3 crucial ingredients to building authentic friendships in church

Rev Dr Tan Soo-Inn // October 28, 2022, 5:58 pm


"There is a loud and constant cry for close relationships in a lonely world," points out Dr Tan Soo-Inn. "This type of close relationships should be the default experience of people in our churches, but is the church modelling community? Or are we as lonely as everyone else?" Photo by Michael Lee on Unsplash.

A brother came up to me after I had preached a sermon on spiritual friendship. He said that he was very touched by the sermon. He had been in ministry for many years and had been friendly with many people. But that day it had struck him that he had no close personal friends.

I felt sad. I also knew he was not alone in his loneliness. He said he will make a serious attempt to reach out to friends. I hope so, I pray so.

In 2013, I published a book called 3-2-1: Following Jesus in Threes (Graceworks, 2013). It was meant to be a simple guide to doing spiritual friendship. Whenever I taught on spiritual friendship, many would agree that it was important, but many said they were too busy or that they didn’t know how to go about doing it.

The book, 3-2-1, was meant to help address these concerns. “3-2-1” was a proposal for three friends to meet for two hours once a month over a meal to support each other in their walk with Christ. The book gave the biblical basis for why we needed spiritual friendship and presented a simple model for doing it.

Different variations of the same principle

In recent times I have been very encouraged to find folks coming up to me and telling me that they are in a 3-2-1 group and are basing it on my book. I am particularly delighted that folks are applying the 3-2-1 principles in various ways. Some use it for discipleship, with one member of a triad discipling two others.

Interestingly, this was the model for discipleship given by Greg Ogden (Transforming Discipleship, Revised Edition). I had adapted my model for spiritual friendship from his discipleship model.

Others use the 3-2-1 model in their small groups where all the members in a small group are divided into triads for closer relationships. Other churches have one elder walking in friendship with two deacons or two small-group leaders.

Friendship brings out various important dimensions of how believers ought to relate to one another.

I am delighted that there seems to be fresh interest in spiritual friendship and many are finding 3-2-1 helpful. The need has never been greater.

Here is one finding from the World Economic Forum: “The more digital and high-tech the world becomes, the greater the need to feel the human touch, nurtured by close relationships and social connections. There are growing concerns that, as the fourth industrial revolution deepens our individual and collective relationships with technology, it may negatively affect our social skills and ability to empathise. We see this already happening. A 2010 study by a research team at the University of Michigan found a 40% decline in empathy today (as compared with their counterparts 20 or 30 years ago), with most of this decline coming after 2000.” (Klaus Schwab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution)

The irony is that this type of close relationships should be the default experience of people in our churches but often is not.

Most of us realise that belonging to a church makes us brothers and sisters because we are all children of Abba. Indeed, “brothers and sisters” is the most common description of fellow believers in the New Testament.

But I have begun to see how friendship complements brothers and sisters by bringing out various important dimensions of how believers ought to relate to one another.

Here are three insights I picked up recently from the writings of John.

1. Friends love each other

“Lord, the one you love is sick.” (John 11:3)

“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep;” (John 11:11b)

Here, the friend is the one who is loved. Jesus would later tell us that friends must be prepared to lay down their lives for each other (John 15:13). Jesus of course is our model friend.

2. Friends spend time with each other

“I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.” (3 John 13–14)

Interestingly, today we might say that we connect through some social media platform. However, there are levels of communication that can happen only face to face. There is a direct linkage between the strength of a friendship and the amount of time the friends connect in person; perhaps augmented by online connecting.

3. Friends know each other personally

“Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name.” (3 John 14b)

Friends know each other by name. That presupposes a certain level of intimacy. Love is based on knowledge. I need to know the person I am loving and the mutuality of friendship means that I must allow myself to be known by my friend.

Clearly, we will not have the time to be close to many. Jesus was close to His 12 and spent more time with Peter, James, and John. We may have any number of friends but three or four seems to be the number for very close friendships. Hence, three or four friends meeting for two hours once a month over a meal seems to address many of these concerns.

There is a loud and constant cry for close relationships in a lonely world. Is the church modelling community? Or are we as lonely as everyone else?

This reflection was first published by Graceworks, and is republished with permission.

Now in its 7th print, 3-2-1: Following Jesus in Threes has been used by many to practise the discipline of spiritual friendship in today’s busy world. The bestseller is also available in ebook and Chinese.  


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About the author

Rev Dr Tan Soo-Inn

Rev Dr Tan Soo-Inn is the founding director of Graceworks. Since 1985, he has been journeying with people through his ministry of preaching/teaching, writing and mentoring. Originally trained as a dentist, he answered God's call to go into full-time, church-related ministry in 1981. He is an Arsenal Football Club fan and his favourite movie is Star Wars: Episode IV.