I never expected to be the subject of an introduction to a new book out. So you can imagine my surprise when I started reading the introduction to Prodigal Christianity and saw myself (unnamed) front and center in the introduction!
What is exciting to me with the publication of this book is to see the cross-gender friendship movement gaining more momentum! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was surprised when I started to read the introduction:
Authors David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw were definitely referring to me as I read:
“A few weeks later, we started hearing concerns— not so much about what was expressed that evening but about a larger agenda carried on by one of our friends and coleaders at the Vine. Like all of us, he wanted to overcome the hurts, the abuses, and the confusions so prevalent in our culture surrounding sexuality. For him, this meant advocating a style of friendship that touched a lot of nerves. As a means toward sexual redemption and healing, this brother was encouraging deep friendships between men and women, even between married men and single women, and vice versa. What made matters worse was that he liked to use the word intimacy to describe these friendships…The whole debate caused quite a ruckus in our community.”
You know, I have to wonder about God’s sense of humor in calling me to lead this conversation on cross-sex friendship. I am pro-intimacy between men and women. The introduction to this book gives a small snapshot of what it looked like to lead this at ground zero in a conservative evangelical community in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.
My chosen intentionality to go public with cross-gender friendship was like dropping a bombshell in the midst of this community. The intentionality had been there for some time. But it was the combination of my position as an shepherd (~elder) and my ongoing choice to take intimate cross-gender friendship to the public square (i.e., specifically Facebook) which stirred up the hornet’s nest for many conservative minded brethren and leaders at Life on the Vine.
This was before my book was published, though I was on the verge of writing a book on the subject. It was before I was known as a leader of a “movement.” But I did have a blog and I was beginning to focus the blog on cross-gender friendships.
For me, I was an unlikely person to lead this. At the time I didn’t consider myself to be a leader. I can come across as too intense to people. I’m an introvert. I don’t consider myself to have a charismatic presence. And leading this conversation felt like breaking new ground, going into uncharted territory. I felt intensely vulnerable. The emotional risk of stepping out felt enormous.
I was afraid people would misunderstand me. Furthermore, I was afraid people would miss my heart in this and freak out. I was also wondering how in the hell does one lead Christians into the complexity of intimate male-female dyadic friendships? Usually, there are Christian leaders ahead of you leading the way on a particular issue.
There were no leaders leading on this issue. I would have gladly ridden on another’s coattails had I opportunity to do so. The unwritten, but very real, scripts for friendship between men and women were 1) Friendliness was okay, 2) Never be alone with a member of the opposite sex, 3) Connecting with a member of the opposite sex over the phone or email for simple attraction toward the person’s character or presence was taboo. Such contact required a greater contextual purpose (work, ministry, etc.).
I continued to hear stories from others who, when they found out I was going to write a book, were so relieved to have found someone they could trust and relate to.
But to step out intentionally in the public square appeared to be a great risk. It definitely seemed like I was putting my vulnerability out there with a glaring bullseye inviting people to go after me, my precious wife, and my vulnerable friendships.
Furthermore, how does someone lead on dyadic friendship when their friend(s) don’t share the same sense of calling? Would my own growing, cherished friendships suffer from outside attacks and pressure to conform? I had already heard some painful stories of communities coming between close cross-gendered friends. I wanted to keep my friendships!
“It is hard to remain true to this sense of being called, of being drawn into a mysterious and deeper truth when it involves, as it often does, shedding the security of many landmarks and assumptions. The most profound test of our trust in God, as well as of our own resolve, occurs when this sense of call initially appears to confuse the people we love and respect, to contradict some of our long-standing loyalties and ties, and to appear ‘irrational’”
That was six years ago!
Intentional Practice of Sacred Friendships in an Evangelical Church
To give you a glimpse of the evangelical nature on Life on the Vine at the time, we had students attending from Trinity University International (you know, where D.A. Carson teaches). We also had a couple of Trinity professors coming.
Rightly or wrongly, I had a growing conviction that someone had to begin to intentionally practice friendship out in the open for others to see in the light of community. I began to do this with no idea how people were going to respond from one day to the next.
I was clear on one thing: When the only script for men and women getting together in public is romantic or dating, a new script had to be written. That takes intentionality, patience, time, commitment, and perseverance.
I had two goals in mind. First, I wanted people to become aware of an ongoing intentional discipline to connect with my opposite sex friends solely for friendship. Second, I had a long-term goal that if the friendship flourished for a good long time out in the open, people would begin to think in terms of normalcy.
“What we desire or love ultimately is a (largely implicit) vision of what we hope for, what we think the good life looks like. The vision of the good life shapes all kinds of actions and decisions and habits we undertake.”
James K. A. Smith
Boy, let me tell you, there is nothing like intentional practice of pro-intimacy in an evangelical church.
Dave and Geoff describe it:
“A conflict broke out in our church over the issue of cross-gender friendship. One of our leaders, a married man, was accused of “dating” single women. He would ask single women out for a cup of coffee. He would mention on Facebook that he was “going on a day bicycle trip” with a single woman. He talked openly of “intimate” friendships with women who were not his wife…Indeed, the issue spread from those initial complaints to the wider congregation. People began asking more questions: Where did the church stand on this issue?”
