The importance of Christian friendships that defy expectations

Loving one another across generational and cultural differences

July 2, 2020

“Two things are essential in this world—life, and friendship. Both must be prized highly, and not undervalued. They are nature’s gifts. We were created by God that we might live; but if we are not to live solitarily, we must have friendship.” – Augustine

An unlikely friendship

Jamaal Williams: As a Black pastor of a multiethnic and multicultural church in a predominantly urban Black community, I can become deeply burdened and temporarily hopeless when there is racial upheaval due to the unnecessary and unjust killing of Black citizens. A primary reason that I’m tempted to be hopeless is the pervasive power of the sin of racism in our society. What keeps me from despair is abiding in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which promises me that the same power that raised Christ from the dead will one day make all things new. 

I also find hope in the personal testimonies that I have witnessed in the last 13 years of pastoral ministry. The Lord has allowed me to see people turn from apathy to action in joining the fight for equity, justice, and Black dignity. 

Another reason I often avoid the pit of despair is because I’m surrounded by fellow pastors and friends who bear my burden with me. This article focuses on one of these friendships—one that is both crosscultural and crossgenerational. I’ve come to realize as a pastor that one way forward is to cultivate meaningful and honest relationships with fellow believers who will not seek to require me to surrender my Black identity. This is necessary for me because I am unapologetically and unashamedly a “Black” Christian man.

In this article, I want to invite you into the story of my friendship with Jim Tipton. We have co-authored this piece to encourage you to pray for and be intentional about developing Christian friendships that intentionally pursue Spirit-empowered love for one another.

It’s fun to watch waiters at restaurants and coffee shops serve Jim and me when we are hanging out together. You can usually see the confusion on their faces as they try to figure out our relationship. Normally, we are too dressed down for a business meeting, and our body language and conversations say we’re not father and adopted son. It’s especially fun to watch their looks of bewilderment when I reach for the check. We get it, people should look confused. After all, we are opposites in many ways. 

I was born and raised in Chicago. I’m Black, in my mid-30s, and I listen to gospel music, R&B, hip-hop, and jazz. I also grew up going to more expressive Black Baptist and nondenominational churches.  

Jim Tipton: I, on the other hand, came from a small town in Kentucky. I am white, in my late 60s, and listen to contemporary Christian music, country music, “oldies,” and someone from the 70s named John Denver. I grew up in a Southern Baptist church. 

Jamaal and I met when I served on the staff of a local crisis pregnancy center, and Jamaal was the pastor of a historic 150+-year-old church in Louisville. I reached out to Jamaal for consultation on how to get more African American churches involved at the crisis pregnancy center, noting that much of the clientele was Black, but very few of the volunteers were. Jamaal shared his personal experience, historical realities of Black communities, and constraints posed by ministries that have historically been organized and supported by whites. 

During the conversation, we were each impressed with the other’s honesty, candor, wisdom, authenticity, and attitude. I invited Jamaal to participate in a weekly men’s Bible study that met in my home—a group made up of almost all white, 50+-year-old men. This was an answer to prayer for Jamaal because he had been praying for an opportunity to include older Christian men in his life. He jumped at the opportunity to join a Bible study group that he could learn from, do life with, and participate in without being the leader. This also was an answer to my prayer because I desired to see our group grow younger and more ethnically diverse. That was almost a decade ago; the Bible study still meets, and our friendship has blossomed. It has not grown, however, without conflict and soul-searching conversations. 

3 keys to sustaining a cross-cultural friendship

JW: For me, a key moment in our relationship came early on in our new relational experiment when our Bible study was in the minor prophets. As the study went on, I became uncomfortable with how the prophets were often applied to injustices outside of America or were easy evangelical talking points but missed the injustices done toward native peoples and African Americans. I’ll never forget Jim asking me if something was wrong toward the end of a meeting. I responded that there was and proceeded to speak freely and honestly for the next 15 minutes. I thought, “I’m going to be myself and speak my mind no matter the cost.” Some of the men appeared broken and intellectually curious. Jim received the critique well, and it initiated an environment of transparency and cultural sensitivity for all of us. For me, it was the changing point of our relationship. 

Jesus said to his disciples: “A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35).”  While there are no silver bullets that eliminate difficulties, Jim and I have discovered three principles that have helped us cultivate brotherly love and maintain a cross-cultural, cross-generational, genuine friendship:

1. Value the kingdom of heaven over earthly allegiances.

Jim and I each have political affiliations and opinions about what needs to happen for our nation to value the dignity of all image-bearers. Sometimes our opinions conflict. We can look at the same data and news briefings and draw different conclusions. What has kept us in fellowship with each other is that our greatest and truest allegiance is to Jesus.

Ultimately, neither of us puts our hope in men or political parties, for both disappoint and fade away. As Proverbs 11:7 says, “Hopes placed in mortals die with them; all the promise of their power comes to nothing.” Our hope is placed in Jesus, the Lamb, the Lion, and the Sovereign King who cannot be tied to any political party. In Philippians 1:27, Paul urged the church at Philippi, as citizens of heaven, to walk worthy of the gospel by which they had been called. Walking worthy of the gospel means that we know and trust the content of the gospel, but also that our conduct is modeled after Jesus’ self-giving and humble sacrifice (Phil. 2:5-11).

Kingdom citizens can live in unity with diversity because we know that we are a kingdom filled with people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. There will be Christians in heaven from numerous political and economic persuasions. Because the cross is what defines us as ambassadors of a greater kingdom, we can disagree on issues while pursuing the Great Commission together. 

2. We have strived to understand and be understood, not to win debates. 

JT: Our life experiences relative to race relations are vastly different. Jamaal and his family have experienced racial prejudice and have been personally wounded by it. I grew up in a time of segregation when African Americans were not allowed to swim in the city pool and were forced to sit in the balcony of the only movie theater in my hometown; I experienced the civil rights protests and the passage of the Civil Rights Acts in the 60s; and I have seen race relations change to the point where I now have an adopted African American grandson as well as a soon-to-be adopted biracial granddaughter.  

My perspective of progress conflicts with Jamaal’s perspective of pain. We see the issue of ethnic conciliation from significantly different viewpoints, but we recognize the differences, and we seek to see the issue through each other’s eyes.

Friendship is messy and painful; awkward conversations should be expected. But, on the other side of the pain and awkwardness is Christ conforming us to his image and rejoicing over his multiethnic, multicultural church. 

We respectfully agree to disagree, with the understanding that we are both flawed and biased because of our fallenness and experiences. Without an attempt to see the issues through the other’s eyes, we are destined to butt heads forever without any understanding.  

By agreeing to allow disagreement on such issues, we give ourselves the freedom to consider the other’s viewpoint without surrendering our convictions. Consideration of the other’s viewpoint (even if we still disagree) expands the horizons of our thoughts, fostering empathy and understanding that would not be possible without the willingness to allow our respective views to be challenged.

We seek to understand and be understood because we recognize that without that effort, no progress will be made. We both care too much about our culture and our country, and we each respect the character and convictions of our friend too much to not make the effort. Our mindsets are that of not aggressive conquest in which the objective is to defeat the other, but patient respect in which the objective is communication and understanding.  

3. Be intentional, and don’t give up. 

Not much is accomplished without intentionality. In our friendship, Jamaal was intentional in seeking out older Christian men with whom to study the Bible. I was intentional in introducing generational and ethnic diversity into the Bible study. Both efforts resulted in the stretching and discomfort of the individuals involved, but the effort was worth it. Likewise, the effort to fight for friendship when disagreements present themselves is also worth the effort. We must be committed and not give up when the going gets tough.

JW: We live in a culture where people, including Christians, “cancel” each other. If a person says something that is honest but offensive, some decide that person shouldn’t be respected or given a voice on any subject again. The Bible, however, calls Christians to bear with each other, forgive each other, and to work toward peace with each other (Eph. 4:2-3; Rom. 12 9-21; Col. 3:12-17). 

As a Black man who watched the news clips of Ahmaud Arbery’s and George Floyd’s violent and egregious deaths with tears in my eyes, there were times when I was on edge talking to my white friends. There were scripts running through my head that if they disagreed with me on this, our friendship might need to end. Then, I reminded myself that Jim and a few other trusted white brothers have proven their love for me, my family, and the pursuit of justice over and over again. They’ve also demonstrated wisdom and sympathy knowing how to “weep with those who weep.” I also remembered the Bible stories of Paul confronting Peter and the churches of Galatia and Corinth with truth and grace. Should we not do likewise?

By God’s grace, Jim has listened when I’ve hurt the most. Part of authentic friendship is not living in the “what if’s,” but rather in the moment, with a heart that is ready to forgive “seven times 70” times. I’m not suggesting that disfellowship is never the wise choice but that we shouldn’t be quick to daydream about it or to pursue it. After all, Jesus didn’t and doesn’t “cancel” us.  

In the quest for racial equity, I have found a number of evidences of grace that have kept me out of despair. One major evidence of grace is my crosscultural, crossgenerational friendship with Jim. Throughout our friendship, we have had times where sparks flew, but that’s to be expected because sparks fly when iron sharpens iron. As our friendship has strengthened, our trust of each other has also strengthened because we have experienced the other’s character and learned the importance of conversing with civility.

Friendship is messy and painful; awkward conversations should be expected. But, on the other side of the pain and awkwardness is Christ conforming us to his image and rejoicing over his multiethnic, multicultural church. And by the Spirit, he is helping me rejoice in his multiethnic bride while valuing and celebrating my own dignity as a black man made in his image.

Jamaal Williams

Jamaal Williams is lead pastor of Sojourn Community Church Midtown in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a native of Chicago, Illinois. He received a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and has a D.Ed.Min. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as the president of Sojourn Network. Jamaal is … Read More

Jim Tipton

Jim Tipton is a member of Sojourn Community Church Midtown in Louisville, Kentucky, where he leads a Bible study for members aged 50 and above. A retiree from AT&T, he is a native of Shelbyville, Kentucky. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Kentucky and two doctorate degrees … Read More