Reflecting on Michelle Van Loon’s Thoughts About Friendship and the Evangelical Church

Michelle Van Loon wrote an article the other day that looked at issues with friendship inside evangelicalism. Its about how she realized some people are not friends after all. This is a reflection on her article as I consider my past challenges of friendship inside evangelicalism. While I have two positive examples I was also deeply burned as well. I also explain under what circumstances will I push back from a person. Issues like anti-Semitic behavior and disparaging racial comments will lead me to end friendships as well. 

The friend in my adversity I shall always cherish most. I can better trust those who helped to relieve the gloom of my dark hours than those who are so ready to enjoy with me the sunshine of my prosperity.

Ulysses Grant

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor:

Ecclesiastes 4:9 NIV

California Academy of Sciences Aquarium in San Francisco. 

Before I get into the main part of this post I want to reflect on two situations that deeply moved me from two different friends. Here in Washington, D.C. back in 2006 I met a guy who at this blog I call James Crestwood. James when be lived in D.C. was active in Mark Batterson’s National Community Church. He and his wife have been missionaries out in Nairobi, Kenya. Today he lives the Salina, Kansas area where his family has a farm. I have known James for almost 14 years and honestly my life would be incredibly poor if I didn’t know him. But there was one situation that was warm, loving and comforting that can bring a tear to my eye today. 

On April, 1 2017 my Mom died before me in the hospital. I was horrified and could not believe what happened. My Mom’s death was not supposed to happen. I sent a text to James informing him of what occurred. As I was walking out of the hospital with my sisters and Dad in a daze I received a phone call from James. He wanted to see how I was doing and asked how he could support me. In a calm soothing voice he said how sorry he was at my loss. And he invited me out to Kansas to spend time with him and his family. I was in a daze full of shock and disbelief. However after a couple of weeks when I came back to Washington, D.C. I took him up on it. I flew out to Kansas City for Memorial Day in 2017 and drove two hours west to Salina. I spent time with James and helped feed his animals and saw his farm. We hung out and he wanted to see how I was processing Mom’s death. He spoke and encouraged me and shared some of his own memories from interacting with my Mom in D.C. once. We talked and discussed things at length. It was healing and soothing. To be on the receiving end of that kind of love and warmth helped me in a dark spot in my life. And as I sit here at my desk in my kitchen I could cry over the kind of love I was shown. That is one example of friendship. 

There is another one that speaks to another issue, that of theological conflict and looking at things from a different perspective. At this blog I call him Scott Van Sweringen which is a pseudonym. I am someone who believes in evolution and Scott believes in creationism. We disagree on the issue, and yet we are still able to remain close friends. Scott in the years I have known him has not tried to force his thoughts upon me in a divisive manner. Instead when we engage by phone, text or email he responds in kindness and love. We have agreed to disagree on creationism in the past and while I look at things differently I appreciate his views on creationism and would not want them to change. Its a part of who he is and he is much more responsible and kind over a topic that has divided and split people off from faith. For me Scott has taught me how to be able to hold a friendship amidst differing perspectives. And my life is deeper and richer because of how he has engaged me.  I remain grateful for knowing him and considering his friendship a blessing. 

 

What Michelle Van Loon Wrote About in the Context of Friendship

Michelle Van Loon wrote a post about friends from her previous churches and and how some of those relationships ended. She thought they were “friends” but learned later on that many were not. Michelle wrote about how one reacted after the 2016 presidential election in which she was shocked that evangelicals supported Donald Trump. In other cases she lost relationships when she was a whistle blower in a corrupt church. Michelle views herself as being loyal and works hard to preserve friendships. This is how she  viewed the choosing of her friendships at one point. She described this in her book, “Becoming Sage: Cultivating Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality in Midlife.

We do not select our families, but those we call our friends reflects a powerful chosen love. Scripture highlights unforgettable friendships like that of Ruth and Naomi or David and Jonathan. We recognize great friendships in literary classics like that of Sam and Frodo in the Lord of the Rings series or Anne Shirley and Diana Barry in Anne of Green Gables.

Friends are people who cherish one another, sticking “closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). The best kind of friendships create safe zones that allow us to reveal the truth about ourselves (Prov. 27:5–6). Friends provide mutual support (Eccl. 4:9–10).

Scripture also reveals that one friend can betray another with the knowledge they’ve gained from relational closeness, as we see in the case of Judas’s stunning disloyalty to Jesus. And yet, as Judas was on his way to betray Jesus, Jesus spoke these words to His disciples: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:13–15).

This kind of friendship Jesus offers us is marked by perfect love expressed in sacrifice and intimacy. All of our other healthy friendships can reflect a measure of that love.

But can evangelicals disagree on people or politics? Or on faith? Michelle came to the conclusion that some of these people who embarrassed and humiliated her were not her friends. This is how she describes it.

“I recently had an “ah ha” that might seem obvious to some of you reading these words: These people are not my friends. I’ve continued for too long to think of them as friends, and have tried to relate to them as such.

The sadness I now feel about this comes from recognizing that all these years, my motivation in doing so has been because I’ve been hoping to redeem something of value from a time in my life that was filled with so much hurt and sorrow. At least these people still like me, I’d think. At least they still want to maintain some sort of connection. “At least” is not a basis for a friendship, even one on Facebook.”

I would encourage you to read her article in, “The end of “friend”?

