The Lonely Crowd: churches dying due to friendlessness

I’ve lost count of the number of Christians who’ve told me they either stopped attending church or left their church to join another one because they couldn’t make any friends there.

They report that the church people were friendly enough. They were hospitable and welcoming.

As one person told me, “They’re nice to you, but no one becomes your friend.”

And it hurts when all that friendliness leads only to friendlessness.

In the 1950s, sociologist David Riesman coined the term “the lonely crowd”, in part to describe collectives of people who live according to common traditions and conforming values, but who barely know or like each other. I fear the church is in danger of becoming just such a lonely crowd.

I know pastors think long and hard about how to be better preachers and leaders, how to calibrate the church’s ministries to meet needs and serve others, how to be more missional, more adaptive, more innovative. These are all good things. But is it possible that all that leadership development, visioning, and ministry planning might be wasted if people can’t find friends and just drift away?

Before hosting any more conferences or seminars on vision-casting, living your best life, or finding your spiritual gift, how about we start equipping people in friendship-making?

Becoming and being a friend isn’t easy. It takes intentionality and training. It might be your church’s next major challenge.

 

IT’S NOT JUST THE CHURCH

Before we start beating ourselves up about how friendless churches can be, we should note that this is a society-wide problem. In his book, Social, by Matthew Lieberman reports on a survey of people’s social connections that was done in 1985 and again in 2004. 

People were asked to list their friends in response to the question “Over the last six months, who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?” In 1985, the most common number of friends listed was three; 59 percent of respondents listed three or more friends fitting this description.

But by 2004, the most common number of friends with whom you would discuss important matters was zero. And only 37 percent of respondents listed three or more friends. Back in 1985, only 10 percent indicated that they had zero confidants. In 2004, this number had skyrocketed to 25 percent.

As Lieberman says, “One out of every four of us is walking around with no one to share our lives with.”

 

CHURCH PEOPLE AREN’T GOOD LISTENERS

Like my first point, it might be fairer to say most people aren’t good listeners. The inability or disinterest in asking meaningful questions that indicate an interest in another person is a huge impediment to making friends. I wrote about this last year here.

Listening is key. When someone is a good listener they are able to seek similarity with someone else. It’s impossible to show empathy or celebrate the positive in a person without first hearing from them. And without an awareness of similarity, empathy and celebration, friendships just don’t get started.

Listening is not the same as hearing or waiting. Therapists refer to active listening to distinguish between giving someone your full concentration and just passively ‘hearing’ them.

Frankly, I think church people can be so bad at it they need training. Churches should run regular workshops in active listening. Good listeners know how to harness all the non-verbal cues that show they are listening, such as making non-threatening eye contact, smiling, maintaining an open posture, mirroring (reflecting facial expressions), and eliminating distractions.

They also need to know how to utilize verbal skills like remembering things that were said, gently questioning someone for greater clarification, and using reflection techniques (closely repeating or paraphrasing what the speaker has said in order to show comprehension).

These things don’t come naturally for most people. Train your congregation to be active listeners.

 

CHURCH PEOPLE STRUGGLE TO BE VULNERABLE

Friendship is more than just listening, although that’s an essential start. Getting close to people, becoming their friends, involves something more. It involves vulnerability.

Face it, people don’t become besties by only discussing the weather.

Allowing yourself to be vulnerable helps the other person to trust you, precisely because you are putting yourself at emotional, psychological, or physical risk. Other people tend to react by being more open and vulnerable themselves. The fact that both of you are letting down your guard helps to lay the groundwork for a faster, closer personal connection.

The great enemy here is shame. Nothing silences us more effectively than shame.

Sadly, church people are often the most shamed people. This could have come from old church patterns about needing to appear clean and tidy and always winning. Our church might have taught us to never show the parts of our lives that are messy, dirty or embarrassing. I think that might be because a lot of church unwittingly promote perfectionism, which a condition in which people constantly ask, “What will they think?”

But as Brene Brown says, “The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole or more acceptable, but our wholeness — even our wholeheartedness — actually depends on the integration of all of our experiences, including the falls.”

Brown also writes, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”

It’s in the courage of vulnerability we find connection with another and then, potentially, friendship with them.

 

CHURCH PEOPLE NEED TO BE LESS BUSY

Friendships take time. It’s the thing spouses and friends fight about the most — unavailability.

In his book on friendship (helpfully titled Friendship), Daniel Hruschka reviewed studies on the causes of conflict in friendship and found that the most common arguments boil down to time commitments. Spending time with someone is a sure indicator that you value them, and feeling undervalued is a sure-fire friendship killer.

A New York Times report concluded “the leading cause of persistent relationships is reciprocity — returning a friend’s call.” The report cited research that said enduring friendships require friends to touch base at least once every 15 days. If we want our churches to be more friendly places we need to encourage people to create time for friends.

Churches are good at running programs and promoting faith. As a result, a lot of church conversations are either about serious matters of faith (Bible studies, workshops, etc) or focused on the practicalities of volunteering for a ministry or committee.

But many of us know that our really good friendships emerged not by being on a committee with someone, or even attending a Bible study group with them. Friendships are often forged in the conversations that occur when we’re ‘playing’ together. Hanging out, attending parties, camping, hiking, picnicking, goofing off — these are the occasions where people let their guards down and share more deeply.

If a person’s church schedule is crammed with attending stuff, no matter how good that stuff might be, there might be a problem. Validating the importance of play and encouraging people to share in good, fun, non-religious experiences is really important.

 

THE ONUS SHOULDN’T BE ON THE NEWCOMER

A lot of people have shared with me how tough it is to break into a new church. It’s the newcomer who has to break into conversations. The newcomer has to find common interests and angle for invitations. It’s often the newcomer who does all the hosting of people for a meal. I can relate to this. Since leaving the church we planted, my wife and I have attended two great churches, but in both cases we had to work so hard to make relational connections.

It really shouldn’t be the newcomer’s responsibility. Churches should be learning to embody the grace and hospitality of the gospel and striving to be more like Christ, the friend of sinners. Teresa of Avila wrote, “If Christ Jesus dwells in a person as his friend that person can endure all things, for Christ helps and strengthens us and never abandons us. He is a true friend.”

We can’t sing, “What a friend we have in Jesus” without his friendship affecting how we befriend others.

 

 

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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25 thoughts on “The Lonely Crowd: churches dying due to friendlessness

  1. Thanks again Mike. I think every healthy family regularly and intentionally engages in the four rhythms of… Resting, Working, Eating & Playing with each other and their neighbors. I have often thought… If church is defined as a family what would it look like for each church to wrestle with restructuring community around these rhythms instead of current patterns. We might just have Jesus like people who first experience life and secondly change their cities.

  2. Sorry for the length of comment :-/. Mike this is so good. I bet many people would say that this is an area of great struggle, sadness and desire. And you touched on this for yourselves when you guys ventured away from your church plant.

    You are dead-on Mike. Folks don’t listen because we are too busy and mostly, we are afraid to be vulnerable. But if, in and through Christ we are fully known and wholly loved, with all our broken bits and quirks, then shall we not allow that commonality to be the driving force to grow deeper in relationship? Is it not an imperative that we love each other deeply?

    For myself, this is what almost made me leave the church right when Jesus had grabbed a hold of my life. I didn’t get it. But my tenacity and curiosity wouldn’t allow me to give up that easily. I made a point of inviting a different person to tea every week. Sometimes there was reciprocity, but often not. I became known in my church community for being the person who “knew” people, but that was because of the weight I put on knowing people. I don’t settle for the superficial discussions about weather, I desire to be known and to know others on a more intimate level. What I learn is this, the folks that I would have tea with only one time, would tells me all sorts of stuff about their lives that I would have never known otherwise. I began to know them and could—if only a wee bit—relate to them.

    Yes, it would be helpful for the pastors and leaders in our church communities to model and teach on this; to address our atrophied friendship muscles. But is it so hard for each and every one of us to carve out the time, to understand the essential nature of friendship? Might we start asking people to grab a cup, or go for a walk? Make time for friendships? Isn’t it something we owe one another?

    1. I think it is something we owe one another. Love your tenacity!

  3. Additional deterents to churches fostering friendships: 1. The focus in seminaries on “content” (theological and Biblical) to the overlooking of “connection”, so our pastors come out thinking that what makes a great pastor – and church – is being right about things. (I speak from the perspective of the American conservative church.)
    2. The focus on “being right about things” to the overlooking of “connection”: This is what causes us to hide the sides of our lives and the questions of our hearts that might not be “right”, and also causes us to focus on trying to convince (read: “argue with”) those who disagree that they are wrong and we are right. The two great commandments have the same verb, and it is not “know” or “believe” or “be [right]” or even “obey.”

  4. Oh Mike, you could have been writing about our last 9 years! People, including me unfortunately, just don’t seem to want to go out of their way for others.

    1. Hey Steve, I appreciate your honesty. May I ask you why? What do you feel are the stumbling blocks or reasons? I have a few ideas, but I’d really like to know why folks (using your words) “just don’t seem to want to go out of their way for others.” I hope you are willing to share where you are coming from.

      1. Excellent article Mike!

      2. Shannon, I’m not sure if it’s a cultural thing an age thing, or a mindset thing – perhaps a bit of each. We did not experience the same disconnection when we moved to Ipswich – we (our youngest was born there) were 20 years younger and were expecting to be there for many years (it turned out to be less than 3). When we moved to Sydney, we expected it to only be a few years (it ended up being 6), we were no longer young. I suspect that most people figured we were able to figure things out ourselves, or did not want their comfortable cliques disrupted. We should have linked into a small group sooner – that made the most difference. We should have sought to serve, even for a short time. Neither the leaders, nor the people seemed to notice or be concerned that we were not using our gifts to serve in the local fellowship. In six years we never had a pastor, elder or anyone seek us out to find out our story, or to try work out how we could add value to the congregation.

  5. This is a very interesting article and true to life. For myself, I think I used to be better at friendship and real interest in people Being in lockdown and not meeting in Church certainly has not helped. There is much more to the problem than that and it started much earlier. I am aware of ageing (I am now 73) and poor health, without (i hope) moaning too much. I think that probably many older people limit their circle of friends, and certainly those with whom they can share at a deeper level, to long-standing friend and family. That is certainly true of grieving people, in many instances, to my observation. It is not helpful but is an understandable reaction to their circumstances. How can we help? Here are some suggestions. I don’t necessarily comply with them myself! Keep up social contacts, and that would certainly include church attendance when possible and safe. It may be possible to have ‘serious’ conversations after church; others are usually sensitive and will keep away if they sense a confidential conversation. If necessary, arrange a further conversation by a visit if appropriate – phone may be OK, but generally less satisfactory. Meeting for coffee in a shop somewhere may be better than in someone’s home, and less threatening. I am sure that newcomers to a church are not content with superficial chat, but listen first before jumping in without sensitivity. Find out more about the person. People are interesting!

  6. This is so true.
    After many many years a a few different churches we found the same thing. All churches need to have social events as well as Worship Sundays.
    Hillsong has Sisterhood on Thursday’s. This is great and gives woman a time to relax and socially get to know each other. Woman need it.
    They also have Men’s nights, involving activities and food. It’s bonding and great.
    Citipointe Church also have similar fun activities.
    This is the only way people really get to connect as everyone is do serious on a Sunday and go to Church just to Worship.

  7. Thank you Mike for such a great article. I have been struggling with ‘church’ and making friends in church for a long time. Making friends is extremely hard work. My husband and I are now retired from full time ministry and moved to a new area to retire. It’s taken us 4 years to make one very solid friendship. Like you mentioned, the newcomer has to do all the hosting… Hard work.

    1. Hello Beth. You’re absolutely right. We’ve had the same experience, been here about 4 years after returning from o/s work, just now starting to feel like we might just belong. Trouble is, people in churches don’t seem to need anyone new in their lives, so they smile and chat about trivialities after church. We desperately needed friends, and had to do all the hard work. Thank God for Facebook & Zoom – we were able to maintain the close friendships we’d made o/s and that helped get us through.

  8. An excellent topic and article Michael…

    Singles & Formerly Married’s yearn for both Friendship and Relational Connection…

    Over the years, we have had Singles travel long distances within NSW and interstate for our 13 Residential Singles Conferences and major Social Events…

    Many have made lifelong friends and hundreds of others met their Spouse, and whether a first or second Marriage been Married 10 to 30 years, 50% having 1-4 children, 40% Blending Families of up to 7 children…

    I have intentionally made time for Single Friends, Partnered & Married Couple Friends, whether Christian, Agnostic or inbetween..Phone Calls & Diaries helpful, especially if they say we must catch up…Diarise it!
    Normally I suggest and Diarise it!
    Be Intentional with Friendships!!!!!

