Assimilation Through Friendship

By Gary McIntosh & Glen Martin

Longfellow said, “Ah, how good it feels, the hand of an old friend.” Emerson said, “A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of Nature.” Franklin said it this way, “There are three faithful friends—an old wife, an old dog, and ready money.” Cicero said, “Friendship adds a brighter radiance to prosperity and lightens the burden of adversity by dividing and sharing it.” Solomon said in Proverbs 18:24, “A man of many friends comes to ruin, But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

Visitors to the Florida home of Thomas A. Edison will find a unique stone walkway in his garden. He called it his “friendship walk.” Each stone was dedicated by a friend. The stones reminded him that friends were the means of his success.

Assimilation begins right at the heart of our need for relationships. Many churches are inclusive in outreach, yet exclusive in fellowship. People can be reached, baptized, and brought into membership and not be incorporated into the friendship structure of a church.

Lyle E. Schaller writes in Assimilating New Members:

The background theory is that every congregation can be described in terms of two concentric circles. The larger outer circle is the membership circle.

Every member is within that outer circle. The smaller inner circle includes the members who feel a sense of belonging and who feel fully accepted into the fellowship of that called-out community. Most of the leaders come from persons within this fellowship circle. By contrast, many of the workers who do not have policy-making authority may be drawn from among the members who are outside the fellowship circle. In some congregations workers may even be recruited from among the people who are outside the membership circle, some of whom identify with this congregation as constituents and some of whom are members of other congregations. One of the means of distinguishing between those within the fellowship circle and those outside it is the terminology; the former usually are comfortable with the pronouns we, us, and ours when referring to that congregation, while the latter tend to use they, them, and theirs more frequently.’

There is considerable evidence which suggests that at least one-third, and perhaps as many as one-half, of all protestant church members do not feel a sense of belonging to the congregation of which they are members. They have been received into membership, but have never felt they have been accepted into the fellowship circle.

Evangelism and receiving new members into a congregation are two separate actions.’
The essence of his research shows that there are two distinct and separate levels of inclusion. One is the superficial level to which most Christians find themselves belonging. This is a level where they feel comfortable in the worship service, but where Sunday School or small-group involvement is avoided, and service and support are not on the agenda.

The second level is much more relational, and far more significant in the life of an assimilated member. It is the level where there is a sense of belonging and even a sense of accountability. It is the level where involvement in small-group ministries and service is an active part of the Christian life.

Development of this second level must be a continual focus of the leadership of a church. Schaller notes:

People with no friends usually have a diminished capacity for sustaining any kind of love. They tend to go through a succession of marriages, be estranged from various family members, and have trouble getting along at work. On the other hand, those who learn how to love their friends tend to make long and fulfilling marriages, get along well with the people at work, and enjoy their children.

The Pillars of Friendship

Think of friendship as having six foundational pillars. The structure will stand with only five. It could even remain intact with four. But a real friend, the kind of friend that people need in our churches, has six characteristics:
Fun to be with

As we examine each of these pillars, think about your church environment and the friends that you have there. Are these characteristic of your friends? Are you providing the necessary programming and planning that enable people in your church to make these kinds of friends?

The first pillar simply tells us that your friend is fun to be with. Friendship is fun. People need to be in each other’s company to laugh and play together. They need to play games and go for walks. The church must provide opportunities where people with common interests can come together and have fun. Be creative—sports teams, game nights, picnics at the lake, caroling parties, potlucks, film nights, hiking groups, camp outs, tennis tournaments the list can be endless.

Despite the fun that must accompany genuine friendship, a second pillar of a deepening relationship must be developed. Scripture calls this depth of relationship love, a selfless expression of meeting the other’s needs with no desires or expectations. This is a love that motivates us to cut through the layers of vulnerability and fear, and demonstrate real concern from the heart. This requires a willingness to be available to each other. When times are the toughest, each of us needs an “advocate,” a person to come alongside and hold us up. We all need that circle of friends who know the real us and love us anyway. They accept us and they trust us.

Friendship demands sharing and trusting with the supreme motivation of love. Where can this relational side of friendship be developed? In many areas. Sunday School is a wonderful place for the relational mode of friend-making. Another vital area to this process is that of small groups, which will be discussed in greater detail in a later chapter.

The third pillar to cultivating a friendship is an inspiring relationship. No two people are alike. Proverbs 27:17 tells us, “Iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens another.” We all need sharpening and friends invigorate us to desire change in our lives.

In many of the churches where I have spoken and consulted, the one place where I have seen the invigorating nature of friendships more than any other is in discipleship groups. The Navigators 2:7 is an ideal example. People come together, accountable for memorization and Bible study, and motivate one another to keep with the program. Why do you think Alcoholics Anonymous is so successful? How has Weight Watchers had such an impact on the weight-loss scene? It is because of invigoration, what Webster says provides “vigor, vitality, or strength to.”

The fourth pillar is encouragement. Have you ever been in a great mood only to have “Mr. Depressed” walk into your life? How did you feel when he left? The survival rate for a friendship where one person continually drags the other down is very poor. In the midst of our fun and our relationships and even our invigoration, there must be the desire to encourage each other.

