I have a friend at church whom I’ll call Lynn. Before the pandemic, we’d talk for a few minutes nearly every Sunday. I’d run in to her at the restroom sink or our paths would cross in the hallway. She’d give me a hug, and we’d swap details about the events of our week. Lynn and I have very different personalities and life circumstances; I think that’s part of why we enjoy talking together.
But I haven’t chatted with Lynn in months. I see her across the room at church occasionally, but we don’t run into each other anymore. The pandemic limits the number of people in the restrooms and expands the distance between us in the hallways. Our church decided to abolish the coffee break between services, and our New England winter curtails most parking-lot interactions.
I miss talking to Lynn. Although we’ve had lunch together a few times in the past years, regular phone calls or meet-ups just aren’t characteristic of our relationship. When we were each selecting the members of our pandemic pods, we didn’t make each other’s cut. We’re not best friends; we’re friends who talk at church.
Except we don’t, anymore.
We’re not best friends; we’re friends who talk at church.
My sadness about Lynn is just one instance of my pandemic grief for small talk, especially at church. I may be an introvert, but I miss talking to the little kids who used to swarm my pew after the service and now worship with their parents in a kid-friendly overflow room and leave by a separate door. I miss joking with the teens in their pre-pandemic back-row huddle. I miss the dozens of casual relationships that were refreshed, five minutes at a time, over coffee in the pink-carpeted fellowship hall.
In hindsight, these small—and sometimes awkward—conversations don’t seem particularly significant. So why do I miss them so much?
Categories of Friendship
In a recent article for The Atlantic, Amanda Mull lamented the disappearance of peripheral relationships:
Understandably, much of the energy directed toward the problems of pandemic social life has been spent on keeping people tied to their families and closest friends. . . . The pandemic has evaporated entire categories of friendship, and by doing so, depleted the joys that make up a human life—and buoy human health.
Social science identifies various categories of friendship and affirms that even our casual relationships play an important role in our well-being. These weak ties, middle-ring relationships, or lighter relationships contribute to our sense of belonging, strengthen our communities, and increase our psychological happiness. These categories also describe many of our regular interactions, including some of our friendships in the church.
Thousands of years before the birth of modern psychology, Jesus and Paul both knew the joys of various categories of friendship. In his earthly ministry, Jesus had a particular love for one (John), a close friendship with three (Peter, James, John), a deep commitment to 12, and a special relationship with 72.
Paul, too, had a dear companion (Timothy), a few co-laborers (Timothy, Silvanus, Epaphras), many beloved friends (Aquila and Prisca, Euodia, and Syntyche), and countless committed supporters.
It might be impossible to imagine Jesus without his beloved disciple John, or Paul without his beloved son Timothy, but it would also be wrong to think of them without the dozens of looser bonds that supported their ministries and refreshed their hearts.
Sometimes in the church we are quick to emphasize the particularly intimate friendships that grow in small groups, mentoring relationships, or accountability partnerships. These are vital connections indeed. But it would be a mistake to also conclude that just because a relationship isn’t close it isn’t important.
Greet the Friends, Each by Name
John’s final epistle ends with an incidental-sounding command: “Greet the friends, each by name” (3 John 15b). As the conclusion to a letter that gives instructions for sending missionaries and practicing church discipline, it seems a bit anti-climactic. And after John said he had “much to write” that he couldn’t include (v. 13), this exhortation—say hello to each other—may seem like a waste of parchment.
It would be a mistake to conclude that just because a relationship isn’t close it isn’t important.
But the practice of saying hello in the church is more important than we might suspect. First, we greet “the friends.” With a simple smile and a word of welcome (or a handshake in better days), we affirm that we all belong together. Any friend of Christ’s is a friend of mine, we say.
Rather than being a voluntary organization of random individuals, the church is an interconnected and interdependent body arranged by God (1 Cor. 12:18). Each part belongs to the whole, by virtue of belonging first to Christ. When we see and acknowledge one another, even in small ways, we testify to each person’s identity as part of God’s beloved people.
Next, we greet one another “by name.” We address these friends as individuals, seeking to know something about them (starting with their name) and acknowledging that they have unique gifts and graces that are essential to the well-being of the whole body (1 Cor. 12).
Many of our relationships are self-selected and connect us to people with shared interests or in a similar life situation. By contrast, the relationships we have at church bring us into contact with a broad range of people created in God’s image and redeemed for his glory. In our conversations with others, we have an opportunity to see life—even just briefly—through the perspective of saints who are older and younger, of a different sex or race, walking through a variety of trials, and experiencing Christ’s grace in all kinds of circumstances.
Bear One Another’s Burdens
During the pandemic I’ve maintained a friendship with another church member during a weekly walk in a local park. The trail we follow is a loop through the woods that takes us about 30 minutes to complete. For the first 20 minutes or so our conversation could only be described as small talk. We chat about the weather or the local COVID numbers; we exchange funny stories about my kids or her cat.
It’s not until we are almost back to our cars—sometimes we are actually standing in the parking lot with keys in hand—that we finally hint at the deeper burdens of our hearts. In our months of walking together these admissions have begun to come easier and earlier, but I suspect we’ll always need a period of small talk to reaffirm our mutual trust.
We may love to dismiss small talk as useless chatter, but by demonstrating interest in others’ seemingly insignificant matters, we establish the trust to care for them in bigger trials too. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15) and “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2) are commands for the small events as well as the large.
In each of his letters to the New Testament churches, Paul begins with the simple facts of his work and his companions, a recognition of the congregation’s location and situation, and some statement of their shared identity in Christ. It might be a stretch to call these greetings small talk, but they accomplish similar ends. They acknowledge the unique circumstances of each party and reaffirm the relationship.
After committing the first few sentences of his letters to establish that relational bridge, Paul is then able to discuss deeper issues of faith and life. So, too, a few minutes spent every week on the mundane details of someone’s work or hobby is not negligible. Having been faithful in our fellow church members’ little, we may eventually earn the right to be entrusted with their much.
Having been faithful in our fellow church members’ little, we may eventually earn the right to be entrusted with their much.
The pandemic isn’t solely to blame for the death of small talk, of course. For decades, the technologies of modern life have slowly reduced our opportunities for casual, unplanned interactions with people whom we haven’t selected for ourselves. In Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens (read our review), Eric O. Jacobsen details how the car, phone, and TV have each eroded the often-overlooked ties that enrich our lives and strengthen the social fabric of our communities. In our world, it’s easy to hide behind a screen, meaning that even spontaneous conversations will require a degree of intentionality.
Long after coronavirus infections have waned, we’ll still find plenty of challenges to church small talk. Awkward conversations with people who are unlike us—conversations that only gradually engage matters of significance—will never be convenient or comfortable. But they are more important than we ever imagined.