It is interesting how unusual or exceptional circumstances can make one acutely aware of things previously taken for granted. The Covid pandemic made us all much more aware of the importance of relationships, or, as we now refer to them, social connections. The disruption caused by Covid has resulted in many young children suffering developmental delay, made it more difficult for adolescents to acquire vital socialising skills and contributed to the escalating levels of loneliness and depression among all age groups. Almost 5 years after the pandemic, we are still struggling to recover. However, recovery is undoubtedly, if somewhat haltingly, underway. Many churches report growing attendances. Many involved in youth ministry report a new openness to the gospel among young people.

Joining the family of God was always part of coming to faith but with an increasing awareness of the need to belong; this aspect of the gospel has never been more relevant. Indeed, belonging is intimately woven into the meaning of shalom. Tim Keller described shalom as complete reconciliation – a state of the fullest flourishing in every dimension – physical, emotional, social and spiritual because all relationships are right, perfect and filled with joy (italics added).  While acknowledging that we are all still work in progress and have not fully entered into shalom, the work of the Holy Spirit makes belonging a lived reality.

Much has been written in recent years about human flourishing.  It is the goal of almost all political parties and movements but perhaps ironically given the combative nature of modern politics, it is dependent upon healthy, ordered relationships. Human institutions cannot thrive if riven by division, and nor can communities. Divided countries impair communal well-being. In Northern Ireland we have shown a particular aptitude for dividing ourselves into camps, sometimes acrimoniously, sometimes more benignly but none the less we are accomplished at dividing into them and us. And, of course, elections are inevitably divisive, magnifying difference and fanning fears.

The ministry of reconciliation that the Apostle Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians is closely associated with human flourishing. Extending the hand of friendship across our many social fault lines is a first step in that ministry. If we befriend people we would not normally identify with, interact with or agree with, we create a more cohesive society and build trust, an essential prerequisite for a healthy society. Being friendly may seem like small beer, but friendliness creates a sense of safety and is the first step on the ladder of hospitality, a starting point for ‘seeking the welfare of the city where I have sent you’ (Jer. 29v7).

The simple gestures of smiling, saying hello and listening to others may seem rather inconsequential, but at this time, in this place, extending friendship to people beyond our normal social circle is countercultural and eminently doable. Breaking out of our social silos can be uncomfortable but begins with small actions that communicate respect and thoughtfulness, something that almost always evokes a positive response. It is the currency of the Kingdom, the hallmark of grace. Kindness is more powerful than animosity or fear and a forerunner to friendship. It comes naturally to some but is within reach for all of us, a powerful yet underused spiritual practice. So, to paraphrase the writer of Hebrews, ‘Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, such as being friendly, reminding one another that the accumulated effects of many small actions can be transformational’.


John Kyle has retired from General Practice and as a Unionist Councillor on Belfast City Council, and is a board member of Contemporary Christianity.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article of those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.