Before I go any further, Dave and Geoff write later in the book:
“The church’s failure to speak to this loss of friendship has been deafening. Instead we have capitulated to our sexualized culture. Indeed we have often institutionalized these failures and have separated the sexes and called it “living above reproach.”
After reading these words, Sheila (my wife) observed, “They’re singing your song, Dan!”
For me, personally, the last five years have been deeply challenging and formative. Little did I know that I was addicted to people-pleasing! I wish I had Brené Brown’s books with me when I started but I eventually found them!!! Fresh cold water to a thirsty soul in a parched land!
When it comes to evangelicals and marriage, a leader is to never rock the
boat. A leader is supposed to stay within the hyper-romanticized evangelical script
that a couple would never be open to intimate friendship with a member of the
opposite sex. A married male leader is supposed to do the “right” thing: do not
begin or nurture close relationships with other women.
I had to choose the “audacity of authenticity” (Brown) to intentionally practice this week in and week out. I had to continually let go of what other people thought and chose to be authentic in the midst of system pushback.
Good friends join together in a common vision that outsiders consider elitist, a threat, or just difficult to understand."
There is, in the evangelical world, an unwritten law that leaders must keep the peace on issues like this instead of seeking deeper reconciliation between men and women.
I chose to not leave the community even when things were intense. It was tempting. But I felt that would have been the easy way out. I had a deep respect for community. But who wants to be a part of a community where there is deep tension over intentional practices? I was caught between a rock and a hard place. I wanted to honor the community. I didn’t want to rock the boat. I also felt God was calling me to rock the boat and practice sacred friends between the sexes at ground zero.
“If the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment.”
It was hard. It was crazy. It was good for me to learn to care and love those who disagreed with me about something which was so big in my life. I will always remember taking the bread during the Eucharist from a leader with whom I had just had an intense conversation over our differences.
The leaders at Life on the Vine have invested hours upon hours over this issue seeking to pursue reconciliation, seeking to discern what the Spirit was saying, and so on. I cannot speak enough about their own integrity to lead as best as they could in the midst of some intense moments. I am also deeply encouraged that they also honored my integrity in the midst of this.
“Seeking for intimacy at any level—with God or with persons—is not a venture that gets the support of many people.”
I also accepted Dan Allender’s flawed leadership philosophy. I was flawed in leading this. I would hurt others because of my own humanness. I sought to limit the damage as much as I could. But I was not holding any perceptions of myself as some kind of extraordinary leader in the midst of chaos.
Beyond Evangelical to Love
One of the most important things I’ve come to understand as my leadership in this movement has grown is that my evangelical hermeneutics were too small. For one, I lacked a hermeneutic of love. For another, I was missing a hermeneutic of friendship. How ironic that I was leading a conversation on cross-gender friendship but did not have a hermeneutic of love or of friendship!
But the more I practiced intentional friendship, the more friends I made with other Christians who were not like me or who were from different traditions ranging from very conservative to progressive. I was so honored to speak at the Wild Goose Festival last summer.
I’m not a mover and shaker in either the conservative or progressive world. Sacred friendship between the sexes is a subject which is on the margins for many.
But this movement is clearly gaining momentum!
This book, Prodigal Christianity indicates yet another shift in the evangelical world—a shift which would been unthinkable even ten years ago!!!
Both Dave Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw are spearheading Missio Alliance this April. Yet, they speak very highly of my intention to nurture intimate friendships with other women than my wife. These are recognized leaders in the neo-Anabaptist movement.
Don’t look now, evangelical world, but the cross-gender friendship movement is gaining momentum! In the last five years, since I started to intentionally take intimate cross-gender friendships into the public square, there has been a clearly visible shift.
Change doesn’t happen overnight when something like romantic ideology has been so deeply embedded into our culture and the church has so institutionalized the sexualizing of friendship.
I've been so blessed by mature Christian leaders who have come alongside me in this adventure. John Armstrong, Jim Henderson, Kathy Escobar have been tremendous partners in my wild and crazy ride leading this into something much bigger.
In Dave and Geoff's words again:
“Indeed we have often institutionalized these failures and have separated the sexes and called it “living above reproach.”
Consider this at ground zero:
I was thrilled that the leaders of Life on The Vine allowed me to host the first Sacred Friendship Gathering in their building last April. It was a groundbreaking, historic event. The first-ever conference devoted to the complex subject of male-female friendship. We had leaders who are on the cutting edge of this movement speak at that Gathering.
In a recent worship service at Life on the Vine, my very close and dear friend, Susanne Osborne and I were able to share with the church the story of our deep friendship.
Then, this coming April 26-27 the leaders have enthusiastically welcomed me to host another groundbreaking Sacred Friendship Gathering at Life on the Vine! Another conference solely devoted to the subject of friendship between men and women.
"it’s scary to engage in meaningful relationship, men & women together, especially when we’ve been taught that it’s not possible and too dangerous of territory to tread. one of the things i am most grateful for are the brave men and women i know who recognize that we will never be equal one with another unless we can first be friends."
Can men and women be intimate sacred friends?
We have a number of seasoned, mature practitioners who have deep stories as sacred friends. Join us for this groundbreaking event! Check us out. Tell your friends. Be a part of something that is truly bringing men and women closer together! The early bird registration ends Monday, February 25! Get the discount rate and if you are coming from out of state be sure and take advantage of the hotel discount rate.
You register here.