Leaning into Church Friendships, Leaning to Church Conflict

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scripture: Philippians 1:3-11; 2:2-4, 12-16; 4:1-7

Date: November 6, 2022

Could a spreadsheet help strengthen your friendships or even our relationships within the church? Maybe, according to an NPR article (Keane & Weiner, 2019). Here’s an excerpt:

Vanessa Nuñez was craving close friendship. “I had a lot of surface-level relationships with different people but it never really went deeper than that,” says Nuñez, “and I wanted deeper, meaningful relationships.”

In search of better connections, she started a spreadsheet. After all, she… use[s] Microsoft Excel all the time at her job… Why not use it for her personal life?

First order of business: “I brainstormed all the people that mean something to me, all the people that I would love to continue a relationship with, and I just wrote them all down,” says Nuñez.

            From there, she narrowed the list to about 25 people who Nuñez felt had the same level of interest in maintaining their friendship. She entered those names into the spreadsheet, then began to track how often she saw each one.

“Then as the months go by, you’ll start to see trends like, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen my friend Tiffany since February,’ ” says Nuñez.Tiffany got a call, and the friendship got closer.

Nuñez admits her friendship spreadsheet is a bit unconventional, a little nerdy. But there’s a point to her data collection.

“I’m just really trying to be intentional with my time and with my relationships,” she notes. “This has worked wonders for me with helping me achieve that.”

It’s an intriguing idea. I love using data to make things a little clearer. I know I have wondered, “Hmm, when was the last time I saw Jacob? Or when was the last time I had a good conversation with Sally?” It gets a bit fuzzy. We could use some intentionality in our relationships both within and outside of the church.

Someone recently confided in me that they had very little connections or relationships with people in the church.  This person was sad to realize this but also seemed a little unclear as to how that could change. I know I myself am not fully satisfied with the level of closeness in the church. How can that change?

We do, of course, have a lot to blame on the pandemic. Covid certainly changed things – it reduced the people we saw, our ability to travel. Unless we intentionally scheduled an outdoor meetup, I went months without seeing someone from the church in person. It was and is really staggering to think about – something that I have periodically had to grieve and sit with.

Yet we did figure some things out sometimes. I’m reminded of a beautiful and celebratory autumn day 2 years ago tomorrow, when several of us met up outside on the church lawn and breathed a collective sigh of relief and hope.

Another NPR article distills some research from a psychologist named Dr. Marisa Franco, who writes about building platonic friendships. This is just a brief summary but the article notes four strategies we can use to improve and strengthen their platonic friendships (George & Douglis, 2022):

1. Shower your friend with (platonic) affection – tell them how much you appreciate them, talk to other people about how great your friend is, tell them you think they will achieve their goals or that you are proud of them, etc..

2. Lavish them with your skills and talents – share your time, focus, and resources with them. Be generous with your friends.

3. Spill your struggles, joys … and guilty pleasures – talk about your struggles and also mention a show or book or sport you are loving.

4. Don’t sweep your disagreements under the rug – dealing with conflict in a healthy and constructive way can strengthen your friendships. To do this, tell your friend that you appreciate them, use some “I” statements to share your concerns, and ask for some changes going forward.

I think most of us recognize theoretically that romantic relationships are work, even if we may not put in the amount work we need. Dr. Franco argues that platonic friendships—including church friendships—need work and intentionality too.

I recognize that we can’t and won’t be best friends with everybody in our church. Yet I think scripture highlights the values of meaningful relationships with other Jesus followers, something beyond just a “Hi, how are you?” on a Sunday morning. The early church was a vibrant community of people praying, studying scripture, eating together, and being involved and supportive in each other’s lives.

What does it look like to build strong church friendships? I think we are called to be intentional. My message today is that we are called to lean into church friendships and even to lean into church conflicts when they happen in the church.

I am going to walk us through parts of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, which actually utilizes some of Dr. Franco’s four strategies quite a bit. See if you can recognize them. As a reminder, they are: shower friends with affection, share your time or resources, spill your struggles or joys, and don’t sweep disagreements under the rug.

Paul’s Love for the Philippian Christians

After saying who the letter is from and who it is for, plus a greeting, Paul starts with some gratitude for the Christians worshipping together in Philippi.

[Philippians 1:3-11]

I thank my God for every remembrance of you, 

always in every one of my prayers for all of you, 

praying with joy for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. 

Paul starts his letter reminding the early Jesus followers in Philippi that he keeps them on his mind. Paul is grateful for the Philippians and their church, Paul prays for the Philippians, and when they come to mind as he prays for them, he remembers them with joy because they are working alongside Paul—even if not physically side-by-side—as partners in the gospel of Jesus.  They are each other’s people. They have the same goals and values.  Paul reminds the Philippians of the big picture: they are on the same team, with the work of the ushering in the peace and love of Jesus.

