ECCELEIASTES 4:9-10 (NIV)
9 Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor:
10 If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.
There is a new epidemic that is making waves across the landscape of our communities. No, I’m not referring to the latest Monkeypox virus morphing into yet another complex virus capable of more death and destruction. Rather, this epidemic is a bit less detectable by most and certainly would never show up in a test at the local Walgreens testing center. I’m referring to the epidemic of loneliness.
For the purpose of this article, I will be addressing male friendships in the context of Christian community. The research is overwhelming; men are having an increasingly difficult time creating and maintaining close friendships. In his recent article entitled, “Men’s Social Circles are Shrinking,” Daniel Cox relates some of the current statistics on this issue of declining male friendships:
As Americans venture back out to reclaim their social lives, a new report reveals a profound change in the nature of American friendships. One of the most important changes revealed by May American Perspectives Survey is the decline of close friendships. In the past three decades, American friendship groups have become smaller and the number of Americans without any close confidants has risen sharply.
But these changes have not affected Americans equally. Men appear to have suffered a far steeper decline than women. Thirty years ago, a majority of men (55 percent) reported having at least six close friends. Today, that number has been cut in half. Slightly more than one in four (27 percent) men have six or more close friends today. Fifteen percent of men have no close friendships at all, a fivefold increase since 1990 (americansurveycenter.org, June 29, 2021.)
I find it to be staggering that most men only have three friends or fewer. I asked myself a few questions about these new realities. Is there a statistical difference in the church community? My sense is the numbers are no different for men within a faith community context. Why is there so much loneliness inside and outside of faith communities? Maybe the reason is we’re not sure how to create a band of brothers that we can share our lives with. In that opening short text in Ecclesiastes, we find hope and comfort in very few words “two is better than one.”
In an intriguing article in Psychology Today entitled, “The Devastating Effects of Men’s Loneliness,” Dr. Arum Weiss makes a keen observation:
Research suggests that a focus on the accumulation of wealth and material goods results in less overall happiness in life and less satisfaction in intimate relationships (Baker, 2017). The Harvard Study of Adult Development (Harvard, 2017) followed a group of men for eight decades. Throughout the study, at different points in their lives, the men were asked, “Who would you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or afraid?” Those men who had someone to turn to were happier in their lives and their marriages, and also physically healthier over time (Psychology Today, November 21, 2021).
Later in this same article, Dr. Weiss makes the point that this acute loneliness is often associated with decreased longevity and a heightened risk of self-harm.
As many experts are agreed that loneliness is a problem in our American male culture, I have often wondered how the Christian community will respond to these shifts in culture and begin to address the critical needs that appear in front of us. How did we get here and what can be done to mitigate the risk of churches without genuine male friendships? I will use my experience as a friend and brother to offer some practical suggestions for changing the landscape in our local churches to include the beauty of “men dwelling together in unity” (Psalm 133:1).
Friendship is a Biblical solution to the issue of loneliness. When men can find, develop, and maintain friendships, the burden of loneliness recedes and we feel whole again. The scriptures are filled with examples of men and women who learned the value of friendship. The wise Solomon makes a proclamation that rings true in the 21st century as it did in the 6th century BCE when he penned, “two are better than one.”
What can we do as men to wage war on loneliness and all of the negative physical and psychological effects that are within our faith communities? Over the years, I personally have learned some things that might be helpful in your journey to deep and meaningful friendships. No doubt, these principles that have been helpful in my friendship journey will be helpful to you as you move forward building the friendships necessary for spiritual growth. While certainly not a relationship guru, I’m confident that these principles are spiritually sound.
- We must show ourselves friendly. This is a biblical model showed to us in Proverbs 18:24, and is where I would like to begin. Although this Proverb appears an easy thing to accomplish, I am convinced that it will take energy and effort on our part. I have found that few want to take the first step and reach out first. If you want friends, make the first move! Reach out and introduce yourself first.
Call an old acquaintance first and ask if they would be up for meeting at the local coffee shop for breakfast. The point here is to be the first one to make the move. Not all will respond, but if you keep trying someone will take you up on your offer and then there is a possibility for deeper connection.
- Learn to find common ground (I Corinthians 9:22). We must recognize that there will be differences between two people in relationship. We expect this, as clearly we were designed uniquely by our Creator. Do not emphasize the differences between you, rather look for similarities.
Are there things you can talk about that both of you are passionate about? Are there hobbies you both enjoy? Are there similarities in family structures? Do you share any history together? Use these similarities as a springboard for conversations that will lead to meaningful relationship.