    At one stage, I found some Married Couples who met through Singles For Christ and were friends, I decided to start a Married’s Group to meet socially twice a year…At the first BBQ event, a Guy stood up and expressed what a great night he and his wife had, and proposed we meet Quarterly; so we did for many years!

    However, in local churches, new Singles or Couples can either just meet the right people; or feel very much alone and invisible…

    I suggest having a Comprehensive Pastoral Care Ministry, to increase the chances of new attendees becoming part of your Church Community, making Relational Connections and Friendships…

    On a personal note, I have a close friend since childhood, Danny, a Jew, in Melbourne, we keep in touch, and another, Brian, a Jewish Christian, since 18yo who I call, fb text or whenever visiting from Melbourne with his wife, Maree,
    we get together, chat, support each other through the great, fun and difficult times!

  9. Our culture and churches are addicted to friendship. I would say that friendship is the biggest issue in the church today. It is our go to supportive relationship even beyond family. Jesus was clear on this pointing our relational hunger to neighbours. Neighbours as a supportive social relationship rarely get the focus they should as a vital “relational nutrient”. It is easy to understand why we are addicted to the relationship that is predicated on “sameness” or affinity rather than proximity where you get diversity and all the challenges that come with it.
    Lots we could say about what a shift in the church from friendship to neighbourship would bring.

  10. My husband and I frequently have people over for a meal, however rarely receive an invitation back, not that we do this for a return invitation.
    We have wondered why. Maybe it’s because we are not in the Senior Leadership in the church, or we’re not important, we just have regular jobs and are ordinary people. We are gracious hosts and never rude to our guests, even when we don’t agree with them. Maybe we’re just not that interesting!

    Not sure, anyway we will continue to invite people for meals (when lockdown is over ).

    1. This is my experience too, Liz. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are people who facilitate friendships, and people who consume these overtures. Which doesn’t make them bad people. I don’t think it’s anything to do with your position in the church, and leaders can be the most lonely and least invited. Being a facilitator of friendships is a hugely important ministry, and since I’ve framed it like that, I feel less resentful, I feel it is a choice I can make. During lockdown, it’s more important than ever. I’m grateful for Zoom, phones, texts, and make a point of making a meaningful contact each day.

      1. Thanks Frances. The thought that we might be ‘facilitators of friendships’ is very gratifying.

  11. This is totally true. It might be worse in some places than others. As someone from California I can tell you that most friendships at church are superficial at best or fake at worst. I attended a place for 3 years, went to small group every week, and literally made ZERO friends, no one hung out or even wanted to hang out with people outside of that small group. Lots of churches already have their cliques when you get there. One church I attended for 16 years and had no friends at.

    1. After reading many of the comments, I think we all need to acknowledge a few things. First, it takes time, energy and intentionality to want to make and find new friendships. Many folks are content with the circle they have around them and, frankly, don’t have time or a desire for anything more than what and who they currently have. What is heartbreaking about this is it is one of the many byproducts of the consumer culture we live in. Many, if not most, modern church communities are based off of a consumer culture; I go to “church” to be fed the type of sermon I want and listen/worship to the music that moves ME, then I’m outa there after a little chitchat.

      Second, most of us posting on this blog are “afflicted with affluence,” we are wealthy and blessed beyond measure with material things. Our needs appear to be met, but this is far from true; we are, many times, spiritually and relationally impoverished. In areas of the world where people “need” community and friends to survive; we will rarely run in to the problems of friendlessness. People know they need people; they highly value what each individual brings to the table; they live in a state of symbiosis… the way we were intended to live. They also know they have something unique to offer to others and understand that that “unique something” is to be shared, not held with a tight fist.

      This area of study and understanding is a deep passion of mine and all the folks posting here should never give up on the desire and pursuit for meaningful relationship. Keep at it, it is the most human thing we can do!

