There is a major gap between how we imagine the most meaningful friendships are formed and how they actually form.
Anyone who wants to follow Jesus will need friends surrounding them—ones who share the same love for Him. Since many of us have formed friendships around worldly associations, it typically takes intentional effort on our part to form new friendships centered on Jesus. That is why Groups at The Austin Stone exist—to help create consistent and intentional Christian friendships that strive together to love God, church, city, and nations.
As noble and attractive as those groups are to every single follower of Jesus, the process of getting there is way more uncomfortable than we would like. We’ve seen videos of groups meeting together with footage of members laughing hysterically at dinner while the voiceover explains the power of God in every person in the group. Those stories are certainly important because they show what could be, but they can be unhelpful in understanding what it actually took to build those relationships.
When you walk into a room or join a Zoom call full of people you’ve never met, you shouldn’t expect your experience to look anything like that video. Showing a room full of pregnant pauses, awkward moments, and rote religious answers to questions would be more accurate. But then who would ever sign up for that!
You must understand, the vast majority of Christian friendships don’t begin in chemistry, but in common confession of Jesus and commitment to one another. The uniqueness of Jesus is that He brings people together who would normally not associate with one other. This means you’ll probably be in a group with folks you wouldn’t have chosen otherwise. This isn’t a bad thing. Think about the original twelve disciples. You had guys attempting to overthrow the government and guys defrauding their own people to establish the same government. I can only imagine the long, tense silences and everything other than smooth chemistry or flow of conversation they experienced. Jesus had to rewire His disciples to base their friendships on love over chemistry because love was, and is, the only thing strong enough to build the kind of friendships needed to follow after Him. Groups of mostly strangers will inevitably have awkward moments and interactions, but those moments are good medicine for your soul.
“Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:1-2 ESV)
Hosting and spending time with people you’ve never met is an expected expression of love for, and by, the people of God. By definition, strangers are the people we’ll experience the most awkwardness with. You have no shared history or experiences together, nor have you established paces of conversation and similar interests. Basically, there will be plenty of clunky moments searching for something to talk about. With that in mind, the writer of Hebrews’ first example of brotherly and sisterly love is welcoming strangers in—especially those who share faith in Christ. Embracing the awkward moments of newness to serve others is the fruit of love.
The promise is that this sort of hospitality and extension of friendship will put you in the presence of angels. This most likely does not mean you may host actual angels, but that these strangers act as messengers of God who bless you with their presence. The point is, meeting and hosting brothers and sisters in Christ you’ve never met is often an opportunity for God to meet you in a unique way.
“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:46 ESV)
Our tendency is to love others with the same measure of love they’ve given to us. This is easy to understand in stark cases where you feel very loved or very unloved by someone. But, what about new people we’ve never met?
Typically, the way this is expressed in a group of people who don’t have any major reasons to like or dislike each other is through withholding love until we’re sure it will be reciprocated. This reality of everyone waiting on the others to initiate is the definition of an awkward group. Questions are posed with long silences, stories are shared without much dialogue, and meetings are arrived at late and left early. We want chemistry to occur before our love is activated, but this is precisely what God uses awkward groups to do for His people. He uses them to teach us how to love one another before we’re sure there is love for us in return. This is the definition of love—it goes first for the benefit of others.
I’m not saying that awkward groups should exist in that state forever or that any group that disbanded is wrong. But, I am saying the group that lacks chemistry is great for your soul because it causes you to grow acquainted with love that is deeper than personality connection. Love that is closer to God’s love for you and me. Love that initiates dinner before anyone ever did with you. Love that engages stories with more questions and inquisitive ears. Love that bears its heart first to help others know that grace is real and safe. Walking in the ways Jesus loved others ends up making you more aware of His love for you.
“Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.” (Ecclesiastes 7:8 ESV)
Almost every new group that forms with people who don’t know one another has some level of awkwardness. This is natural and to be expected. But, in our impatience and even foolishness, we can too easily grow tired of the building process because we confuse the beginning for the end. It’s rare for the most meaningful friendships to begin with immediate connection and depth, but that’s how we imagine them. We’ll show up to a group a couple of times with the arbitrary ticking clock expecting fireworks of connection that causes us to give up too soon. But, friendships need space, time, and intentionality to become the gifts God has in mind for them.
I have been a part of and formed many new groups of people seeking to follow Jesus together. Again and again, I have seen friendships form between people who did not initially get along, enjoy one another, or click. Friendships that God has used to do the miraculous work of healing loneliness, uplifting feeble hearts, comforting mourners, and keeping faith from fading began with awkward first meetings filled with fake laughs and half smiles.
Awkward groups may be uncomfortable to start, but they are good for you.