by Aaron Earls
While many of us have an ever-growing number of Facebook “friends,” our real life list of friends seems to dwindle away. Close relationships from high school and college are miles away and no one seems to be stepping into that void.
And make no mistake, it is a void. We need close friends and more of them.
Research continues to demonstrate the health benefits of having close friendships. A circle of friends protects your health as much as quitting smoking and decreases your likelihood of dying from heart disease.
Despite the physical benefits, a growing number of Americans are living in isolation. Take this from a recent TIME article on friends:
Unfortunately, though, many of us don’t have enough of them. According to data from the General Social Survey (GSS), the number of Americans who say they have no close friends has roughly tripled in recent decades. “Zero” is also the most common response when people are asked how many confidants they have, the GSS data show. And adult men seem to be especially bad at keeping and cultivating friendships.
The piece goes on to point out the benefits gained from friends, distinct from the positives of family relationships, are only realized in face-to-face relationships, not virtual connections online.
Scripture recognizes what friends bring to our life, particularly in the Wisdom Literature. Proverbs repeatedly speaks of the good brought by healthy friends and the consequences of having bad friends.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 (HCSB) spells it out plainly:
Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts. For if either falls, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to lift him up.
So how can churches aid their people in finding and developing close friendships offline and in real life? Here are six ways congregations can provide a positive environment for friendships to grow.
1. Invest in your small groups ministry. Clearly groups benefit the spiritual development of church members, but they also make it easier for people to connect more relationally. As a church family, invest time and resources in your small groups for the spiritual and relational health of your people.
2. Provide outside-of-church events for people to connect. Yes, you want connection to happen when people are at the church building, but sometimes it’s much easier in homes or at other venues. Plan for church-wide events like picnics in local parks and smaller gatherings in homes to help people develop friendships outside of Sunday morning.
3. But don’t over-schedule. With good intention, churches can add more stress to individuals and families who already feel as if they don’t have enough time. Seek a balance of providing organized times for people to gather, while leaving room for lives away from the church campus.
4. Offer free childcare occasionally. This small step can eliminate a potential hurdle for parents to have a night out with friends. Leverage young adults and older teenagers as additional childcare.
5. Encourage members to serve together. Having a church workday or a community cleanup provides a great way for members who don’t often see each other to meet and get to know one another. Mission trips also offer the chance to form deep relationships in a short period of time.
6. Publicly value friendships. If no one in church leadership develops close friendships, why would you expect the people to see it as important? Pastors, leaders, and teachers should speak of their friends and the importance of those relationships in their life.
Has your church helped you form friendships? What other ways can churches help encourage those relationships developing?
AARON EARLS (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of Facts & Trends.