On male friendship and the local church

Why do many churches struggle to fix the crisis of American male loneliness?

This piece by Ryan McCormick on the decline of spaces for male friendship is really spectacular. I’ve read so many essays on the topic, most of which are two and three times as long as Ryan’s, and almost none of them produce the genuine insight that Ryan did. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend stopping what you’re doing and fixing that.

I think a lot about friendship and masculinity nowadays. As you can probably guess, one reason is that it’s relevant to me personally. I struggle to make friends. Leaving college was for me, like many others, a turning point; the last several years have been almost exclusively given to work, marriage, parenting, etc. The richest time of friendship in the years I’ve been married were probably the almost 3 years we spent in Wheaton, where I enjoyed getting close to a few coworkers and a wonderful small group. COVID-19 put an anticlimactic end to that, and we ended up moving back to Kentucky last summer. I can’t say I haven’t struggled with the discouragement of losing those men.

Statistically a majority of American men my age are in the same boat, and it gets worse for men when they leave their 30s. Middle-aged men are one of the loneliest groups in the country, so much so that it’s being called a legitimate public health crisis. We probably won’t know for a while the effect that a pandemic and lockdowns had on this, but it’s not hard to guess: men aged 35-64 represented 40% of all suicide deaths before the pandemic.

All right, so: Time to recover a doctrine of the local church, right? Hold on. As Ryan points out in his piece, local churches are more often than not participants in the diminishing of “third spaces” rather than solutions. Here’s a quote from his essay:

It is widely noted in my own congregation that the women have their own small groups and yearly retreats; the men have practically nothing. As Anthony Bradley noted in a recent essay on this site, the American church (even when it is pastored or governed by men) functions mainly due to the involvement of women. Consequently, the social programs that churches typically offer adhere to the norms of contemporary female friendship, e.g., small groups, where church members share life updates and prayer requests. These groups are certainly immensely valuable to men. Yet while I’ve loved each small group I’ve belonged to, they have never produced durable male friendships. What is lacking in the church are groups where a common horizon can be forged between guys.

Let me add another element to this. It seems to me that in many evangelical church cultures, women’s ministry naturally encompasses producing opportunities for friendship in a way that men’s ministry doesn’t. For one thing, as Ryan points out, men’s ministries are often sparse. A typical church’s finite resources tend to go toward facilitating events for the dominant demographic, and throughout evangelicalism the dominant demographic is female. It’s not uncommon at all to find evangelical churches that have absolutely nothing offered for men, or if there is, it is an annual event, one in which a lot of pressure is placed on men to not miss since this will be the only event of its kind for a year.

For another thing, men’s ministry is highly programmed. In the recent past I’ve noticed that my wife will come home after a women’s ministry event and have much to share about the people she talked to and their casual conversations. This is fascinating to me because the majority of men’s events I’ve been to allow little or no space for this. What matters in men’s events is being productive: doing as much Bible study or “sharing” time as possible, and programming events and groups so that men are free to come, download the content, and leave efficiently.

The impression I’ve often got from many churches is that, when it comes to the men, gathering and friendship are thought about instrumentally. They are to be valued to the extent that they represent opportunities to do the “real” stuff of studying the Bible, or praying, or sharing testimonies/accountability questions. What I don’t find in many churches are opportunities for men to come together and form friendship in a natural way, without expectations of a spiritual performance or mastery of biblical content.

In other words, in many of the evangelical church contexts I’ve seen, women are invited into friendship and encouragement, while men are usually only invited into either Bible study or accountability. And some men receive this message loud and clear, and make a point to attend church programming without forming meaningful friendships on the margins; but because these men make an appearance at the events that “matter,” the church infers its men’s ministry is doing quite well.

It should go without saying that this doesn’t describe every church or perhaps even a majority. But it’s been a consistent enough pattern in my own experience that I’ve expressed these thoughts to various people throughout the last few years, and many of them say they’ve seen it as well.

So how does the local church address itself to the crisis of loneliness in American men? I think Ryan’s essay gives an important clue. In order for the local church to become a living solution rather than a cliche to throw out when you don’t know the answer, churches have to think hard about the material causes of isolation and loneliness among men. Are men lonely because there are not enough one day conferences and Bible studies? Or are they lonely because the environments and contexts in which male friendship thrives are disappearing? Does Christian formation for men depend primarily on how much Bible knowledge they are able to put on a sheet of paper, or how emotionally transparent they can be a weeknight gathering? Or does it depend on something deeper and harder to manufacture?

