With statistics showing evidence that loneliness is at an all-time high among Christians in the U.S., Justin Kendrick, lead pastor of the multisite Vox Church, warns believers that “to deny friendship is to deny all of Jesus.”
The 40-year-old pastor and author shares Christ’s model for living in Christian community and growing meaningful friendships in his new book, The Sacred Us: A Call to Radical Christian Community.
In an interview with The Christian Post, Kendrick said his book offers seven Bible-based principles that explore the substance of Christ-centered community because when a friendship is founded on Christ, he added, it's likely the relationship will be accompanied by fewer feelings of excessive loneliness.
“My book tries to go past just how to form and maintain friendships based on shared interests; it also focuses on how to form friendships based on sharing life so that we can know and love Jesus more. And then actually learn to love those around us as Jesus did,” said Kendrick, who, for 11 years, has been the lead pastor at Vox Church, which has nine campuses across Connecticut and Massachusetts.
One study that supports Kendrick's point was commissioned by Barna-World Vision in 2019 and found that among 15,000 participants aged 18- to 35-years-old from 25 countries, “respondents who belong to a religious tradition seem to have stronger feelings of being in relationship with others.”
The study also found that “respondents who identify with Christianity (19%) or other faiths (22%) are less inclined than their counterparts without a faith (31%) to say they feel isolated.”
“Healthy friendship is about a shared interest and shared passion. And then in the church or in the family of God, the goal is to go beyond just a shared interest and into a life pursuit of knowing and following Jesus, which can ultimately lead to deeper and more satisfying connectivity,” Kendrick said.
A subsequent Barna study released in 2021 revealed that “practicing Christians — those who identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month — do show a slight decrease in how often they feel lonely, when compared to the general population.”
Even with stats showing Christians experience slightly less loneliness than non-believers, Kendrick said lonely feelings are still prevalent among Christians and believes strongly that this problem needs to be addressed more often in churches across the U.S.
“I think that most Christians don't know how to build friendships. … I think that the primary reason is that we just haven't seen it modeled well. For generations, we've made relationships ultimately about ‘me,’ rather than about ‘us.’ And our individualist kind of self-focused mentality has made deep friendships really difficult,” Kendrick said.
One of the primary issues standing in the way of Christians forming friendships, Kendrick added, is how some avoid forming friendships because they have been hurt by others within the church, either in the past or present.
In these scenarios, he said, Christians tend to build up walls by avoiding becoming too close or being too vulnerable with anyone else in the church for fear of being harmed emotionally.
Avoiding friendships can potentially create a barricade between Christians and Jesus, he warned.
“Christians know God in a personal way. But we also know God through the collective witness of His Body. And if we cut that off, there are aspects of our relationship with God that will never grow,” Kendrick lamented.
“And so, to reject the people of God is to reject Jesus Himself. I think we have a massive, theological blind spot that is justifying our individuality and our separation from the Church. And I think it's actually drawing us to worship a god that's not the God of the Bible.”
Not only is loneliness an ongoing issue in America, according to the 2021 Barna study, but the problem doesn’t seem to be improving.
The study confirmed that statistics of those experiencing loneliness have remained relatively the same among the masses in America with “3 in 10 Americans [who] report feeling lonely at least once each day.”
“I do think that we really lack the tools,” Kendrick said. “I think most Christians who aren’t avoiding friendship out of fear of being hurt would say: ‘I want friendship,’ and ‘I'm praying for deep friendship, but what do I do?’”
“My book tries to get really practical by sharing seven specific things anchored in Scripture that you can do that will help you cultivate much deeper friendship.”
The seven principles:
Proximity that provides opportunity: Christians should be willing to make time to be in the same space as others because nothing can take the place of physical connectivity, which is what God designed people for.
Vulnerability that creates connection: Christians should be willing to be injured and hurt in friendships. An understanding of the Gospel ultimately leads to vulnerability and honesty about the areas of the heart that a Christian is likely to avoid presenting to others. But when Christians are transparent, their openness is the glue that can potentially hold a community together.
Discipleship that sets direction: Believers have a particular aim to be conformed into the image of Jesus. Discipleship is to be a student that's surrendered and postured to follow a master. In this case, the master is Jesus, as Christians seek to follow Him while pursuing friendships, which makes the Christian community unique from other communities.
Fun that amplifies grace: The Gospel or the Good News of Jesus Christ offers grace to anyone who believes. If that's true, then that means Christians are blameless before God by faith in Jesus. And that should change their attitudes toward life and friendship. This creates an atmosphere where Christians can have fun because they are not protecting their own self-image, which promotes grace.
Mission that drives adventure: Human beings were hardwired to seek adventure. Humans want to do something that's purposeful and adventurous in their lives. And the deepest answer to that desire is to be a part of God's cosmic mission to make all things new. Although Christians live in a broken world, they can bring God’s new creation onto the Earth. When followers of Jesus come together in that mission, it can potentially lead to a profoundly purposeful life.
Sacrifice that matures love: The most important of the seven principles. It’s the principle that Christians cannot grow as followers of Jesus without sacrifice. Sacrifice is the tool God uses most to mature in love. The only way to grow in love as a Christian is to be willing to practice sacrifice.
Boundaries that sustain growth: Pristine community is not supposed to be a limitless, always accessible way of living. It's actually a very balanced way of living where each person shares the burdens of others but takes responsibility for the things that God's called them to carry themselves. In a Christian community, create healthy boundaries, but don't lock people out. And that can allow for sustained growth.
Nicole Alcindor is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.