Michael W. Smith wrote the music for this, while his wife, Debbie, wrote the lyrics. Debbie has always had a knack for writing poetry and after they married, he helped transform her gifting into an ability for penning lyrics. She co-wrote most of his debut album, including the popular praise song "Great Is the Lord" as well as this tune. Debbie also has a credit on "There's Still Time" on Kathy Troccoli's 1982 Stubborn Love album. After the birth of their first son Ryan, Debbie's energy was directed away from songwriting to being a mother.
Michael W. Smith told American Songwriter magazine July/August 1987: "I've gotten tons of response from that song. And it's a song that relates to kids who have lost friends in car accidents, in death, or even going to summer camp and having to leave new friends. The chorus says, 'friends are friends forever.' When I sing it in concert, everybody cries - I still get choked up when I sing it."
This was written for a friend who was moving out of town. Michael told us the story of the song: "He was part of a group that we had a little bible study we had that he's moving away," he said. "And we were all having a get together that night and she said, 'Man, we should write, we should do something for Bill.' Bill Jackson was his name. 'And we should write him a song.' I said, 'Great, we'll write him a song and send it to him.' And she said, 'I think we should write it this afternoon.' And I thought she was had lost her mind."
And then 30 minutes later I was outside, she walked out and handed me this lyric," Michael continued. "And it was the words to 'Friends.' And I went inside to the piano and in three and a half minutes wrote the melody and we played it for Bill that night, and everybody cried. And I got up the next day and looked at my wife, and I said, 'Deb,' I said, 'I think we might have something here.' And so that was on the very first album, it was also on Change the World. It's been recorded several times over these last three decades. And I'm still singing it. Little did I know it I'd have to sing it the rest of my life."
Michael told us that this was unusual for him as he's written very few songs with the lyric in front of him, trying to write a melody to it. He added that, "say 95 percent of my songs, it's been a melody thing first."
Michael W. Smith became close to George H. W. Bush after meeting the US president in 1989. He sang this song at Bush's state funeral service at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC on December 5, 2018.