As with many things, if we’re not sure of the answer just yet, we can always identify what we have been doing and ask if it’s working. Well, is it?

Something Better Than Friendship

Rereading my way through C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, I was struck by Lewis’s blunt words about “wanting friends” and the essence of genuine friendship:

That is why those pathetic people who simply “want friends” can never make any. The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends. Where the truthful answer to the question Do you see the same truth? would be “I see nothing and I don’t care about the truth; I only want a friend,” no Friendship can arise—though Affection of course may. There would be nothing for the Friendship to be about; and Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice. Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers.

For Lewis, the focus on something outside the relationship, something objective whose reality does not depend yet confers meaning on the relationship, is what differentiates Friendship from Eros. In Eros (which does not preclude Friendship but is not synonymous with it), the lovers are bound to each other by their very bonded-ness. The relationship itself is the point. Friendship, on the other hand, is cultivated when two people discover that they are both pursuing a same thing. Friendships are not made from a devotion to the bonded-ness itself, because that comes later. Friendships are made from a commonality that begets an identity.  Thus comes Lewis’s famous line: “Hence we picture lovers face to face but Friends side by side; their eyes look ahead.”

What would this observation mean in a digital age? For one thing, we should probably admit that the internet has changed, perhaps permanently, how our culture thinks about friendship. Partly this is through the elimination of distance and the flattening of time; friends can be reached instantly (text messaging), no matter where they are (smartphones), even at a sub-literate level (Snapchat and Instagram). Whether this is a good or bad thing probably depends on many other factors, and it would likely be a mistake to either worship or anathematize the raw connective potential of technology.

But then again, Westerners are indeed lonelier than ever before, despite how easy and unobtrusive to daily life the cultivation of “friendships” has become. This is where I think Lewis can help us. Lewis’s argument is not that friendship shouldn’t exist without an objective commonality; his argument is that it cannot exist. It is the nature of friendship to bring two people out of themselves, and out of each other, into something on which their bonded-ness can grow. Without that outside something, the relationship that forms between people is bent back inwardly for each of them. The relationship’s value becomes about how valued each person feels. The friendship exists for the sake of “having friends,” which really means it exists for the satisfaction of being liked.

This is important, because our age of social media is a curated age. Networking technology empowers individual control of the social experience; you can add, delete, mute, or hide at will. Curation is the power to feel like one is among friends even when one isn’t. “Friendship technology” is not about bringing people who both, to use Lewis’s term, see the same truth. If it were, social media would not have any long term appeal over phone calls, book clubs, and church. The reason it does have such appeal is that it offers individuals the psychological experiences of friendship (“My posts are being liked, therefore I am being liked”) without the often difficult work of cultivating one’s own inner life (which is, according to Lewis’s, what is shared by friends).

I suspect that part of the epidemic loneliness in our culture stems from the fact that many of us have very little of our own inner life to truly share with another person. Our hobbies don’t even mean much to us, because if we’re honest, we do them mostly because they’re what the “liked” people on social media do. In many of our hearts, there just isn’t much for friendship to feed on. Because there’s no effort to see truth, or to really love beauty, or to accomplish something meaningful, there’s consequently nothing that another person can come alongside us for. As we age, the stresses and demands of family, and especially work, choke out our inner lives. Life is reduced to doing, and only those who happen to be doing with us in a particular season of life can become our “friends,” even though we know the friendship will dissipate when the doing ceases, as doing always does.

Lewis’s observations are a reminder to me that sharing life with a friend requires treasuring something enough to share in the first place. Loving the wrong things, like the feeling of being “liked” by avatars on a screen, is a pestilence to real friendship. A social media age glorifies non-stop connectedness, but authentic friendship relies more on what happens in the quiet hours of life, as the heart takes shape.

What Hogwarts Can Teach Us About Friendship

Why were the Harry Potter stories so wildly successful? What was it about them, as opposed to hundreds of other “young adult” novels, that embossed onto the consciousness of a generation? Why are we celebrating the 20th anniversary of their US publication with the same kind of enthusiasm as if the books were published last Christmas?

Here’s one theory. The Harry Potter books have become cultural touchstones because they are not really about magic, or heroes, or even good vs evil. They are really about friendship.

Friendship is the rosebud of American culture. Its the thing universally acknowledged as necessary and good, and the one thing that every mechanism of our daily life in a flat, atomized society violently resists. Particularly for readers of Harry Potter who were the first to grow up in a culture shaped by the internet and social media, the friendships depicted in the novels seem almost like a shameless daydream. Hogwarts is the epicenter for a kind of intimacy and interdependence that, for many of us, exists only in such fairy tales. Friendship–the kind that ties together Harry, Ron, and Hermione– is rare.