- Next, we must learn to be authentic (Ephesians 4:25). As you navigate the waters of friendship, make sure you are keeping it real. Tell the truth about yourself and your struggles and listen carefully to others as they do the same. Truthfully, we all have areas of our lives in which we are stuck. It might be our marriage, parenting dilemmas, or moral failure. Life presents enough room for all of us to make errors of judgment and lapses of character. Hiding and friendship are not bedfellows.
In order to have the kind of relationships that are authentic and true, we must tell the truth about ourselves without filters. If we choose to engage in this manner, our friendship will grow and we will see the fruit of being loved and being seen for who we really are. In that duo comes the warmth and genuine connection that moves the mountains of loneliness in our lives.
Let’s be clear, don't hang all your dirty laundry out in one afternoon, but instead look for opportunities to reveal the truth about who you are and who you have become, and even who you desire to be and with that, authentic friendship will thrive!
- We must choose to be transparent and vulnerable (II Corinthians 6:11-13). No one wants to develop relationships in which there is an absence of honesty. Let’s choose to not hide. Frankly, although it might appear that we have it all together in all the complicated areas of our lives, we don't if we’re honest. God is healing us in many ways that remain just below the surface.
If we present an image in our relationship to others that we have attained the epitome of perfection, then most will feel they are not worthy to be called your friend. In short, nothing is accomplished when we are not vulnerable and transparent about the struggles we face in our imperfect lives. When we communicate these issues in our relationships, we find the bond secured in self-disclosure is its own reward.
- We must learn to make friends without an agenda (I Corinthians 13:5). I know in some form or fashion, we are all engaged in sales. We sell our products and services to family and our friends. But, when we are looking for meaning that comes from friendships, we must be willing to look for deep connection without an agenda. If we do choose to lay aside our desire for financial gain in our meetings, it will come with the rewards of genuine authenticity.
No one wants to develop a friendship knowing that eventually there will a sales pitch in the mix. If this is the case, our guards will be up and we will walk away without meaning and authentic connection. Our agenda should be genuine concern for the other (I Peter 2:19).
- Next, we must learn to keep confidences. If we choose to reveal a secret to someone outside the circle of friendship without permission, and our new friend hears about that breach, we lose trust. When trust is lost, the possibility of a close authentic relationship is not possible. When we hear a confidence, we must learn to hold that close to our hearts and value the trust that was given to us when it was revealed. This conversation stays between two brothers and you guard that information as a sacred trust.
- Another key to success in this arena is placing ourselves in the right context for facilitating friendships (Philippians 2:3). Staying home and eating potato chips on the sofa while binge watching Netflix will not get the job done. We need to be looking for situations that foster the kind of growth we seek to become the kind of men that will change our world.
Is there a men’s Bible study at your church you have never explored? Is there a regular men’s breakfast at your local Church that could offer an opportunity for friendship? Is there a men’s softball league you could join? My point is that so many opportunities are lost because we are allowing them to pass us by. What would happen if you invited some acquaintances to the local diner this Saturday morning and enjoyed a time of fellowship?
What happens when we put forth the effort required to build friendships? The short answer is that we become better men. We need to and should willfully and intentionally give our friends permission to confront us and hold us accountable for our actions. And, because we are allowing for constructive feedback, our lives are examined by another believer who can offer words of wisdom we had not yet considered (iron sharpens iron).
Oh, it might be painful to hear, but we become better men when someone who loves us speaks into our lives, and ultimately, we become better men in the process. We often cannot see the forest for the trees in our lives. Our friends can often see things we cannot, and can address them in the context of love and concern.
My life was transformed by the power of friendships as I moved into a new community in which I had no family or friends. In Christian community, these two brothers showed the love of Christ and a genuine interest in my welfare. We prayed together, we laughed together, and the curse of loneliness was broken. Life had significantly more meaning and my relationship with Jesus Christ improved. We shared, we laughed, and we even cried together as the circumstances dictated. In short, we did life together and, as brothers, we kept each other in the loop concerning our lives and ministry. I was challenged in friendship. I became aware of my shortcomings and failures in friendship. But, at the end of the day, there were men in my band of brothers who saw me, who heard me, and who loved me for who I was. And what man in their right mind does not want to be seen, heard, and loved?
I’m not being a Pollyanna here, but friendship can be messy and complicated as men strive for Christ-likeness. Friends don't always agree on things, and sin can complicate the best of friendships, but in the end the gift that was given by our creator in friendship is a solid solution to the loneliness and isolation of men in community. And the words of King Solomon still ring true today: “two are better than one.”