 

Co-Dependency in Evangelicalism and Realizing They Were Not My Friends

As I reflect back on my time in evangelicalism there are a number of things that have left me to mourn. With the exceptions of what I wrote above leading into this post a number of evangelical friendships were shallow and didn’t last the test of time. What tore them apart really stunned me. But I think part of the problem with evangelical culture in a number of churches and ministries is that there are massive problems with co-dependency. You add programs like community groups, men’s and women’s programs, accountability groups, etc… all encourage co-dependency in many ways. Personal boundaries are crossed and many do not know what healthy boundaries can be.  Since many foundations are unhealthy its not a surprise to me today why many failed in the course of time. Some of them failed over hardcore creationism, politics and Donald Trump, Calvinism or people like John Piper of Mark Driscoll, or questionable ministries like Sovereign Grace. The inability to agree to disagree and fundamentalism left a wide swath of destruction in my life as I asked myself who are my friends? 

Like Michelle I am a person who tries to be loyal. I call, text and email. I made trips to visit people and to keep the relationships going. I wanted to be remembered as the good guy, loving, caring and helpful. In evangelicalism that backfired in many ways. Let me share one story. When I lived in Milwaukee I was involved in Elmbrook and came to know an individual who I will not name quite well. He moved to Milwaukee from North Dakota. I helped him with adjusting to Milwaukee and assisted when he needed it. At one time in a program led by Brian Sonderman at Elmbrook this individual thanked me for being there and helping him. That was in 2003 or 2004. He eventually moved to St. Louis, Missouri were as I moved to Washington, D.C. We kept in touch and stayed in communication over the years. In 2011 when he was getting married in St.Louis I traveled from Washington, D.C. to his wedding. I invested a lot of time out of love towards the friendship. What frayed the relationship? It was the riot in Charlottesville, Virginia by Neo-Nazis. My friend became angry with me when I criticized Donald Trump’s statement on how there are “very fine people on both sides.” I could not believe that Neo-Nazis would be called “fine people.”The anti-Semitic activity that came from Charlottesville bothered me deeply. I was also equally bothered by the statements by Trump and how he fueled anti-Semitism behavior. My friend in contrast got angry and said that Trump would not engage in anti-Semitic behavior; not with a Jewish son-in-law. And with that I was cut off and a eleven year friendship was ended. 

I lost other relationships over politics. One individual from Wooded Hills unfriended me and called me an “Obama liberal.” I had voted for Rubio in 2016 and considered myself as part of the Reagan/Bush camp. If we discussed individuals like Reagan or Bush we would most likely agree. But I could not cross the line and support Trump. It was too disturbing to me. So I lost a number of people I thought were friends. Other friends I lost over fundamentalism or a church.  When I found myself being a whistleblower at a mega church called Fairfax Community Church in the Washington, D.C. area I lost most of the friendships I had from that church. People just fell in line or stayed silent on the issues there. Other division that cost a few other friendships were polarizing people like Mark Driscoll or C.J. Mahaney. When I criticized some of those individuals a few acted as if I was criticizing God. And that also led to lost relationships. Looking back I have a deep regret for a number of evangelical friendships. They were not as solid, deep or as healthy as I thought. 

 

Situations in Which I Will End Friendships

I value diversity and try and make friendships with a number of people across the board. The worst thing a person can do is create an echo chamber with like minded people. I try and get to know people in many people from many different perspectives of life. It rounds me and lets me to learn in different ways. When people stop learning in my view that is when people begin to die. But as time has gone on I have decided that there are some situations in which I will pull back from people and end a relationship. These are some of the things I found myself dealing with these past few years in which I will end a friendship. 

  1. Explicit racial or anti-Semitic statements or comments trouble me deeply. I can’t relate or consider a friend someone making anti-Semitic statements. Some evangelicals from time to time had made anti-Semitic comments, and its stunned me. In other situations I saw some people who used the dog whistle of George Soros. I wrote about that earlier this year in, “The George Soros Conspiracy Theory Which Some Evangelical Christians Are Pushing is Blatant Anti-Semitism.” 
  2. Conspiracy theories used to be irritating however now I am finding them distributing. Years ago I recall a couple of people telling me that Lee Harvey Oswald did not kill John F Kennedy in Dallas. For me it was irritating and I rolled my eyes and said “whatever.” In time there were conspiracies that arose that deeply troubled me. Conspiracies about vaccines causing autism, conspiracies about the COVID-19 pandemic, and other over the top situations like the Q Anon movement. None of these I understand and while I ignored conspiracy theories earlier in life those like the anti-vaccination which could cause harm or hurt people is where I draw the line. Its one thing when people hurt themselves its another when people advocate a policy that can hurt others. 
  3. Those who are closely involved in personality cults also cause concern. It can include strong supporters of Trump who feel like they have to defend him at every turn have also troubled me. Or it can include someone who likes Mark Driscoll who defended the controversial pastor all through the problems that took place at Mars Hill Seattle. After all can one have deep meaningful conversations with people who struggle to think for themselves and also are influenced by science and education? I wrote about this several years ago in, “How Celebrity Pastors Become Divisive: Mark Driscoll, Andrew White, Eagle and the Launch of Paul and Jonna Petry’s “Joyful Exiles”
  4. Someone who I think has a narcissistic problem then I quietly push back for my health and more. I have become more aware of this in the past couple of years.

In saying all the above I am also pretty forgiving. I will give people many chances and give them lots of forgiveness. I don’t want to end relationships and be open to new ones. But some behavior such as anti-Semitic or racial comments I can’t ignore. Evangelicalism has forced me to re-think friendship in many ways. I have had to unlearn much of what I have learned. 

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