After a welcome banquet for new students, the two of us sat beside a fountain and chatted about our shared backgrounds.

Among the mostly white student body, we’d noticed that we were both multi-racial. From there, we discovered that we were both theater girls, having even played some of the same roles before. We loved books and beauty, and we were in the same honors program. We both took our faith seriously. Amid the excitement of so many shared passions, I met one of my best friends.

In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis defines friendship as the moment when two people realize a shared love. Over time, this kind of instant connection evolves into something more. A friendship based on mutual interest turns into the chance to shape and sharpen each other’s interests. You grow and change because of the other person.

It’s this transformational nature of friendship that makes it a significant part of our lives as Christians. God uses friendship not just to change us, but to make us like him. Dallas Willard states in The Divine Conspiracy that making people like Christ consists in “bringing people to believe with their whole being the information they already have as a result of their initial confidence in Jesus.” Friendships are where we live out the information we know to be true, where what we believe turns into what we do. As Christians we are called to love our neighbors. In friendship, the belief “I should love my neighbor” becomes more than just a concept. It’s sitting with a friend when she is mourning a breakup, or celebrating a new job.

When friends share a deep desire to grow to be like Christ, then these friendships transform and refine our virtue. I am more like God because of that college friend made over 10 years ago. No wonder so many churches focus on small group ministry. This structure, now a mainstay in evangelical congregations, builds relationships among members and serves as an effective form of discipleship. Christian researcher Ed Stetzer regularly blogs on how small group involvement correlates with higher levels of spiritual practices like prayer, Bible-reading, and forgiveness.

I know in my life, Christian virtue is more alive in me because of the encouragement and community of good friends. Some of those friendships were found in small groups… but many of them were not.

In our good desire to foster healthy community and friendship within our church, we can create unnecessarily distinctions between our relationships through small groups and our everyday friendships. We may see small groups as merely “church friends,” as people we discuss the Bible with and nothing else. Or, we may see small groups as hugely significant, as holding an exclusive reign on your discipleship and development. If the latter reason is true, we may feel guilty when failing to participate in a church small group.

But as much as the church might prioritize small groups, with resources and structures and training manuals, the groups themselves are never our ultimate goal. The aim of small groups is to enable friendships and supportive communities that lead people to Christlikeness. And that aim can be achieved in many settings, both inside and outside the church. Small groups do not transform us; the pursuit of friendship does.

I’ll admit: Sometimes church groups lack the initial sympathy of interests that makes people connect in friendship. Many of us have met together in a community group only to make our way through long silences and awkward pauses. It can feel like forced friendship for the sake of Christian growth. We may not even see our small group connections as friends at all, and miss out on the potential joy and growth of transformative friendship in this setting.

In those cases where friendship doesn’t spring up organically based on other connections, it’s important to also remember that being a Christian and attending the same church is an immediate point of commonality to build on. Even if their hobbies or jobs make them seem like people you wouldn’t initially be friends with, we still have the opportunity to learn and grow in relationship with each other.

Sometimes friendships leading to Christlikeness happens in a more organic fashion akin to C.S. Lewis’s description. There may be seasons where transformational Christian friendships and community fall outside of the local church context, perhaps in our families, a Christian work environment, or a group of Christian friends not connected to their particular body. These settings are no less holy, no less able to provide transformative relationships that teach us the patience, love, and strength of Christ. It is the friendship, not the structure that transforms people.

Christ tells his disciples in John 15, “I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” This closeness and friendship with Christ transformed a group of ordinary men into a group of people who changed the world. As Christians, Christ imitators with the power of the Holy Spirit enlivening us, we also become transformed by close Christian friendships. Small groups are good, but they are only as good as the transformational friendships that form within them.

Leilani Mueller lives in Southern California with her husband and baby girl. She writes, teaches, and attempts to grow into Christlikeness. She blogs about motherhood and faith at MuellerMommyAdventures.

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