About six years ago, my wife and I were sitting with our spiritual director, talking about the demands of life in ministry, when he asked a simple question. “Remind me, where is home for you?”
I was a bit confused. “You mean what part of town do we live in?” My wife asked, “You mean where we are originally from?” I wondered if he might be gospel juking us into a lesson about living for eternity. But our old friend didn’t budge, he just asked again, “Where is home for you?”
When we couldn’t give a clear answer, he gently told us that we needed to answer this question before moving much further in our development and our practice of life, family, and work. He had picked up on something: Our friends were spread across a large city, our family and closest friends were six hours away, and my pastoral role led me to serve across four campuses of a fast-growing church. We were stretched thin relationally, and as a result, we were also feeling pulled apart at the seams.
Find Your People: Building Deep Community in a Lonely World
Find Your People: Building Deep Community in a Lonely World
In a world that’s both more connected and more isolating than ever before, we’re often tempted to do life alone, whether because we’re so busy or because relationships feel risky and hard. But science confirms that consistent, meaningful connection with others has a powerful impact on our well-being. We are meant to live known and loved. But so many are hiding behind emotional walls that we’re experiencing an epidemic of loneliness.
You were created to play, engage, adventure, and explore—with others. In Find Your People, you’ll discover exactly how to dive into the deep end and experience the full wonder of community. Because while the ache of loneliness is real, it doesn’t have to be your reality.
Jennie Allen’s new book, Find Your People: Building Deep Community in a Lonely World, would have given us a roadmap for our predicament. It explores the important and timely topic of finding, developing, and keeping true friends in a hyper-individualistic society.
Nature of Community
Although I’d never read one of her books, I have appreciated Allen’s ministry for years; she’s the founder of the IF:Gathering, a best-selling author, and a popular podcast host. But Allen is not a spiritual influencer disconnected from tradition and community. She is a seminary graduate, and her wisdom from years of local church ministry shows as she writes on the nuanced and emotionally charged topics of friendship and community.
In Find Your People, Allen challenges the loneliness epidemic of our generation. “We aren’t supposed to be this lonely,” she writes. “I want us to trade lonely and isolated lives that experience brief bursts of connectedness for intimately connected lives that know only brief intervals of feeling alone” (xix).
Loneliness is a problem, of course, because we’re relational beings made in the image of a triune God. Since God has eternally existed in the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to be made in his image means we are irreducibly social beings. We were created from relationship and for relationship. As a result, Allen reminds us, we’re hardwired with an insatiable desire for community.
We were created from relationship and for relationship. As a result, we’re hardwired with an insatiable desire for community.
However, our social lives are marked by God-given limitations of energy, time, and place. Thus, as Allen shows, we can only maintain basic relationships with about 150 people, and within that, we can only handle about 50 people as real acquaintances. Further, Allen suggests two inner circles: we can maintain a “village” of about 15 people and our most intimate relationships with two to five friends.
Few of us have thought carefully (even strategically) about these relational circles, and even fewer practice them well. So, if we all were made for community and long for deep friends, why are we so lonely?
Barriers to Deep Community
Throughout the book, Allen identifies numerous barriers to the type of community we crave.
First, sin. Our relationships are exceptionally difficult because they involve two (or more) sinful people trying to get along. As it’s been said, the problem with Paris is that your problems follow you to Paris.
Second, our Western sense of independence undermines our ability to make and find friends. “I’m not good at being needy,” Allen admits. “I’m needy, just not good at admitting it. And that has consistently damaged my relationships” (11). (Throughout the book, Allen is quick to share her failures and shortcomings as a friend, sister, and community member.)
Third, the design of our lives means our friends can easily become spread across an entire region. Allen remembers living in Austin, Texas, and needing a 45-minute drive to visit a friend—more on this in a moment.
Fourth, we have a real enemy. As Allen notes, “If deep, loving, intimate connection is God’s goal, then the enemy might hate nothing more than for you and me to enjoy deep, loving, intimate connection!” (28).
But of all the barriers to deep community, our own history of hurt might be the biggest one. Allen gently invites the reader to consider our past relationships and where and how we’ve experienced mistreatment. Some books are idealistic about friendships and community—as if they couldn’t be simpler to find, build, and keep. But Allen knows better, and Find Your People is both realistic and hopeful in considering how we might find healing in relationships.
So, if those are the barriers to true community, what are the marks of great, inner-circle friends?
5 Ingredients for True Friendship
Allen suggests five ingredients for the healthiest, strongest friendships: transparency, shared purpose, accountability, consistency, and proximity. Or, put in simpler language, we need relationships that are safe, deep, protected, committed, and close.
- Safe (transparency): True belonging requires being fully known and fully loved, and we can only achieve this with safe, caring friends.
- Deep (shared purpose): If we can focus on Christ and others instead of our own needs and desires, we can truly love and serve each other.
- Protected (accountability): Friends need to be willing to submit to and serve each other.
- Committed (consistency): To develop deep friendships, we need to make regular time for one another and protect relationships in our schedules.
- Close (proximity): Allen suggests we should prioritize friends who live within a walk or short drive from us.
It’s this last ingredient that drew my mind back to the conversation with our spiritual director more than six years ago. My wife and I were geographically and emotionally spread thin. At that moment, we knew we needed a reorientation in life. That reorientation would require clearing things off our schedule, prioritizing certain relationships, and recommitting to vulnerability and consistency with our closest friends. But for us, it also meant moving back home.
Although we could have chosen to live anywhere, we felt drawn back to the small college town where we’d met, got married, and started our life together. I had always assumed our life path (even my role in ministry) would follow a trajectory of bigger cities and more influential positions. But after a decade on that path, we became convinced that smaller, slower, and closer is better.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with moving to a larger city, and many of us will be called—for a season or a lifetime—to leave behind many comforts for greater missional needs. But I would suggest, and I believe Allen would affirm, that as relational beings, most of us will have the greatest influence by investing in a few people, not a few thousand, and by living in a place that enables us to be fully alive, fully connected human beings.
Poet and author Wendell Berry has written that none of us can bear the demands that an individualistic society has set on us. The title of one of his books asks an important question: What Are People For? Allen gives her answer in Find Your People. We were made for this: to be known and loved by God and to be known and loved by others.
Most of us will have the greatest influence by investing in a few people, not a few thousand.
Allen makes a clear and compelling case for reordering our lives around close relationships. The book is well-researched, nuanced, and winsomely written. It’s designed to connect with a young, social media–using audience, so I’m even willing to overlook the use of an emoji in published text. (I know, imagine how much fun I’ll be as an old man.)
My only real critique is that this seems like a book written by an extrovert for extroverts. Indeed, she admits her extrovertedness in the book, and I certainly cannot hold it against her.
But as an introvert, several of her examples and suggestions for true community sound eerily similar to what I consider my personal nightmare. Friends popping over with a pizza at dinnertime? Showing up unannounced on an evening when I finally have free time to recharge? I’m sweating just thinking about it. Now, I’m exaggerating a bit perhaps, but we introverts would like to gently petition that “pop-in culture” not become the standard for true community. Occasionally we need to eat alone. (OK, that’s all, and we’re sorry for making such a fuss.)
Having got that out of my system, I cannot say this strongly enough: Get Allen’s book and read it with a pen in hand. Write down the names of people who come to mind. Write out the names of your 50 acquaintances, your 15-person village, and your two to five most intimate friends.
And continue to write: What are the barriers to going deeper with these people? Who can be drawn into your inner circle? Who, if he or she lacks the capacity for vulnerability and accountability, may need to be transitioned into an outer circle? What are a few things you can do—right now—to find, build, and keep your most treasured relationships?
We are living in lonely, isolated times, and as Jesus said, the world will know that we are his disciples by our love (John 13:35). As I’ve often told our church, if you make space for others, you’ll always have a place yourself. Pursuing a life of hospitality and mission together strengthens friendships and community. How can we demonstrate true, life-giving love if we don’t even truly know and spend time with one another?