There are good ways (and a few not good ways) to begin building a spiritual friendship. Getting off to a strong start is crucial. Like other disciplines, you don’t begin at an expert level! Having a trusted friend you grow with spiritually over seasons of your life doesn’t materialize overnight! You have to begin with the most essential elements, then achieve results incrementally. It can feel a little awkward to practice spiritual formation in the context of friendship. There’ll be aching joints and sore muscles till you and your friend figure it out.
What is a spiritual friendship again?
Spiritual Friendship is not just friendship between Christians. When friendship meets spiritual formation something unique is happening. Through the Holy Spirit two or three friends can cultivate their life in Christ as they set aside time for conversation and prayer. It requires time that is set apart from the flow of life. It takes space that is marked off for intentional sharing. It takes the recognition that Jesus is among the friendship circle and has something to say. A spiritual friendship might look like a weekly cup of coffee in a quite spot with a work-mate. It could be a regular video/phone call for a few minutes once or twice a week. It could be a brief time of prayer after dinner with your spouse or your family. Yet it really can’t be whatever, whenever, whoever. Could you imagine someone saying they are committed to fitness training but never actually works out regularly? No. You get nowhere without routine. Without working at it. Without building a rhythm.
Make the time – 30 minutes isn’t impossible.
Getting started isn’t complicated. You and your friend at some point have to find a space and a place to connect. Knowing that the quality of the time is important, you can’t be sloppy about when and where to meet. For starters, pick a quiet place with few distractions that is safe and available to you and your friend. At first just shoot for 30 minutes. You’ll most likely find yourself expanding that, but don’t make the mistake of aiming too high when you’re getting started.
Establishing a rhythm.
People hear the word Spiritual and think – woe, this has to be deep! I have to bare my soul or become someone’s personal counselor! No. Spiritual disciplines take time to learn – they’re not as intuitive as you’d think. Just like in strength training, you don’t start off by lifting as much weight as you can. You train your muscles to work the right way. That means lots of reps with good technique. The patterns and ingredients of spiritual friendship are similarly nuanced. When you and your friend are just getting going, DON’T go deep. You’ll pull a muscle! You’ll train bad technique into your routine. Keep it simple. Here are a few safe spiritual conversation contours you can follow:
- Tell your story. How did you become a follower of Jesus?
- Does your friend know anything about your family background? Just the basics, not every detail. And especially keep it simple around the painful parts of your past.
- What are you curious about when you think about your friend? Come each time you meet with a fresh question in your pocket. “You know you never told me how you decided where to go to college and what to major in. How did God factor into that for you?”
- At first, its’ usually a good idea to trade answers like a tennis volley- no matter who asks a question.
- Ask questions that have some depth, but give your friend an out if they want to give a simple answer.
- How is your soul? What’s one hope you have for this semester? Is there something you are waiting on God for?
- What’s been happening since we last met – is there anything you need God’s wisdom for?
At first, the best thing you can do is build trust. That’s why its vastly more important to make a spiritual friendship conversation a regular thing instead of a lengthy thing! Just like in athletic training, the repetition at regular intervals is what will make it work.
The awkward pivot.
There are always potentially two awkward moments when you and a friend are getting started with spiritual conversations. The first is simply getting past the small talk. Small talk is easy peasy. It’s a little like paying the parking meter – you just gotta do it in order to get in the building. At some point though, someone asks a great spiritual question, and you know the conversation just took a turn. “How are you feeling about your schedule – are you still stressed out?” “Last week you said you were struggling with your advisor, how have you been handling that?” “My sister we’ve been praying about called me out of the blue and asked me for help!”
Once small talk turns into spiritually significant conversation, it almost seems like the time just fills itself. Sharing updates or launching a new question you’ve never talked about brings energy to the friendship. The challenge is letting the conversation flow back and forth and not letting one person dominate (no matter how important the content). At some point, that second, awkward pivot has to be navigated. How do you welcome God into the space you and your friend have just created?
Praying and listening take real work.
I won’t lie. People who aren’t used to praying out loud find it weird at first. Even if you are used to praying privately, praying with another person, out loud, can be awkward. Spiritual Friendship opens itself to “another” member of the circle. Aelred of Rievaulx famously put it this way: “Here we are, you and I and I hope a third, Christ is in our midst.” Friends who have just opened their spiritual lives to each other are poised for something profound. It’s as if three people have been sitting in a circle of chairs talking for 20 minutes. But the conversation has only been between two of them. It’s been getting nudged along, warming up minute by minute. But the third person hasn’t uttered a word. If that silent third party just gets up and walks away, the other two are left cut off from another source of warm, wise input. The two are greatly loved by the third. But the two pretended the third wasn’t even there. What a loss!
Spiritual friendship embraces the opportunity to be cared for by Jesus through the presence and involvement of the Holy Spirit. As awkward as it can feel (especially as your time together slips away) someone needs to include that third party! That’s what prayer does. Listening prayer accomplishes that. Intercessory prayer accomplishes that. Scripture also speaks with the voice of God into the conversation. More on different forms of prayer in another post, but suffice it to say that prayer brings friendship into direct contact with the Lord. He loves this pair of his children and longs to be asked for good things.
“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13 NIV)
When you’re just getting started praying with a friend, keep it simple. As the conversation transitions to prayer each could just summarize their spiritual concern in one sentence. Answer the question: “Based on our conversation today, what is the most important thing we can ask God for?” It’s ok to pray for a very short time when you’re getting started. It’s ok to just ask God for what you want and need. That’s about it!
Sticking the landing
Closure is also a lost art. The clock usually sweeps us out of our corner and on to the next thing. When building a pattern of spiritual conversation always take the last 60 seconds of your time to think ahead about your next conversation. Reassure each other that you’ll be in each others thoughts and prayers. Thank each other for the gift of time you’ve both just enjoyed. Agree to meet up again. If I’ve had my journal along during my time with a friend, I usually jot one or two reminders of what to pray about and what to ask about next time.
Summary – Spiritual Conversation basics:
- Set a time and place to meet and keep it short at first – 30 minutes.
- Enjoy some aspect of hospitality while meeting. A favorite place or maybe a drink.
- Come prepared to ask thoughtful questions that will guide your time.
- Share the conversation – back and forth, asking, listening, asking, listening.
- Pivot the conversation to include your Third Party. Keep your prayers simple and focused. What do you each need from the Lord?
- Bring good closure, review the high-points, agree on your next meeting time, express gratitude!