friendship triad.
While there should be a minimum of rules, such friendship triads should be characterized by three biblical injunctions:
1. Accept one another (Romans 15:7). 2. Bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). 3. Encourage one another to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24).
Covenant to meet together on a regular basis. Once a month is minimum. When you meet, connect using the three questions about family, church and work.
You can come up with your own set of questions of course. One that Gordon T. Smith uses is: “Since we met last, what have been your joys and sorrows?” He saw the question as an exercise where he and his friends learned how to “rejoice and mourn with one another” (Romans 12:15).
You need to review the life of the group periodically to see if the group should continue, or if the season of the group is over, and it should come to an end. Groups come and go but the need for spiritual friendship will always be there. When a group ends we will have to think about the possibility of starting new ones.
We need a revolution of spiritual friendship in these lonely, godless days. Here is a simple way to do it. Have you tried a triad?
“Thank you for being a friend Traveled down the road and back again Your heart is true, you’re a pal and a confidant” (Andrew Gold)
Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan