By Eddie Pipkin

Everybody needs friends.  They are essential to our health and happiness.  We’ve written about this topic on more than one occasion, because it’s one of those topics that pops back into the news cycle on a regular basis.  Americans are lonelier than ever!  Men have no friends!  Senior citizens are despairing of their lack of meaningful connections!  The pandemic, we learned, highlighted the need for deep friendships more than ever.  And now with the pandemic isolation fading from memory, I keep coming across stories about how people have forgotten how to make friends.  Through it all, the local church has been and continues to be one of the most amazing places to make lifelong friendships.  Why is it that we don’t do a better job of getting that simple (and apparently desperately needed) word out?

First of all, let’s recap some of the articles that I came across in the past couple of weeks that touched (yet again) on this topic.

The great columnist and social scientist David Brooks had a column in the NY Times, titled “Why Our Social Life Is Not What it Should Be” (subscription required).  Later, also in the Times, Boris Fishman was featured in a guest essay, humorously titled “The Post-Colonoscopy Male Friendship Test” (alas, also requiring a subscription).  The central tenet of Fishman’s essay was a comment by a middle-aged male friend that if he went in for a colonoscopy, he was not sure he could identify another male friend who would be willing to drive him home from the procedure.

That’s a stark assessment of the quality and quantity of friendships, but there has been plenty of data in recent years that has tracked the so-called “loneliness epidemic” (here’s an article from the Cigna insurance website, of all places, titled, “The Loneliness Epidemic Persists”; and it’s not just old folks who are having trouble staying connected to other human beings: here’s an article from Forbes, “Millenials and the Loneliness Epidemic.”)

David Brooks’ observations don’t just recap the problem with the latest supporting statistics.  He cites some recent research that explores an interesting aspect of this breakdown in relationship building: people are afraid to take a chance on making the very connections they say they desire.  Fear of failure or a bad experience keeps them from extending themselves.  Brooks, citing new work from researcher Nicholas Epley, observes that it’s not that there’s no opportunity for connecting with other human beings; it’s that we suffer from a lack of imagination:

Epley’s research illuminates a mystery I’ve been thinking about for a while. Many of us have been writing about the breakdown of social relationships. Books now appear with titles like “The Lonely Century,” “The Crisis of Connection,” and “Lost Connections.”

But mass loneliness is a perversity. If a bunch of people are lonely, why don’t they just hang out together? Maybe it’s because people approach potential social encounters with unrealistically anxious and negative expectations. Maybe if we understood this, we could alter our behavior. [Bold emphasis mine.]

If mass loneliness in the greater culture is a perversity, loneliness within the local church setting is a double-perversity.  A central part of our mission is connecting people!  We are relational by definition.  Yet the folks in our pews and multi-purpose room chairs are also often anxious and imprisoned by negative expectations.

The Good News, however, is all about relieving relational anxiety and recalibrating expectations in a hopeful and positive direction.

Brooks defines the problem like this:

We’re an extremely social species, but many of us suffer from what Epley calls undersociality. We see the world in anxiety-drenched ways that cause us to avoid social situations that would be fun, educational and rewarding.

‘Undersociality’ is a great term, one that should now be a laser focus of church leaders.  If local churches (which should be providing a hopeful haven for those seeking a cure to their deficit of social connections) are themselves suffering from undersociality, church health across the board is impacted.  Relationships – it can’t be said enough – are at the heart of discipleship, outreach, community impact, and congregational care.

So how do we end up sabotaging our opportunities to connect with one another?  Brooks gives a practical analysis of the way fear-based misperceptions stunt our relational networking:

Many of these misperceptions are based on a deeper misperception. It’s about how people are seeing you. Entering into a conversation, especially with strangers, is hard. People go in with doubts about their own competence: Will they be able to start a conversation well, or communicate their thoughts effectively?

The local church needs to get explicit in combating these false, anxiety-based assumptions that are making us wary of putting ourselves out there:

  • We can be explicit within our local church community about the central value of relationships – the messaging needs to emphasize deep and meaningful friendships as part of the fabric of discipleship.
  • We can provide opportunities that are explicitly identified as opportunities to establish new friendships.
  • We can actively counter message the negative misconceptions that people have about taking a chance on starting a conversation or engaging a potential connection.
  • We can provide interactive training that explicitly teaches the skills to nurture healthy friendships.
  • We can regularly celebrate friendships in all their forms (building a culture of friendships as part of the identity of our faith community).
  • We can make relational connection micro-opportunities part of any gathering, large or small. (This is a value that we can train all leaders at all levels to incorporate in their regular meetings and gatherings.)
  • We can train people in effective connectional techniques such as starting a conversation with a stranger or inviting someone to lunch, etc. One of the ways to combat connectional anxiety is by giving people practical practice.  You can take a few moments to workshop such techniques even during worship, thereby teaching a skill in a way that we can all be awkward together, as well as emphasizing the message that relationships are important, and we are a little nervous in making them happen, but the potential benefits are huge.
  • We can make sure we are honoring our creative impulses and the wealth of talent in our churches and the communities beyond our doors by offering “social situations that are fun, educational, and rewarding.” (Not the same old same old, repackaged with a clever title, printed in a hip new font.)

From the perspective of the community’s perception of your local church, there is a distinct opportunity to brand yourself as a place known for friendships.  Market yourself (and mean it) as a place where people can come and make friends.  That’s a simple message, not weighed down with a lot of churchspeak about discipleship or biblical authenticity or spiritual awakenings.  Sure, all that is a part of who you are and what you have to offer, but the appeal of ‘come here and ease your loneliness and make some good friends’ is an upgrade to the generic ‘all are welcome’ message on many church property sign boards.

Part of this process should be an active engagement with the loneliness epidemic as it impacts individual demographics.  As noted by the article links I cited earlier, the relational connection problem impacts people at all ages and stages.  It impacts young people and seniors in different ways but equally harmfully.  Not only is the local church uniquely primed to provide space for Millennials to connect to Millennials and seniors to connect to seniors, but it is one of the only natural connection points in the broader community space for cross-generational relationships to flourish.  If our local churches don’t have an initiative dedicated to fostering those cross-generational connections, we are missing out on a one-of-a-kind opportunity.

Then, of course, I have noted in previous blogs, there is the great relational deficit faced by many middle-aged men, the one called out in “The Post-Colonoscopy Male Friendship Test”:

The internet is thick with data about American loneliness, but particularly that of middle-aged men. Fifteen percent of men say they have no close friendships at all, a fivefold increase since 1990, the Survey Center on American Life reported in 2021. In a 2019 article at HuffPost, a psychiatrist and family therapist, Dr. Robert Garfield, explained that the sharpest drop in heterosexual male friendships happens in the early days of a marriage or long-term relationship. If that marriage or relationship involves children, he added, the decline is often even steeper. Dr. Garfield described this period of “work life and fatigue” as a time of “quiet desperation for men” — and, as the article went on to say, emotional overreliance on their increasingly annoyed wives, who tend to maintain longtime friendships even during marriage. (Dr. Garfield added that queer men are just as starved for platonic friendships.) All of this has been made even worse by the pandemic — we haven’t been able to see even the friends we have. As we emerge from this quarantine of the spirit, when separation became the key to survival, many of us are even less adept at friendship than we used to be.

We have an opportunity to be known as the place where healthy male friendships can flourish.  Just because it’s not as easy or automatic or intuitive as having a children’s ministry or youth ministry doesn’t mean it’s not worth the hard work of doing it.

For many of the issues that church leaders regularly find themselves wringing their hands over, this idea of promoting friendships is a great starting place for reinforcing connections that can build ministry enthusiasm, encourage leadership development, and help people develop strong feelings for the communities in which these friendships are anchored.  As Tony Morgan writes in his blog, “Dealing With Less Frequent Attendance Patterns,” his number one point of advice for leaders who are worried about changing habits for worship attendees and ministry participants is to focus on the deep benefits of promoting friendships:

Encourage people to develop relationships inside and outside the church.

The more friends we have inside the church, the more often we’ll want to be together. The more friends we have outside the church, the more intentional we’ll want to be about inviting them to join us at a service.

How do you feel about the state of your own friendships?  Can you easily identify someone to drive you home from your colonoscopy?  Does your local church promote the development of friendships?  Does it feature events and activities that are centered on giving those relationships a boost?  Do you teach the skills of connecting with others?  Does your community know you as a place where healthy friendships can be made and celebrated?  Share your own ideas for helping people get connected in friendships that last.