How many close friends do you have in your life today? Take a minute and count them. Do you have more or less than you did ten years ago?
One recent study confirms what you might already suspect: many more of us have fewer good friends than we once did. In 1990, just 3% of respondents reported having no close friends. Thirty years later, that number has quadrupled to 12%. In 1990, one third said they had ten or more close friends. That number has now shrunk to just over ten percent. Nearly 90% cannot name a friend for each of their fingers. It’s not the only study to come to the same unsettling conclusion: Despite the tidal wave of new ways to connect and communicate with one another, we’re getting lonelier.
And that loneliness stifles human life. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:9–10). If we try to live and work alone, we’ll stumble and fall alone. And when we fall alone, we won’t have the encouragement, correction, and support we need to get back up and press through our failures, sorrows, and trials.
No matter how many years it’s been, no matter how busy you feel, no matter how few your options are, no matter how much it costs you, you still need good friends — yes, even you.
So why do so many of us have so few of them?
Three Great Walls to Climb
It’s never been easier to make new friends and connect with old ones, so what’s hindering and disrupting these relationships? Drew Hunter, author of Made for Friendship, wisely puts his finger on three major obstacles we face today:
Three aspects of modern culture create unique barriers to deep relationships: busyness, technology, and mobility. . . . These unique barriers can weave together in a very isolating way for us. They encircle us like a rope barrier and keep true friendship out of reach. We may overpower one or two of these strands, but as the saying goes, a cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (30)
What keeps us from meaningful friendships? Busyness, because we fill our schedules so full that friendship feels like a luxury we just can’t afford. Technology, because while it allows for a lot more moments of “connection,” the crumbs it offers leads us to pretend we’re more meaningfully connected than we really are (and leave us starving for more). Mobility, because it’s harder to build real, lasting friendships in places where people are frequently moving away and moving on.
Those three emerging barriers to friendship certainly resonate with my experience over the last thirty years, and accurately explain some of the challenges we face in pursuing friendship in the twenty-first century. So how might followers of Christ overcome the hurdles and find some good friends?
1. Cadence: Live at the pace of friendship.
When did we become too busy for friends? At a cultural level, it’s difficult to trace the many factors (work from home, instant messaging and social media, on-demand delivery and entertainment, explosion of youth activities, and more). At a personal level, the disruption often happens somewhere between college graduation and our first child’s newborn diapers. The adult demands of work and family swiftly swell and crowd out the margin we used to have. The time with friends that used to cost us next to nothing now seems far too expensive.
Rather than assuming friendship is simply a casualty of higher callings, what if we assumed that friendship was still vital to those higher callings? Because it is. “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). Of course, if you’re married, your spouse is one valuable voice, but he or she can’t be the only voice. Whether married or single, we need others from outside the home to sing (or shout) reality into our hearts and homes. In other words, we need friends.
“To experience friendship with fellow humans, we need to live at a pace that is human.”
And to experience friendship with fellow humans, we need to live at a pace that is human (which, ironically, may increasingly put us out of step with society). Instead of constantly scrolling by one another, what if we slowed down enough to see and hear and focus on the person in front of us? What if we practiced hospitality, not just with our kitchens and living rooms, but with our time and attention?
How different our lives might be if they were marked by something like the togetherness of the early church:
All who believed were together and had all things in common. . . . And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. (Acts 2:44–47)
Their lives were beautifully full, but not with the tasks, emails, and apps that dominate our days. No, their lives were full with people — with one another. Life was slower in many ways, and yet far more productive for being slow: “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
2. Presence: Find time and space to share.
Technology is not necessarily an enemy of friendship. It can be an unprecedented blessing when employed wisely. Imagine just how much previous generations would have given to be able to talk in real-time, even once, with a far-away loved one (much less actually see them on a screen). The problems emerge when we lean too much on technology — when it becomes a substitute for, rather than supplement to, physical presence. Every human needs food, water, shelter, and regular time with other humans.
The apostle Paul used the technology available in his day to communicate with his brothers and sisters in the faith, but he knew that writing was no replacement for eye contact: “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you — that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Romans 1:11–12). He knew there were graces that ink and paper couldn’t carry. There was a whole class of encouragement reserved for living rooms and dining tables. He knew that something critical and intangible happens when two or more are gathered in the name of Jesus in the same space.
This doesn’t mean friends boycott technology. It does mean we acknowledge the weaknesses and limitations of technology (even the best technology), and love one another accordingly. A good place to start might be to quickly audit your current friendships and ask roughly what percentage of your interactions are physical or digital. The results will vary for people with different personalities in different circumstances and stages of life, but for every stage, circumstance, and temperament there should be some consistent, meaningful presence. It is worth fighting for more regular time to be face to face with at least a few good friends.
3. Permanence: Rediscover the value of staying.
Lastly, perhaps the largest hurdle of the three: mobility. It’s never been easier to pick up and move, which means it’s often much, much harder to find and keep long-term friendships. Just think for a minute about how many of your friendships in just the last two years have been disrupted by some major life change and the accompanying move. We’re the goodbye generation.
The depth of friendships our souls need won’t happen overnight. These gardens of trust require years, maybe decades, of patient attention and tending. So how do we make and keep friends in a day of so many goodbyes? The first thing to say may be hard for many of us to hear: rediscover the value of staying put.
How many people do you know in your circles who would forgo a better-paying, more-satisfying job in a more appealing city for the sake of Christian friendships and community? Building the kind of friendships that really matter and bear fruit requires the kind of sacrifices fewer today are willing to make. In the early church, and for most of history, this kind of permanence was simply a given. Picking up and moving was too costly. Today, permanence is becoming a discipline and a virtue. We might wonder, How many who are uprooting and leaving now will eventually come to realize what they lost and wish they had chosen church and friendships over convenience and job opportunities?
Some friendships, however, will survive moves and time zones, through some serious creativity and persistence, but very few will thrive. A few of my best friends today were once down-the-road friends (or even share-a-bathroom-and-a-kitchen friends), but are now several-states-over friends. We’re not as close as we once were, but we do what we can to stay in touch. The apostle Paul, for one, was a faithful long-distance friend, though it seems he was always planning a visit. He writes to those he knows well, loves more, and yet can’t walk over and see anymore:
- “For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:8).
- “[Timothy] has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you” (1 Thessalonians 3:6).
- “As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy.” (2 Timothy 1:4).
“However faithful our faraway friends are, we all need down-the-road friends.”
Long-distance friendships are possible, and can be precious, but they are a little like walking uphill, requiring extra effort with every step (like writing twenty-eight chapters to the church in Corinth). They can’t be our only close friendships. However faithful our faraway friends are, we need down-the-road friends. And hopefully a few of them are down the road for the long haul.
4. Substance: Brave the depths of conversation.
Busyness, technology, mobility — those are three real and developing hurdles to friendship. We should all be aware of them and make some plan for clearing them. As I wrestled with each of them, though, I couldn’t help seeing a fourth major barrier, one that is by no means modern: triviality.
How many of our potential friendships — real, meaningful, durable friendships — have died on the rocks of sports, shows, or headline news? How many conversations began and ended on the paper thin surface of life? How often was God left out completely? The greatest challenge to friendship today may not be our schedules, phones, or moving trucks, but just how easy it is to peacefully float along above the rich depths of real friendship.
Social media can certainly aggravate the issue, but this temptation isn’t new. Satan has always been seducing us into the shallows of superficiality and distracting us from the depths of friendship. So how do we wade deeper? Through courageous, Christ-exalting intentionality: “Let us consider” — really consider — “how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24–25).
If we commit to this kind of reflection, this kind of commitment, this kind of encouragement and correction, this kind of love, real friendship will emerge and endure. But we will need to be brave enough to go there, to spend more of our conversations in the deep end.
So, if you find yourself among the overwhelming majority of people without enough good friends, slow down enough to find some, make some regular time to be in the same room, fight harder to stick together longer, and then consistently press through the trivial to the more meaningful and spiritual. Pursue and keep the kinds of friends who stir your heart and life to better know and enjoy Jesus Christ.