The day after the 2020 election, I woke up early, quickly checked the news (no winner had been announced yet), and took off for a socially distanced ride with my cycling team. We finished our loop at a local donut shop, and I sat on the front porch with a teammate—six feet apart, of course. In a sense, we couldn’t be more different: We belong to different age group, hold different perspectives on religion, and had voted for different candidates (yep, we even talked about that).
As we sat there with our hot coffee and craft donuts, I said something to the effect of a Tim Keller quotation on church planting: “Well, I’m starting to think everyone here has gone crazy but us—and to be honest, I’m not so sure about you anymore.” We laughed about the election, gave our predictions on how the state counts would come in, and tried to figure out how our country might come back from this level of division. We didn’t solve our national crisis that morning.
But then again, maybe we did. Or, at least, we took a step in the right direction.
Before COVID, we were already facing an epidemic of loneliness in America. As I wrote in 2018, social isolation has become the functional status of American life, and loneliness has made a profound and tragic impression on our mental health, physical well-being, and community life. And that was before we were all locked in our homes indefinitely.
Last year, the cure for one pandemic only deepened another one. The antidote to the COVID pandemic—social isolation and distancing—has exacerbated what the former surgeon general called “the epidemic of loneliness.”
Last year, the cure for one pandemic only deepened another one.
The primary tragedies of COVID are well-known. We’ve lost loved ones: In the U.S. alone, more than 750,000 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19. The pandemic has disproportionately hurt people of color, lower-income individuals, and the elderly. And the long-term health factors associated with COVID-19 are not yet fully known. We’re not yet living in a post-COVID world, and in a sense, we never will be. (Perhaps we might call this, with a crumb of hope, the late COVID era.)
In the midst of all these massive and somewhat measurable tragedies, the effects on our relationships, friendships, and communities have been incalculable. How do we begin to understand the personal, relational, and spiritual damage that the pandemic has caused? And what can be done about it?
Here’s my thesis: Americans’ already-weak middle-ring relationships, especially friendships, have been significantly diminished since March 2020, and they’ve mostly been replaced by screen time and faction friendships, which have pushed us to further polarization—in the broader society as well as the church. To push back against this trend, believers and churches must together create new rhythms of discipleship, patterned after the earthly life of Jesus, to restore friendships and promote the renewal of our communities.
How the Pandemic Reshaped Our Daily Lives
To begin, let’s consider the significant ways in which COVID changed how we use our time. A study for The New York Times showed (not surprisingly) dramatic movements toward social isolation in the eight months of May through December 2020. (No data were collected from mid-March through mid-May because of the pandemic.)
The average American’s time spent with people outside the household dropped by a full hour—which, over eight months, amounts to about 244 fewer hours spent in relationships in 2020 versus 2019.
So where did that time go instead? Although there were segments who spent much more time with family members—parents of young children especially—the biggest changes in time use were digital. The pandemic saw increases in our texting, phone calls, video conferencing, TV streaming, computer use, and video games. Not including work and school time, the average American increased daily screen time by about 60 minutes.
When we put these two trends together (and assume March and April 2020 were at least as isolated for most Americans), we discover this: In 2020, the average American traded 300 hours of in-person time with friends, church members, and neighbors for 300 hours of social media, TV, and internet reading.
No wonder 2021 turned out this way and 2022 promises more of the same. And again, this all comes after the U.S. surgeon general called loneliness our great epidemic in 2017. Lord, have mercy.
But it’s not just that in-person relationships have been replaced with screen time—as if that weren’t damaging enough. The types of relationships we as Americans maintain have radically changed as well.
Dangerous Decline of ‘Middle Ring’ Friendships
In his 2014 book The Vanishing Neighbor, sociologist Marc Dunkelman described the decline of American community as primarily a loss of middle-ring relationships. Inner-ring relationships are the most intimate—spouse, children, immediate family, and perhaps a few committed friends. Outer-ring relationships include our neighbors and coworkers with whom we can get along but require little to no deep conversation. (In other words, if someone in my outer ring disagrees with me, it has no real effect on me.) What has been lost in 21st-century America, Dunkelman explains, are middle-ring relationships—the friends we see regularly, our small group at church, a small team at work, our daily running group, and so on.
So, we’ve been losing the depth of relationship between our fellow church members, neighbors, coworkers for many years—and social clubs like cycling teams, farming co-ops, and bowling leagues have largely been replaced by solo and virtual activities.
We’ve been losing the depth of relationship between our fellow church members, neighbors, coworkers for many years.
Earlier this year, columnist Michelle Goldberg reflected on the unprecedented loyalty with which people followed their political leaders in 2020. Thousands of citizens followed their candidates from city to city like rock-band groupies. What was the common denominator among the most committed? More than anything, prior loneliness marked the most avid political followers. Many who had no family or were estranged from their families could find a welcoming community in political tribes, which rival only underfunded church planters in their hunger to assimilate new people.
Rise of ‘Faction’ Friendships
As David French has shown, as Americans have lost real-world, middle-ring friendships, the void has often been filled through affinity-based friendships, often started online. These “factional friendships,” as French calls them, are those that say, “You’re either with us or you’re against us.” They are dangerous because they provide a sense of purpose—“as destructive or false as it may be.”
And if our nation is full of factional friendships and lacking in middle-ring friendships, we’re in trouble. Without healthy church community or even a few good friends, we can get lost in a web of so-called friendships that are based on social-political alignment and little else. Unless we have a healthy network of family, friends, and church—not based on identical social and political views—then these faction friendships can be damaging to individuals, churches, and society as a whole. French writes:
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it a thousand times more. This is a prime reason why you can’t fact-check, plead, or argue a person out of a conspiracy, because you’re trying to fact-check, plead, and argue them out of their community.
Our experience in the last few years suggests a distinction: there’s a type of passive loneliness (lacking friends and community) and a divisive loneliness (rejecting friends and community unless they are in total agreement with your social, political, and religious views). Said another way, there’s a dark side to belonging.
Unless we can restore the types of donut-shop conversations that bring shared, generous moments between two very different people, we’ll have little hope for our shared social life seeing any improvement.
Social Media’s Role
Social media began around the promise of increased connection in a culture that was moving toward more transience and transition. Stay connected to your friends wherever they are, they said. It’ll be great, they said. But the social-media project has transformed into something different in the past decade and a half, and now these sites have become platforms for curated advertising and social sorting—driving us to connect with people like us.
Earlier this year, Tim Keller reviewed sociologist Chris Bail’s Breaking the Social Media Prism. Bail asks how social media have contributed to the problems of social and political polarization, and Keller summarizes:
The common answer is that algorithms keep us in “echo chambers” or “bubbles” where we only hear news and opinions from our own side, and this drives division and extremism. But Bail points to research showing that, on the contrary, daily exposure to opposing political and cultural views (and not just to the nasty, caustic versions of those views) only makes people stronger in their views or even more extreme. People who regularly listened to the opposite opinions did not adjust their views and become more balanced or moderate because for many people social media [have] become a place where they are curating a self. And therefore they see opposing views as attacks on their identity.
As a result, social media have become the ideal platform for rewarding extreme views and muting moderate ones. It’s not a great place to present our views, receive alternative views, and engage in civil discourse. Instead, it’s just one more way to identify yourself with certain groups (and not others) and establish a personal brand. (The answer, for Keller, is not necessarily to abandon social media altogether—there are too many people engaging there and it has positive benefits—but to reform it comprehensively.)
So, putting it all together, we now have our complex problem in view: While most Americans were fortunate enough to see our closest relationships remain intact, our middle-ring relationships, especially our friendships, have dissolved or disappeared at an unprecedented rate. This void has largely been filled by increased screen time and faction friendships, with social media replacing local, face-to-face conversation as the locus of communication.
What’s lost was beautiful and world-changing. Our friendships—the middle-ring relationships of believers with one another and with those outside the church—are not just great for us. They’re a powerful force for social good.
Church Friendships’ Social Power
In 2012, Harvard researcher Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone and American Grace, made a significant discovery. He had previously studied the correlation between religious affiliation and altruistic behavior, such as giving to charity, volunteering, serving people outside your religious group, and even returning change to a store. Then he asked why. Why are religious people kinder, more selfless neighbors to their communities?
Our friendships are not just great for us. They’re a powerful force for social good.
He explored numerous factors that didn’t add up to more altruistic behavior—denominational tradition, intensity of beliefs, and so on. In fact, there was only one factor that consistently correlated to healthy neighborliness: friendships and personal relationships within the church. In other words, people with the strongest relationships within their faith community are the kindest, most selfless people toward those outside their faith community.
Having more friends is associated with altruism, but “church friends” matter a lot, even beyond that fact; church friends seem super-charged. . . . The power of church friends, our data show, is more than the sum of being religious and having friends.
See, there’s a type of belonging that’s dangerous for us and the world. It’s the non-local, politically aligned faction friendships that say, “You’re with us or against us.” These social groups are often identified by what they’re against, and the fruit of their relationships often includes conflict, division, uncharitable views of outsiders. Healthy Christian communities, on the other hand, result in a significant increase in kindness, gentleness, goodness, and self-control. Those on the outside are treated with love, dignity, and hospitality—not fear, suspicion, and exclusion.
So, what do we do now? How can believers, churches, and ministries respond to the loneliness epidemic? How can we restore friendships, rebuild fellowship, and reach our cities in this cultural moment?
Reordering Our Lives (and Our Loves)
It’s helpful to think of the past two years in terms of discipleship patterns—the habits of life we’ve learned from what we experience and consume. In this broad sense, discipleship is always happening: We become what we consume, as our patterns of life direct and dictate our deepest feelings, thoughts, and motives. We’re always being conformed to the heart and personality and lifestyle of another person or ideology.
In The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard wrote that the primary way by which we’re conformed to Jesus (once we’re united to him and regenerated) is by following him in the overall pattern of his earthly life. By obeying his teachings, meditating on his sufferings, death, and resurrection, and practicing his way of life, we become like him. If we believe that he is the perfect representation of the Father and the sinless God-man, then we should also believe that he knew better than anyone how to live in this broken and beautiful world.
It follows, then, that if the way to become like Christ is to follow his way of life, then Jesus’s earthly friendships should point us to the ideal pattern of human flourishing in relationships.
So what types of relationships do we see in the life of Jesus?
- Absolute devotion to his closest friends (the Twelve)
- Intentional pursuit of disliked community members (Zacchaeus)
- Conversation with those of other cultures (Samaritan woman)
- Eating with friends, family members, and outsiders
- Attending weddings, funerals, and cultural events
- Relationships with the poor and needy (eating with “sinners”)
If all our problems, as Augustine wrote long ago, result from disordered loves, then reordering our lives and reordering our loves will go hand in hand.
Recovering Friendships, Rebuilding Community
The work of rebuilding friendships and restoring community isn’t complicated but it is difficult. It’s not complex because the means and the end are the same: The path to rebuilt friendships is rebuilding friendships.
But the work is difficult, too, because it requires this reordering of priorities and life patterns. Our life systems are perfectly designed for the results we’re getting, and so we need to change the inputs to change the outputs.
We need to repattern our lives around relationships.
We cannot continue to preach a relational God in this community called church and not actually prioritize the long obedience of relationship-building. And as we know (but struggle to practice) across the church, relationship-building looks like showing up, taking initiative, building relationships outside our natural tribe, and having patience for each other.
1. Show Up and Be Consistent
There’s no shortcut to friendship and community. But then again, nothing worthwhile comes without intentionality and perseverance. We must remember that we were created for community, we need one another, and without all sorts of friendships, we’ll suffer personally, and our churches will struggle. We need to show up with countercultural regularity.
If we’ve lost 300 hours of friendship and companionship in 2020, and perhaps that much in 2021, how are we going to restore these hundreds of hours this year and in the years to come?
Friendships and middle-ring relationships take time. Therefore, “be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Rom. 12:9–10, NIV). Put in the time, the love, and the honor, and the relationships will deepen.
2. Be the Initiative-Taker and Space-Creator
Hospitality is the distinctively Christian practice of creating space for others. It’s the Christlike pattern of opening our lives and our homes to people, whether they’re our regular friends or soon-to-be friends.
I’ve heard countless people during my 15 years of ministry say that they don’t feel connected or that people haven’t reached out to them. But those with the deepest connections are always those who take the initiative and, as Paul commands, “practice hospitality” (Rom. 12:13, NIV). Be the initiative-taker and space-creator, and over time, your relational circles will be overflowing.
3. Cultivate Friendships Outside Your Tribe
As we’ve seen, there’s a dark type of belonging—when we develop a small group of friends that share our exact belief system and look with disdain on those outside the circle. To prevent this, we need to cultivate friendships outside our natural tribe.
If all my friends look like me, have similar social status as me, or have the same educational background as me, then I haven’t made much progress in adopting the overall way of life Jesus demonstrated. Christlikeness means taking initiative with those most unlike us and seeking their good.
Christlikeness means taking initiative with those most unlike us and seeking their good.
4. Have Patience
No one likes being mistreated or ruled out, but we all have people who are difficult for us to love. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we are difficult people to love.
Perhaps it’s exceptionally difficult to bear with people in your church or small group or friendship circle. Maybe everything they do is frustrating. I believe the New Testament would say simply, have patience. Paul said it best:
As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Col. 3:12–14, NIV).
The pandemic has been hard for everyone, unequally and in different ways, but still hard. Our culture has been shaping us all in harmful ways, and we must have grace for one another—even for ourselves. We have lost a lot during the past two years, including some things that are gone forever. But the road to a less lonely church and a body of thriving friendships is this: putting in the time and energy, face-to-face, with believers and non-Christians alike, seeking the good of the other.
It’s the way of Jesus. It’s the God-given design for our lives. It’s the way back to restored friendships and a renewed community.