Authors: Jennie Allen
It’s rare that someone will take the initiative in friendship, so quit waiting for that to happen. Everybody is busy, and few people are prioritizing deep connection. In other words, plan to go first.
Connection takes stepping out and being intentional again and again. If you’re thinking,
I’ve done that for so long, and nobody is reciprocating,
let me gently encourage you to be sad for exactly one minute and then to get over it and own that role.
You will never have friends unless you are willing to consistently initiate.
Be the one who reaches out. Initiate and initiate again. You can’t expect to have friends unless you get good at this. Even though it’s frustrating. Even though it’s awkward.
It will almost always be awkward.
It was awkward when I reached out to that camp counselor after two and a half decades, not to thank her for being a positive influence during my teen years, but to ask her to be friends. I imagined her sitting there at the coffee shop across from me thinking,
How desperate must this poor woman be, to have to dig all the way down to her teenage relationships to find a friend?
I didn’t care. I was desperate.
It was awkward when I spilled my neediness to poor Caroline Parker, the college student who thought she was coming to my house to be interviewed for a babysitter position, not to be my therapist.
It was awkward when we showed up at our new small group and shared the real story of our lives with complete strangers.
But each time over the past three years that I have chosen to drop the facade of “I’m great, thanks,” and initiate conversations about how I’m really doing and what the other person really needs, God has handed me the most life-giving exchanges imaginable. In the wake of initiating, inviting the person to coffee, being willing to spill my guts, and asking the hard questions, real friendships began to form.
We go first. We keep initiating.
We see enough of Jesus’s life in the Gospels to know that He was an incredible initiator. He noticed people. He stopped for a conversation. He even invited Himself over to Zacchaeus’s house for dinner.
I have been blessed to be able to do some work in Israel, and the thing that surprised me most is the tight radius within which most of Jesus’s ministry took place. Israel is a small country, roughly the size of New Jersey. Only five miles separate Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Communities were located intentionally so that people could return easily to the temple. We could sit on a boat in the Sea of Galilee and see the various places where Jesus spent most of His life. Most of the disciples lived just a few miles from each other, and most of their travels were day trips on foot.
Jesus lived small and simply, doing life with those immediately around him, but those few people’s lives would affect the whole world. He prioritized proximity, His family, intimate meals, and fireside chats. That wasn’t revolutionary in biblical times. It’s just how people lived.
And it mattered. People in small towns, living life together, was essential to the way the Church would grow and spread. The entire Church was birthed from a few uneducated fishermen and their friends, and it reached to the ends of the earth. And yes, someone had to take the gospel to the world. Paul and the apostles would travel and spread the good news, but all along the way, they settled into community contexts, staying with families, being invested in and supported by local churches.
Community should, in its truest form, reflect aspects of who God is and how He loves. Which brings me to a question: Who has God put in your life—here and now and right under your nose—that you haven’t really connected with yet?
Remember, the enemy wants to shut you down, make you afraid to initiate, cause you to not prioritize the people right in front of you. He wants us to live surrounded by people but
never deeply connected to them, so we don’t change, we don’t grow, we don’t even fully live—and we mostly end up stuck in self-pity about how we don’t have any friends when dozens of people in front of us certainly would welcome someone reaching out to them at the very least.
In case you need help seeing the people in your life from this perspective, the following list will get you started. Granted, it isn’t exhaustive. But hopefully it will put words to what you need in the little team you are gathering around you—and help you notice the people who may already be filling key roles. These individuals may be of varying ages and cross your path in various ways, but the point is to look for people with certain qualities to play different roles in your life, not just seek out two to three people who are exactly like you and expect them to meet all your relational needs.
A village of people meeting different needs and loving you in different ways provides a fuller, richer way to live. And these people probably exist somewhere around you already, maybe family members or neighbors or people at your church or your work? You just have to spot what gifts they bring to your life and also own the role you play for others. What do you bring to your friendships?
Here are a few types of people to look for in your life.
This is the friend who listens, prays, and advises. They love for you to bring them a problem. They carry godly wisdom earned through study and/or life experience. They are safe and trustworthy. The apostle Paul was a sage friend to Timothy.
This is the cheerleader, the friend who believes in you. They see the good in you and call it out. It is easy for them to speak hope when you are discouraged. They see the best in life and people. This person oozes belief and support.
This is just a good companion. This friend gets their hands dirty with you. If you have an idea, they are all in! They will fight for you and fight beside you. I have a friend, Jenn Jett Barrett, who calls herself a dream defender and has helped along almost every dream I have ever built. Your foxhole friend may not use words to express what you mean to her, but she’ll be right beside you and share in whatever trouble you get into.
This is the friend who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth. They won’t let you settle, and they will kick you in the booty if you get off track. They might not be your easiest friend, and you might have to work through conflict here and there, but they make you better every time.
This is the friend that brings the party. They might not have a two-hour debate with you about a theological issue, but they
will make sure you laugh often. They are spontaneous and pull people together and say something inappropriate that interrupts whatever bad mood you find yourself stuck in.
This is the organized and thoughtful friend who makes sure you get together and makes sure the bill gets split up correctly during a night out. She starts the meal train email and remembers your birthday.
