Every Christian leader I know aspires to change the world in some way. They want to effect meaningful, significant, and sizeable spiritual change. And, like aspiring world-changers everywhere, they—we—are instinctually suspicious of “doing the dishes.” After all, all those unseen, quiet acts of service that have to be done all over again tomorrow just don’t appear very powerful.
In my city alone, there are millions of people who don’t know Christ, and only a handful of churches. There are simply too many lost people for us to settle for simple solutions. We need big, national or international movements, not just one or two more believers! We need powerful solutions now, not just churches that might finally be healthy ten years from now!
Spurred on by this urgent desperation, Christians often look to the book of Acts. They want to find the apostle Paul’s secret sauce. How did he get the gospel to go forward? What can we learn from him? Which methods are we applying incorrectly? Which methods would produce the harvest we pray for?
But Paul’s actions in Acts aren’t the first place we should look to learn from his ministry. Rather, his actions should be read in light of what we know about his principles that are most clearly exposed in his letters. After all, even Paul’s contemporaries often misunderstood his actions. He often appeared inconsistent. He fought against circumcising Titus; he pre-emptively circumcised Timothy. He wrote hard letters; he spoke softly. Paul didn’t have a “ministry method,” if by that we mean a collection of techniques guaranteed to produce fruitfulness. Rather, he had convictions and priorities that provided a coherent foundation for faithfulness across all his situations.
A SURPRISING “SECRET SAUCE”
One of Paul’s most consistent values may surprise us: friendship. Paul valued friendship with fellow Christians. He worked to establish and maintain friendships.
Consider how often Paul says something like: “I thank my God always when I remember you, because I hear of your love for all the saints” (Gal. 1:15, Col. 1:4, 2 Thess. 1:3, Philemon 4). Consider how in nearly every letter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he devotes space to greeting specific believers, who are by now long dead. In what sense are those names useful to the man of faith today, if not to teach us the importance of Christian friendships?
These names reveal the constellation of fellow-Christians who labored alongside Paul for the sake of the gospel. Paul’s energies in the body of his letters typically focus on dynamics within the life of a local church. Yet his greetings do demonstrate his “secret sauce.”
Why was Paul’s ministry so widespread and effective? How was he able to start and affect so many different local congregations? Because he loved, cared about, and prayed for so many fellow Christians. In his greetings, we meet dear brothers and sisters: Tychicus, who delivered Paul’s letters (Eph. 6:21–22, Col. 4:7–8, 2 Tim. 4:12); Rufus’ mom, who was a mother to Paul (Rom. 16:13); Onesimus, the runaway slave turned brother (Col. 4:9); Mark, the runaway brother turned reliable friend (Col. 4:10, 2 Tim. 4:11); Demas, the seemingly-reliable coworker turned traitor (Col. 4:14, 2 Tim. 4:10); and Epaphras, the faithful prayer warrior (Col. 4:12). These are only a few.
Such greetings teach us Paul’s gospel effect was enhanced not only by “sidekicks” like Barnabas, Silas, or Luke. He relied on Priscilla and Aquila—strangers who became co-laborers. He entrusted disciples like Timothy and Titus with great responsibility; he rejoiced in their success and exhorted them in their discouragements. Paul worked for reconciliation between people like Philemon and Onesimus (Phm. 8–19), or Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2). He commended Christians to other churches, like Phoebe (Rom. 16:1–2) or Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25–30).
Paul loved these people. They amplified his ministry—not as tools, but as beloved brethren, co-laborers for the truth.
Well and good. Why write an article about something so basic? For some reason, we’re so quick to discount the power of friendship in ministry. Perhaps because it costs so little to begin a friendship, we devalue its long-term worth in ministry.
It’s not only the ministry of Paul that was carried out through friendship. Consider the Clapham Sect,2 or the Particular Baptists who supported William Carey and others in their missionary endeavor to Bengal,3 or the way the relationships between the Cappadocian Fathers4 provoked such useful theological material that has served the church for centuries. Friendships—those inefficient and often unpredictably constructed things—provide the foundations for deep ministerial capacity.
The benefits that come from an association or denomination—whether encouragement or accountability—only really happen because of friendship. Remove friendship from the equation, and associations are nothing more than one more place to argue and maneuver. Associations and denominations are useful only insofar as they help build relationships with fellow believers in ministry. Without relationship, there are fewer platforms for such pursuits. Without friendship, who’s really going to listen to you, or work to support you? How well have the formal structures of a denomination turned back a church or minister denying the inerrancy of Scripture? How many of those successes happened apart from longsuffering, loving friendships?
Friendship takes time. And it’s not always clear that a friendship will “pay off,” ministry-wise. After all, friendships can be costly. They may expose you to far more heartbreak, even as they bring more encouragement. But without friendships across churches, efforts to cooperate wind up feeling slightly more awkward than an ice-breaker during youth group.
HOW TO BUILD FRIENDSHIPS
Allow me to suggest just a few ways that you can encourage these kinds of friendships both in your life, and in the lives of your ministry partners.
- Keep up with friends in ministry. Ask how they are. Talk to them about ministry. The text thread I have with my friends Ryan, Sam, and Matt is consistently encouraging. It’s full of goofy jokes, practical pastoral wisdom, and theological resourcing. It takes little work, but pays back great dividends.
- Meet other believers ministering in your city. Take time to get to know them—without an agenda or an event or a project you want them to participate in. Friendship requires little theological agreement, but it’s a wonderful context to learn how much theological agreement you do have with someone. The congregation I pastor shares a building with a Presbyterian church. It took us months to realize we not only agreed on the gospel, but also on many more specific doctrines. Growing friendships between their elders and ours enabled us to see how much more we could cooperate with each other.
- Encourage the pastors of churches you visit when traveling. When I travel, even just when I’m on vacation with my family, I make it my aim to say or write something to the pastor and specifically point out things I was encouraged by—in his preaching, in the actions of the congregation, or whatever else. It costs me little, and it may help another brother persevere.
- Pray regularly for other churches in your city, and around the world. Aim to learn the names of saints and congregations in other cities and countries you can publicly pray for. There’s little that builds Christian affection better than praying for someone.
- Celebrate the ministry of others—inside and outside your congregation. Extend goodwill to others. It’s remarkable how open people are to input and formation when they know you love them, especially compared to their response when they only know you think they’re wrong.
Christian friendships demonstrate the gospel and enhance ministry. Paul knew this, and we should, too. Maybe the best thing we can do today to change the world is pick up the phone, buy somebody a coffee, and start a conversation.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on 9 Marks on October 25, 2021. Used with permission.
1. O’Rourke, P.J., All the Trouble in the World: The Lighter Side of Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Poverty, (reprint: 2007, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.) 9.
2. A group of devout Christians in late 18th and early 19th century Britain, many of whom were converted under Charles Simeon’s ministry. Among their number was William Wilberforce.
3. See especially Michael Haykin’s The Missionary Fellowship of William Carey (Reformation Trust: Grand Rapids, 2018) for extended consideration of the role of friendship in the effectiveness of their ministry.
4. Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa.