In Men against Fire the combat historian S. Marshall made an observation that merits spiritual application. Marshall noted that men fought best when grouped in what he called fire-teams. These teams were small groups of 4 to 6 soldiers who were ordinarily grouped around a natural fighter. The benefits of this structure were both pragmatic and psychological. Pragmatically, soldiers guarded each other’s backs. Psychologically, the moral of each man was boosted because he was not just fighting for his own survival, but for the survival of the group.
Christian men ought to consider the truth of Marshall’s analysis. One of the greatest risks a man can take is to attempt the Christian life on his own. The deceitfulness of the heart by itself is a sufficient reason to walk close to others who are wise and faithful. Long ago Solomon recorded the proverb, ‘Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment’ (Proverbs 18:1). This wisdom is much needed today. A man who isolates himself is a man in danger.
How does a man go about building a spiritual fire-team? The first step is being on the lookout for other men who have similar passion and direction in life. Not every Christian will be a candidate for spiritual friendship. There will be some Christians who we are called to love, not befriend. There will be others who we are called to disciple, but who never reach the trust level required to adopt as spiritual friends. To have different circles of intimacy is not a sign of sinfulness, but a fact of life in a fallen age. To limit spiritual friendship is not to build a wall that restricts self-involvement, but to build a door to makes sure that at least a few select individuals have access to the underlying ‘me’.
Step two is to test these friendships by being more open about spiritual things: to share more about myself, to talk about the joys and difficulties of following Jesus, and to see whether personalities ‘click’ in such a way that seals a relationship. The sign of a true spiritual friend is fellowship in Christ and with Christ. This sharing of Jesus together is what more than anything else distinguishes spiritual friendship from any other kind. If a friend inspires a sweeter delight in Christ, a deeper desire to know him better, a firmer hope that he is faithful, and a quicker fear of anything that smells of sin, a spiritual friendship is taking root.
The third step is acknowledging the intent of the friendship. This need not be formal. Yet, formality is not always a bad thing. Stephen Mansfield has a useful section in Building Your Band of Brothers on what he calls ‘the covenant transition’. He suggests a moment when two or more guys make explicit what was perhaps already implicit – that this friendship serves a higher purpose than mutual enjoyment. Most bands of spiritual friends will benefit from having an open conversation like this. Such forthrightness gives men the opportunity to establish what Mansfield elsewhere calls a ‘free-fire zone’. A group of guys can be clear that, within this circle, anything that must be said, will be said.
The fourth and final step is training together. For this, John Wesley is a useful guide. When it comes to combining vision and practice, few have excelled Wesley. What Wesley managed to do was provide his followers with both a sweeping vision of holiness and a structure of discipleship that targeted head, heart, and hands. At the very center of this plan was small groups of 4-6 likeminded Christians meeting in what Wesley called a ‘band’. A band was not a social gatherings. It was a spiritual fire-team in which men stayed in regular communication regarding temptations and other spiritual struggles.
One of the problems I see among churches today is that Christian leaders are promoting friendship rather than spiritual friendship. There is nothing wrong with having friends and hanging out. Nonetheless, a lot of Christian guys have friends already. What they lack is a spiritual band of brothers who will press them to stay focused on the way to holiness. Such spiritual camaraderie was one of the secrets of the early Navigator’s movement. To hang out among Navigators in the 1940s was to feel a holy peer-pressure to memorize Scripture, to study the Bible, to evangelize the lost, and to have a ‘no-tolerance’ attitude to sin. Navigators were not just friends who happened to be Christians. They were Christians bound together by spiritual friendship. Men need something similar today.
There is no end to the possibilities of how a band of guys might train together. My advice, however, would be to match doing with thinking, taking risks with drinking coffee. There is a gigantic world of need right at the feet of Christian men. No band of brothers can meet together for long without eventually having some daredevil ideas about how to turn the world upside down for Christ.