My mom is a fantastic planner friend. She hosts the showers and drops by with a meal when you get sick. Last month, another friend and I were on Mom’s back porch catching up, and in a matter of two hours she had brought us something to drink, then a full charcuterie board, followed by blankets because it was getting chilly. When I was young, and her attention to detail was directed toward my life, I was bugged! But now, being around my mom feels like visiting a classy hotel. We both felt her love, and I love it!
My mom sometimes gushes about how proud she is of me, but the main way my mom shows her love is by inviting my friends and me into her back-porch life.
I’m certainly not suggesting
that you rush out and start interviewing acquaintances to play these specific roles. What I’m saying is that within your sphere of influence someone is likely already playing one or more of these roles, even if you haven’t yet thought of them as a friend.
No one can be your everything, but everyone has something to say,
something to teach you, and something to bring to your life.
Look for it.
Do you have someone in your life who is habitually encouraging? Thank that person.
What about someone who is incredibly wise? Ask for more input from her.
Do you know someone who is impossibly fierce, who seems unafraid of life? Sort out a way to dive into some purposeful project together. Make a memory doing something that counts.
Thank your planner friend for initiating gatherings that are meaningful and sweet.
Bless that friend who always, always picks up your call.
Express appreciation to the one who still sends you birthday cards in the mail.
Tell that challenging friend that you’re grateful for a divergent point of view.
Even if it means disrupting the current easy rhythm of a casual relationship, go ahead and take the initiative to start going deeper with these people who already are present in your life. You may as well get comfortable with awkward, because we’re about to take it a step further.
If you aren’t sure how to get past shallow conversations, please know that you’re not alone.
Sometimes I will leave a night out with friends thinking that I had a great time, but for some reason I’ll get home and have this kind of sick feeling that I can’t quite place. More often than not, the feeling stems from what our conversations were about.
Often those conversations are too shallow. Talking about a work project or your kids is fine, but I won’t leave feeling known or truly knowing you.
To have deeper conversations, we have to learn the art of asking more intentional questions.
I will give you more on this in the next chapter, but here are two to try out:
“What are you longing for?”
“What is making you anxious?”
And when someone shares with you what they are longing for and what is making them anxious, sit with those feelings; don’t try and fix anything. Practice words like “I’m sorry” or “What do you need from me right now?”
Questions like that bring fresh depth to your conversation. Maybe kids or work still come up, but you will be getting closer to how that makes the person feel rather than settling for a news report from her life.
I honestly think that most people just don’t know how to ask good questions and how to genuinely share their hearts. That’s why conversations often drift toward complaining and gossip. We all know how to do those things!
You’ll recall that during those first few hours in Dallas I
was sitting on the floor of my empty new house having an outright panic attack. Now, let’s contrast that scene with another, more recent one involving several people who have stumbled their way into my life since that hollow-house moment four years ago: Ashley, my sister-in-law turned safest friend, who now lives two blocks away; my dear friend Lindsey, whom I met through Ashley and then realized I’d gone to Sunday school with during our elementary school years in Little Rock, Arkansas; Callie, who I met through a girl I discipled in college; and Jennie E., a new friend I met because our sons are friends at school.
The group of us had been doing a Bible study on prayer together. One week Ashley suggested it would be cool for us to sit in my backyard around my firepit and
pray. Novel idea, right?
I invited my friend Davy to join us. I’d first met Davy through her stunning music, before we lived close enough to hang out. I’d heard some of her songs and knew that she led worship for a church in Mississippi, so I asked if she would come along on one of the tours I did for IF:Gathering.
“I’d love to come!” Four simple words—that’s all it took for us to become more like sisters than friends. And before we got off the phone, she told me, “I might be living in Dallas by then.”
“I live in Dallas!” I said, having no idea she was coming to take a job at our church. And now here she was, close enough to be part of our community of friends. When I invited Davy to our fireside prayer gathering, she said, “Ooh! Can I bring my keyboard?”
So the six of us sat by that fire, and we prayed, we confessed sin, we sang, we cried, we laughed. As I scanned the
faces belonging to the people sitting around that fire with me, I was left undone by that unexpected, relationally rich night.
I wanted to stand on my chair and shout, “Look, world! I have friends!”
It feels so ridiculous to even type those words, but that’s exactly how I felt.
With a crackling fire, Davy’s singing in our ears, prayerful, hopeful words being spoken, and a blanket of stars overhead, I rested into the connection I’d been craving, that feeling that I’m not all alone in this world. Four years of building and investing and choosing connection over isolation, and I had my people.
Buy a firepit and invite over friends who live close to your house.
Invite a friend to run errands with you.
Invite someone at work to walk to the vending machine with you.
Who do you see when you are walking your dog? Talk to them and walk together. Note their name (and their dog’s name!) in your phone so you don’t forget it.
Introduce yourself to strangers in the coffee shop.
Go up to the people sitting by themselves at church and invite them to lunch.
If you are new to a city, ask the person next to you at church something like, “Where is the best place to get Thai in Dallas?” And then invite them to join you there for a meal.
Take the newest person in your office out to lunch.
Ask another family to join yours for celebratory ice cream after your kid’s sporting event.
Frequent a restaurant and learn your waiter’s name and ask how you can pray for him.
Look for everyday things to do with people. Ask your friend if you can help her fold laundry.
If you’re a young mom, go grocery shopping with another young mom. Yes, with all your kids in tow.