True friendship doesn’t just happen. Friendship—real and deep friendship—takes wise and careful cultivation. Although letters, texts, and phone calls each can be used to strengthen friendship, it especially thrives when we spend time together, life on life and face to face. And this is also the best context in which to help one another grow as disciples of Jesus Christ—it is when we’re together in the mix of everyday life that we see how we really live, and see evidence of what we really believe.
For the sake of deeper community and discipleship, here are six ways to cultivate face to face friendship.
1. Get Face to Face
Our digital age gives us very convenient tools for friendship. We can call one another across great distances; we can text and email; we can share pictures and videos. But nothing replaces face to face experiences. The apostle Paul wrote meaningful letters to those whom he loved, but he also said, “we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face” (1 Thess. 3:10). The apostle John wrote, “I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12). Notice the connection between getting face to face and joy. Technology is a great gift, but relational joy will only come to completion when we get face to face.
Why? Because we are not disembodied spirits; we are embodied human beings. We were made for the full experience of human communication. We were made to see the sincerity in our friend’s eyes, to feel the reassuring touch, to hear the unrestrained laugh. This fullness of friendship can only be experienced when we’re together.
One of the most practical steps to cultivate friendship is to simply step into the presence of a friend. And use technology not just to connect, but also to schedule times to get together.
2. Add Food to Friendship
Food is one of the greatest tools for strengthening relationships. Food is not just for continued existence; it provides a context for community. In many cultures, sharing a meal signifies friendship. Meals provide an opportunity to slow down, relax, and open up to one another.
When Jesus came, he didn’t just meet with people, he spent time with them around a table. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Matt. 11:19). Jesus was not a glutton nor a drunkard, but the accusation stuck because of his reputation for spending so much time eating with people.
We each eat about twenty-one meals every week. Why not block off two of those—for example, breakfast on Tuesdays and lunch on Fridays—and invite a friend to join you? And then establish a weekly or every-other-week rhythm of grabbing coffee with someone.
3. Ask Lots of Questions
We honor friends when we ask them good questions about their lives. Comments about the weather are fine, but not if we neglect speaking about the climate of our souls.
Here are a few questions that help us drop below the surface, into the deeper waters of our souls: What are you encouraged about recently? What has been discouraging to you? How are things going at home (or at work, or at school)? What are you reading recently, and what has stood out to you from it? What are a few themes in your life, or a few things that are often on your mind these days?
4. Actually Listen
We also honor our friends when we listen to them. This is different than merely hearing their words and even different than understanding what they’re saying. This is also different than paying attention, but primarily waiting until you have an opportunity to speak again.
The listening that strengthens friendship is listening curiously. True friendship requires conversational give-and-take. Be curious, ask questions, and listen carefully.
5. Set a Tone of Encouragement
Our words often determine the health of our friendships. And not just specific words here and there, but the general tone that we set with our speech. And the cumulative force of our words affects our relationships. What tone do you set by what you say?
We strengthen friendships by saturating our speech with encouragement. Christians are called to speak “only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). Whenever a thought comes to your mind to affirm something about someone, do it without hesitating. Let them know why you respect them. Let them know you’re proud of them.
This kind of direct, look-your-friend-in-the-eye affirmation may seem awkward at first, especially for men. But over time we will find this kind of encouragement life-giving. As those who have heard God’s gracious acceptance of us in Christ, and as those who will hear a “well done” on the coming Day, we are called to generously give affirmation and encouragement to one another.
6. Turn Your Unique Circumstances into Opportunities to Connect
Maybe friendship was easier in a previous season of life. But now your job involves drive-time. Or your studies are demanding. Or you are raising young children. Or sports schedules keep your evenings and weekends unpredictable or full. How can you find time for friendship in this new season?
Here’s a plan: Identify what makes your season of life challenging, and ask how you can creatively turn that very obstacle into an opportunity for friendship. If your commute is long, ask if someone else would like to carpool with you one day each week. If you have to drive to a basketball practice or soccer game, invite someone to join you. Students, consider studying with others and take a couple five-minute breaks to talk. Parents with young children, schedule play-dates for your kids—walk together, go to the park together, have lunch together.
True friendship is worth every bit of effort we put into it because we were made for friendship—life on life and face to face friendship, the kind that endures through thick and thin. This kind of friendship provides the best context for helping one another grow as disciples of Jesus Christ together.
Drew Hunter (MA, Wheaton College) is the author of Made for Friendship: The Relationship That Halves Our Sorrows and Doubles Our Joys. He is also the teaching pastor at Zionsville Fellowship in Zionsville, Indiana. He previously served as a minister for young adults at Grace Church of DuPage and taught religious studies at College of DuPage. Drew and his wife, Christina, live in Zionsville, Indiana, and have four children.