Message from Tim

A circle of friends

Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist who has done a lot of work in the field of friendship. We are familiar with the phrase ‘circle of friends’. It turns out that there tends to be a limit to the number of people we can meaningfully include within that circle. It’s not easy, apparently, to form really close, loving relationships with more than 5 people at a time. We might have up to 15 good friends, 50 friends, 150 meaningful contacts, 500 acquaintances and 1500 people we can recognise. If Dunbar is right, that goes a long way towards explaining it is hard to give everyone in a church with a membership in excess of 200 a sense that they all really belong to a loving fellowship.

That’s why, ever since I have been here, we have wrestled as a church with the question of how to help people build good relationships outside of Sunday morning. Well, this year, with the advent of Covid-19, that is precisely what we have had to do. Since we no longer gather together in one place, many of us have kept in touch with each other little and often during the week. Hallelujah! To the extent that this has happened, it is a very good thing! It means that we are not united simply by virtue of coming together in a single hub week by week; the trouble with just seeing each other on a Sunday morning is that our relationships can become matters of convenience and habit. Instead, many of us are finding that we are part of a network of supportive relationships that are not restricted to a set time and place. It may require more of an effort on our part to make this happen, but perhaps the extent to which we are prepared to do this is a measure of how much we really value our friendships.

And as time passes, keeping those friendships alive and meaningful will require effort on our part. Dunbar claims that, ‘Friendships can deteriorate very quickly if you don’t invest in them – it probably only takes about three months.’ This makes sense – I think we can all appreciate how easy it is for friendships to drift if we don’t stay in touch. From my point of view, the serious drawback of not congregating on a Sunday morning is that it has become physically impossible for me to stay in touch with all of you as much as I would like to do. Ministers often shake their heads over people who say that they have not had any contact with the church when what they really mean is that the minister has not come to see them. Yet as Baptist Christians, one of the key principles behind the way we ‘do’ church is the priesthood of all believers.

One of the ways in which this works out in practice is that pastoral care is not the sole prerogative of ‘the minister’ (sic); actually, we are all engaged in ministering to each other all the time. So thank you for doing this together!
Professor Dunbar also says that, ‘In lockdown, many people are forming new friendships with people on their street and in their community for the first time…So when we emerge from lockdown, some of our more marginal friendships might be replaced by some of these new ones.’ It is all too easy, for those who have been Christians for a very long time, to reduce the circle of friendship to those we know in church, to the point where some Christians even feel that they don’t really ‘know’ anyone outside the church very well at all. Well, over recent months, some of us have met and got to know our neighbours for the very first time. Quite possibly over the years they may have seen you trekking off to church on a Sunday morning. Now they are actually getting to know you as people - I hope that’s a good thing! And there must be better ways of expressing what it means to be a follower of Jesus than disappearing down the road for a couple of hours on a Sunday.

The best way to start is by doing something they will never see you do, and that is by praying for them, seeking God’s blessing on their lives and homes. Out of those prayers you might begin to find opportunities to go out of your way to show kindness, generosity, friendship, concern. For far too long it has been easy for us to lapse into the mistaken way of thinking that evangelism is about inviting people to church. No chance of doing that now! But Jesus says that wherever we go in his name, when we meet someone the kingdom of God has come near to them through us. What might that look for your new friendship circle?

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