Transforming Friendship: A Review

Ed Shaw
Reviews 3 mins

John Wyatt, Transforming Friendship: Lessons from John Stott and Others (IVP, 2023)

I spent most of my 20s and early 30s befriending younger Christians with the hope and prayer of helping them become more and more like Jesus. I met up with them weekly: we chatted about our lives, shared interests and Christian faith, we studied the Bible, we prayed for each other, and served together at church and on summer camps for teenagers. Many of them are still good friends – one is a fellow elder at my church, and I am a godfather to another’s eldest child. I’m regularly in touch with many of the others: I cannot think of one of them I would not be delighted to have walk into the room right now. My first experience of Christian ministry was through such friendships: each of them had a positive impact on me – and the friendships were, I still hope and pray, positively transformational in their lives too.  

In my 30s things got complicated. I was public about my experience of same-sex attraction and befriending younger men seemed suddenly unwise, though my sexuality had never been a problematic factor before. I guess I wanted to be ‘above reproach’ (1 Timothy 3:2) and so reshaped ministry away from friendship to more formal small group training or mentoring contexts.

In my 40s things have become even more complicated: a few prominent UK evangelical church leaders have been publicly exposed as having abused younger men in discipleship contexts. Some of them were, like me, single men and some of their abusive actions clearly had a sexual edge to them. What appeared to be intergenerational friendships in which these older leaders self-sacrificially invested in the next generation, were, it turns out, often contexts for self-serving spiritual, emotional, mental, physical and sexual abuse to take place.

It could not be more timely and helpful.

It is into this context that John Wyatt has written a book about the intergenerational friendship he enjoyed with the most prominent UK evangelical church leader of recent years: the late John Stott. It could not be more timely and helpful in its recognition of what has gone painfully wrong in some relationships, whilst offering a better story in its account of the friendship that Stott (old enough to be his father) offered the young Wyatt in his early twenties.

Wyatt skilfully blends an account of this decades-long friendship with Stott with cultural analysis, Bible study and tales of other healthy friendships, but the stand-out chapters are those in which he sets out the principles of what ‘Gospel crafted friendships’ look like (chapter 4) and explains ‘How friendships go wrong’ (chapter 8). Combined, these help us recognise healthy and unhealthy friendships from both the outside and inside, and Wyatt is especially good in his analysis of the mutuality that is essential to a good friendship, and the power-play that has been at the heart of so many harmful ones. All that he says is helpfully fleshed out both by tales of Stott (that don’t fall into hagiography), and by another especially useful chapter focusing on the intergenerational biblical friendship of Paul and Timothy.

Wyatt’s book is a powerful call to build intergenerational friendships.

Wyatt’s book is a powerful call to build such intergenerational friendships ourselves – for the good of both parties. It wonderfully provides essential biblical motivation and protections whilst encouragingly painting an inspiring and practical picture of the good that can be achieved for the older and younger friend. If you want friendships to do good, and avoid harm, it is essential reading – especially for any from contexts where such relationships have gone wrong in the recent past.

Personally, it has helped counter my fear that healthy intergenerational friendships are now near impossible. This has been despite my own positive experiences of them – with people of both sexes and all ages. Wyatt’s book helpfully counters the understandable ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ that needs to be negotiated. He provides principles and practices that have given me help and inspiration that befriending younger (and older) Christians should be back at the heart of my life and ministry in my late 40s and 50s as it was in my 20s and early 30s.