Friendship and Church?

A few years ago the Alex Williams of The New York Times shared a story mixing anecdote and research called “Friends of a Certain Age.” The basic question is why is it so hard for American to make [good] friends after age 30? What did he find?

Sociologists consider these three conditions crucial to making close friends:

  1. proximity
  2. repeated, unplanned interactions
  3. a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in one another

By one’s 30s and beyond,

“you have been through your share of wearying or failed relationships. You have come to grips with the responsibilities of juggling work, families, and existing friends, so you may become more wary about making yourself emotionally available to new people. ‘You’re more keenly aware of the downside…You’re also more keenly aware of your own capacity to disappoint.” (Williams)

Friendship and Church?

John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard Church (and movement), observed: “People come to church for a variety of reasons, but they stay for only one—friendship.” This principle drives the ambiance and culture of Alpha, but it can mean so much more for churches.

I’m in my 30s right now and it’s an interesting decade of life to say the least. Many Americans are starting families, highly engaged with the bustle of school-aged children, or entering a new realm of parenting teenagers. Many of us have relocated, are relocating, or will relocate for jobs or family. Many consider changes in life style or career in their 30s, or struggle with questions of purpose, ambition, and vision (Miller, “The Ambition Collision”). Some go through a divorce/separation, or end a long-term dating relationship. For those who identify as no particular religion, it can be a time of completing a process of “adulthood” by forming some personal conclusions about the meaning of life, human nature, and more. For all these reasons and more, it’s a time when deepening or developing friendships can be a practical challenge, yet when the fruit of friendship is profoundly needed. 

Proximity, Repeated Interactions, and Openness

When churches can offer settings where adults can let their guard down, and engage in many, repeat, unplanned interactions, then friendships are born. Unfortunately, a lot of what many of our churches do well is exactly the opposite of this–classes, lectures, coffee/donuts, structured small group discussion, prayer, worship, etc. These things are good without doubt, but they are not the most fertile ground for forming new friendships.

Settings for being, not doing or accomplishing a certain task/learning are key. But they must be inviting. For decades, Youth Ministries have grasped the importance of informal socialization among teens. This human desire doesn’t disappear when teens become adults. It takes more creativity though to envision what this might look like for your specific setting–maybe it’s centered around certain career interests, maybe it involves hobbies or maker-spaces (note: many public libraries have evolved into offering these types of public gatherings–check out yours for ideas!), maybe it’s an appealing environment for families to gather and play, maybe it’s appealing food/drink. Many studies have shown Americans becoming less and less social. This is a challenge (because we work against this tide by cultivating opportunities for this through churches), but also an opportunity to help adults experience connection to each other, to develop friendships that will keep them coming back, maybe coming to something more overtly “spiritual.”

God is a communion of divine persons, the closest, most perfect friendship imaginable–something we can never completely experience on this earth. This longing for communion is written into us as human beings, created in His image and likeness. Our intentionality in helping adults cultivate friendship helps them experience God, even if in a very small way–something especially valuable for adults in their 30s, and more broadly, for all of us!

Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Reiss Vermeulen, M.Div., M.N.A., blogs, ministers in parish life and lay/deacon formation, and serves as a U.S. Army Reserve officer. She and her husband, Luke, have been married since 2011 and live in Ypsilanti, MI with their two young sons.

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