      Ya know, this is one of the greatest effects of the fall and the broken world we live in; the very nature of our humanness is to be in relationship, yet we can’t figure it out. However, what I’m seeing in these posts is that there are still folks who yearn and long for relational intimacy and it is a beautiful, beautiful thing. Lets keep at it!

      1. So many different reasons for the diffculties of creating or maintaining friendships. My husband and i would love to hsvr coupld friends. Unfortunately, our work schedules never mesh with other couples. He works almost every evening, usually 6 out of 7 and rarely has a day off. When he does, he suffers from extreme migraines. I go to some things myself, but that gets old. I’ve always been some on who is content with my own company as well, since a child.

        I am also a terrible housekeeper and feel embarrassed to have anyone in my home.

        Many days, I am also exhausted after a work day, after helping many people, and need quiet to regenerate.

        Reciprocating any invitations is difficult for me. But please don’t stop inviting people like me. We appreciate it.

  12. Any organisation is hard to enter as a new person. Churches are no different and do not make it easy. There never seemed to be any event though where people could meet others besides a church work event that was to keep everyone busy. Too often in churches, they have all the people they want (and like), and the rest of us are just allowed to come to the service and donate money. I know in work environments people cannot risk trusting each other but churches should be the one place where people should have not have to fear another person.

  13. Thanks for this fabulous and timely piece, especially as the world battles isolation resulting from efforts to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. May the church have ears to hear this timely word.

  14. Very good item. This is how we feel . It’s been happening for years .We heard a message once 49 years ago. It was a Christian hotel. He spoke about gas rings.,warm circles of people talking. They would shout out gas rings and everyone would have to move to talk to others. We go to Church on holiday and the number of times no one speaks. What if we were going to join. We have been at our Church 7 years. What we find is we go and speak to people then you look around and everyone are in their circles. We are being monitored as we didn’t do something 9 years ago. I am not the only be who gets left out ,they have told us. Well we will keep on trying..It’s like we don’t know you we just speak to who we know. People pass without speaking. We have about 90 – 100 so no excuse.

  15. I have a different opinion which I think illustrates a big part of the problem.

    //”CHURCH PEOPLE AREN’T GOOD LISTENERS”//

    As you point out, that is a general problem with we humans.

    Nevertheless, if you have been taught that you, and only you have the God given truth, why the need to listen? (See my following comment.)

    //”CHURCH PEOPLE STRUGGLE TO BE VULNERABLE”//

    I think the above arises because, notwithstanding that the bible teaches things like – “we are all equal before God”, it also teaches that, relative to outsiders (e.g. the secular world, or even other Christians who don’t quite match up):-

    a. believers are wise, non believers are fools,

    b. believers are in the light, non believers are in the dark,

    c. believers have truth, non believers have lies,

    d. believers are Godly, non believers are tools of the Devil,

    e. believers are joyous, non believers are miserable,

    f. believers are righteous, non believers are wicked,

    g. believers are healed, non believers are sick,

    h. believers have pearls, non believers are like swine,

    i. believers are free, non believers are in bondage,

    j. etc.

    The strength of these negative opinions about outsiders, including those within the church who are new, or those who are struggling with doubt, appear to correlate with the strength of belief that the believer and only the believer and the group the believer belongs to, has the actual God given truth.

    This is reinforced by regular bible readings and church sermons – daily, weekly, and over the years, where verses in the bible and assertions in sermons are interpreted as “us = good and them = bad”.

    So it’s hard to see how this cannot but reinforce the notion that believers are superior and non believers are inferior.

    So what believer is actually going to admit to doubt, or fallibility, or misery, or uncertainty in front of other believers and in front of outsiders, given the way in with they have been taught to see themselves and the way in which they have been taught to see the other?

    Just a heads up. I’m one of the “other” having abandoned my faith some 50 years ago. However I spend a lot of time on forums, interacting with believers. Many are gems. Many are not. But that’s just the way it is in the outside world anyway. So I think the church really needs to spend less time flattering itself and understand that, while it may have some things to offer the world, the world actually has a lot to offer it.

    But the moment people see themselves or their organisation (their faith) as superior, that latter point will never sink in and believers will struggle to be vulnerable, both to other believers and to outsiders.

  16. Is Jesus our friend? Do we really love Him above all else’s?

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