I’ve been confronted in the last few months with the different pictures people have of the term friendship.  The social media we use, the churches we worship in and the philosophies we believe in all play a role in the way in which we define this word and importantly enact our relationships

Let’s take Facebook as an example.

On the left-hand side of the Facebook layout is a list of “friends”.

Some people populate those “friend” lists with a handful of people with whom they have non-virtual relationships. Let’s call it in-the-flesh relationships.  Instead of sending an icon with a nudge, these people sit in front of each other and use their faces to express emotions.  When they talk about “touching” someone they mean it quite literally.  These people are within physical touching distance.

Other people populate their “friend” list with anyone who sends a request, people who they’ve met once or folks that just look interesting. Some people even gauge their popularity by how many “friends” they can display.  Some of these friends fall in the category above; they are in-the-flesh friends.  Others are acquaintances – some of them are complete strangers.

On the Facebook “home page” – all these friends are “in the house” and one can get status updates on what they are saying about themselves in this specific home.  The self-disclosure has its origin with an individual sitting in front of a screen deciding how they want to disclose themselves in “the house”.

According to recent research on twitter (which I would think can be translated to Facebook), 40% of these disclosures are “pointless babble” – people sharing what they’re eating or drinking or where they find themselves.  5.85% consist of self-promotion and spam stood at 3.5%.

37.5% of tweets were found to be of a conversational manner.

So what happens with ideas of friendship when we use these social networks and allow it to impregnate our imaginations with definitions of friendships?

Let me share an experiment I conducted (so this is phenomenological research):

Two weeks ago I posted a message on Facebook that was rather personal (for such a public forum).  The message said: confused and need guidance … the last few days were some of the worst …

I received 11 comments … and no one in this forum (even those who commented) asked what was happening … the closest was a “friend” who invited me to pass along prayer requests. [Thanks to all who posted … it is not an indictment on any of you[.

Now let me just say that my friends in “real life” (I know the term is loaded) really encouraged me.

Webster defines “friends” as:

1 a : one attached to another by affection or esteem

b : acquaintance

2 a : one that is not hostile

b : one that is of the same nation, party, or group

3 : one that favors or promotes something (as a charity)

4 : a favored companion

5 cap : a member of a Christian sect that stresses Inner Light, rejects sacraments and an ordained ministry, and opposes war — called also Quaker — friend•less ˈfren(d)-ləs [1]

My experiment showed me that social networks are probably not the best place to share personal grief or struggles, because most of the people in the network would define friend as 1b – an acquaintance, “a person whom one knows but who is not a particularly close friend”.

I make an exception for those whose Facebook “friends” correlates with people with whom they have moved beyond the acquaintance phase.

Now I have a confession to make – I have 411 acquaintances and friends in my “friends” column.  Some of the acquaintances in “my home” I simply ignore – Facebook gives you the comfortable option to keep them under the allusion that you’re interested in their updates by not removing them as a friend.  You can just “hide” them. Thus softening the psychological blow of rejection and conflict (which is a post for another day). [Cobus I’m not hiding you ;)]

What I’m asking is how these concepts of “friends” and hiding of people’s statuses in Facebook are doing to our imaginations in terms of local churches?

What do we do when someone posts a “status message” with their church that they’re not doing that well?  Is there a legitimate space for this?

Do we also conveniently hide them, or do we engage with them in their pain and sorrow?

I’m wondering if our churches haven’t become places where we only accept “friend requests” from those who won’t make a claim on us.

We are in danger of being in churches where “friends” is a codeword for acquaintances. Where our spiritual house, like Facebook’s homepage, becomes a place where we “hide” those who want to move beyond this necessary but superficial stage or move beyond the “pointless blabber”.

I think when we work with the definition of friendship then we will do well to let Jesus help us recover the word.  It was this wise Friend who said,

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

I dream that I’ll recover the depths and beauty of friendships and that the church can become the playground for the Jesus-kind of sacrificing love.

[1]Merriam-Webster, I. 2003. Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Merriam-Webster, Inc.: Springfield, Mass.