Paul continues to encourage the Christians in the church at Philippi and says some more good things:

I am confident of this, 

that the one who began a good work in you 

will continue to complete it until the day of Jesus Christ. [repeat]

Verse 6 has long been one of my favorites, though I hadn’t come across it in a while. Paul reminds the Christians in Philippi, “I believe that God is not done with you yet. Remember, the Spirit of God started something good in you! Even if you may lose sight of it or be discouraged, the Holy Spirit is not done with y’all yet.”

The Holy Spirit is not done with you or me or all of us yet.

Paul continues and gets a little gushy about the Philippian Christians and then prays that they would be characterized by love.

It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because I hold you in my heart, 

for all of you are my partners in God’s grace, 

both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.

For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the tender affection of Christ Jesus. 

And this is my prayer, 

that your love may overflow 

more and more with knowledge and full insight 

to help you to determine what really matters, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness 

that comes through Jesus Christ 

for the glory and praise of God.

We sang this morning, “Let it be revealed in you, let it be revealed in me – this love, this love, that’s been given to us.” Paul got that love is the answer. Manifesting that love together in community, love shared in a church as a group of Jesus followers: such love builds knowledge to show us what really matters. The love that we build together, with each other within the church, is what bears fruit.  It produces a harvest of righteousness, to the glory of our Creator God.

Moving on to chapter 2, Paul digs in a little deeper and reminds the group of Philippian Christians to focus on empathy, working through differences, and finding ways to come together to do God’s work. Paul writes,

[Philippians 2:2-4, 12-16]

…Make my joy complete: 

be of the same mind, 

having the same love, 

being in full accord and of one mind. 

Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit,

but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.

Let each of you look not to your own interests 

but to the interests of others. 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…

…Work on your own salvation with fear and trembling,

for it is God who is at work in you, 

enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Do all things without murmuring and arguing, 

so that you may be blameless and innocent, 

children of God without blemish 

in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, 

in which you shine like stars in the world, 

holding forth the word of life…

I hear Paul telling the Christians in Philippi, “Take seriously your relationships with each other, your disagreements with each other, your friction, your bumps, and your misunderstandings. Work through them.”

Working through conflict constructively is part of God’s design for the church. Paul refers several times to the Philippians work, their labor in the gospel.

Our faith requires work. This work is multidirectional. We need to work on our own hearts and actions, while God is working on us—so that we can do God’s work together. We work, while God has already been working and is still working, God shapes us and our work—and uses it for the gospel of Jesus. Willingness to do the work of transforming and engaging church conflict or interpersonal conflict is a testimony: to use Paul’s words, we can shine like stars in the world, reflecting the light of God.

In the last passage we will look at today, Paul gets more specific about some conflict at the congregation in Philippi. [Phil 4:1-2]

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, 

whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, 

stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my coworkers, whose names are in the book of life.

Somehow, despite being in prison, Paul has heard that there are problems within the leadership of the church at Philippi. We do not know exactly what the conflict is about. Yet we can learn a few things.

First, that conflict can affect the health of the congregation – Paul is writing to strengthen the church and the conflict needs to be addressed. It needs to be taken seriously and worked on.

Second, we see that people in the midst of conflict can still be valued as Jesus followers and even church leaders. No one is immune from conflict and the need to work things out in love.

One commentator noted that when Paul names both Euodia and Syntyche, detailing how they are coworkers with Paul. By doing this, Paul is lifting them and valuing their roles in the church. I think it is a helpful reminder that no one in our church will escape conflict (leaders or not leaders). We have conflict with each other and still be faithful. We can have conflict and still be Jesus followers. Conflict in the church does not mean we are failures or bad Christians—as long as we are committed to working through it. This “working through it” might be one-on-one. Or, like Euodia and Syntyche, we might need someone else to walk alongside us as a mediator or helpful neutral party.

When we process and transform conflict, we continue the work of the gospel. Sisters and brothers, siblings in Jesus, that is the gospel! The gospel of reconciliation. Working through both small conflicts and big ones can testify to the resurrecting and reconciling power of Jesus.

Leaning into Church Friendships, Leaning into Church Conflict

Conflict is neither bad nor good: how we approach a conflict is whether it becomes constructive or destructive. At the same time, conflict can make us anxious! For that matter, building stronger friendships can cause anxiety too! As we lean into church friendships and as we lean into conflict, let us hold these words of Paul in mind.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

AMEN.

References

George, K. & Douglis, S. (2022). How to show your friends you love them, according to a friendship expert. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2022/09/01/1120550646/how-to-show-your-friends-you-love-them-according-to-a-friendship-expert

Keane, M, & Weiner, C. (2019). Want stronger friendships? Pull out your notepad. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/08/29/755390432/want-stronger-friendships-pull-out-your-notepad

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