Encouragement allows the sun to peek through the clouds. Encouragement doesn’t need to be flashy. In our church we have several ladies who provide encouragement by sending little notes. Do you know how good I feel when a note of thanks arrives on my desk? We also have a tradition for all new parents in the church. The Sunday after a child

Assimilation Through Friendship is born, we ask Dad to come forward and tell us about the 1 new arrival and receive from the pastor a rose bud to give to Mom. Simple? Yes! Encouraging, knowing that the church is thinking of you when you are so tired? Very much so!

The fifth pillar is nurture. “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Real friendship needs nurture, the desire to give, give, and still give. The giving, nurturing side of friendship has two sides, sacrifice and spirituality. If we examine our friendships, it is not long before we can see the sacrifices we make. We may give up a Friday evening to watch the kids of our friends so they can have a night out. We could cancel our vacation if a pressing need arose. We should be ready to rearrange our schedules for the benefit of our friends.

The spiritual side of nurturing is much more involved. Rick was a young man in our church with a lot of potential. He had many friends and was seeking the opportunity to go into ministry. But his follow through was inconsistent. All of his life, he had been told to do whatever he wanted and not to feel bad when his commitments faltered. He found himself drifting away from God because he spent most of his time having fun with his newly developed circle of friends. What Rick really needed was a Christian friend who would love him enough to nurture him through these tough times and steer him back to spiritual things.

Flavell Yeakley has determined statistically that each of us needs at least seven friends if we are to stay in a church.4 What may be even more alarming is that we may need an equal number of Christian friends to nurture us in our faith.

The last pillar is devotion. Proverbs 19:4-7 expresses what happens to friendships based on the wrong devotion.

Wealth adds many friends, But a poor man is separated from his friend. A false witness will not go unpunished, And he who tells lies will not escape. Many will entreat the favor of a generous man, And every man is a friend to him who gives gifts. All the brothers of a poor man hate him; How much more do his friends go far from him! He pursues them with words, but they are gone.

A Biblical Example

Nothing takes the place of true friendship. Especially rare are the people who are friends for life and who stand by you to the very end. Jesus had a few friends like that. One of them was the beloved apostle John, from that inner circle of disciples, who stood with Him even at His death on the cross. That friendship enabled our Lord to turn His mother, Mary, over to John’s care. Also, Jesus revealed Himself to John during the last hours of John’s life, when he was exiled on the island of Patmos. They were friends to the very end.

David had one true friend Jonathan, Saul’s son. Nothing could break their relationship. Jonathan and David promised friendship to one another, the kind of devotion that continues despite the troubles of life.

Jonathan appears for the first time in Scripture as a soldier who had already commanded a thousand troops at Gibeah (1 Sam. 13:2) and had led a charge against the Philistines (13:8 to 14:15). He had to be old enough to be a military veteran.

Now David, the son of Jesse, was still at home while several of his brothers were already in the army. He was a shepherd and even after he volunteered to fight Goliath, he was reminded, “. . . for you are but a youth” (17:33).

Whatever their ages, they met and soon after David’s 3 encounter with Goliath, this friendship blossomed into a real love for one another. “Now it came about when he had finished speaking to Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself” (18:1). Interestingly, Jonathan was the heir apparent to the throne. However, because of Saul’s disobedience and sin, the right of family succession was forfeited. Instead, David was chosen by God to be king. Saul was jealous. He realized that a friendship had developed between Jonathan and David. There was only one thing to do: Kill David and the throne would once again be Jonathan’s.
But Jonathan and David had made a covenant, a binding, loyal commitment to each other. Jonathan knew that he would never be king and was willing to encourage his devoted friend and deliver him from his father’s hand.

True friendship is a blessing. We would be fortunate to have a friend like Jonathan. But we, as a church, must provide ample opportunities for these types of bonds to develop.


A church which is effective in incorporating new people into its social structure will be able to identify a minimum of three distinct ways in which it does so. Take a few moments and list below all of the ways that your church provides to help people make friends in your church.
Transfer to figure 14 the names of programs and/or ministries that your church is now using to help new people make friends. Then list ministries that you need to start so that you will have a better incorporation strategy.

While practicing law, George G. Vest, a former U.S. senator from Missouri, defended a farmer whose dog was involved in a minor damage suit. Here is part of his speech:
The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is his dog . . . . When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.

If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies.

And, when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in his embrace, and his body is laid away in the cold ground, at grave side will be found the noble dog, his head between his paws, his sad eyes alert and watchful, still faithful and true even in death.

With this impassioned plea, Vest won a favorable verdict from the jury. I believe that when the same can be said for us, when that kind of devotion exists in our lives, we will experience real friendship.

‘Lyle E. Schaller, Assimilating New Members (Nashville:Abingdon Press, 1978).2lbid., 16. 3Alan Loy McGinnis, The Friendship Factor (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House), 9.
4Win Arn and Charles Arn, The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples (Monrovia, Calif.: Church Growth Press, 1982), 156.

The above article, “Assimilation Through Friendship” was written by Gary McIntosh & Glen Martin. The article was excerpted from McIntosh & Martin’s book Finding Them, Keeping Them.

The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”