Not long ago someone asked me if I could recall the happiest period of my adolescence. I didn’t have to think long. The ages and the years are fuzzy (I was homeschooled, so all grades run together in my memory), but I could instantly remember a season of life where I was surrounded by friends from church. Though I couldn’t tell you what kind of Bible teaching impacted me then, nor most of the books that I loved, I could readily paint a mental picture of what it felt like to be tied into a group of others who cared about and looked out for me. It was a season that the college years destroyed, since most of the kids in the youth group went to different schools, and a large number used the opportunity to drop out of church altogether. When the rhythm of student ministry life was gone, so were the friendships. And the same is true for most of us, whether the rhythm is from church, or school, or neighborhood. Mobility cuts through friendship like a scythe.

Except at Hogwarts. In the Harry Potter universe, there’s no choice necessary between friends and “the next step.” In fact, as the mythology of the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that the friendships are part of the triumph of the good. The final victory over evil demands love seasoned through the years. Every time that Harry tries to accomplish by his own strength, even if his motivations are noble (like keeping his friends out of harm’s way), Ron, Hermione, and others intercede on his behalf.

This is the kind of spiritual friendship that cannot be adequately described in a context that sees shared hobbies or mutual ambitions as the extent of belonging. It’s a spiritual neighborliness that is hard to find in many churches, as ruthless age-segregation and perfunctory programming bring people together just long enough to send them away again. This liturgy of loneliness is one well-learned by many adults, especially men. In J.K. Rowling’s universe we get a vivid depiction of male friendship and compassion, as a stark contrast to our own disenchanted time, when many young men are isolated and many older men are pathologically lonely.

The Potter novels charm so many because they are an unembarrassed confession that friends matter, and that despite the best efforts of technology and consumerism, we human beings simply cannot get over the fact. That is perhaps one reason why an aggressively self-determining, self-authenticating Western audience somehow feels at home in a fantasy that clearly hearkens to a more standardized, more ritualistic experience of life. Our time has moved past antiquarian boarding schools or formalistic liturgies, but you wouldn’t guess it by looking at the bestselling novels of the modern age.

All to often, Christian voices do not challenge the relational damage of modernity. How many evangelical parents are willing for their children to explore alternatives to a far-away university? And how many youth ministries set up programming and structure that incubates young adults from the rest of the church, reinforcing the idea that the goal of life (even the goal of faith!) is to assimilate as long as possible into your assigned demographic? It’s ironic that many evangelicals were more worried about readers of Harry Potter becoming wizards and witches than they were about their becoming atomized, self-reinventing American dreamers, anxious for Rob Bell to teach them what it means to be spiritual.

If Christian communities cannot offer friendship, what can they offer? Part of believing the gospel at all is believing that it wasn’t given to individuals, but to a church. There’s much conversation right now about recovering a biblical ideal of church membership. Good! But a body part that never responds to the other body parts is probably dead, even if it’s still attached. Friendships weren’t created by God to disappear as quickly as they tend to. Covenant membership means friendship if it means anything.

Perhaps the best thing evangelicals could do to learn this is to put down the church growth manuals and the target demographic research, and read some Harry Potter.

Do Kids Need Social Media to Succeed?

When you think of the things children need to succeed later in society,  you probably think of things like good education, a stable family life, and lots of love and emotional support. One thing you probably don’t think of? Social media. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a parenting book or a sociological report on childhood well-being that emphasized how important social media and iPhone apps are to a kid’s personal and economic flourishing.

Well, there’s a first time for everything I suppose. 

At The Washington Post, Crystle Martin and Mimi Ito, two researchers out of the University of California at Irvine, present their case that “digital inequity” is a serious social threat to the upward mobility of children from lower-income families. Most of the article is socioeconomic research that comports well with common sense: Wealthier families have more money to spend on things like smartphones and carrier plans, which in turn means kids and teens from those families are statistically more likely to be using the social media platforms on those phones than kids from families with less money in the budget.

Seems pretty logical to me. I’m not entirely sure why extensive academic research is necessary to confirm this, but there you go.

But the raw data alone is not the point of the research. Martin and Ito present the information in order to argue that there is a serious social and economic disadvantage to be suffered from not having access to the same social media platforms as wealthier Americans. “The emerging smartphone divide is troubling,” they write, and it must be addressed:

Teens’ access to Snapchat and Instagram may not seem like something we should be terribly concerned about, but it is an indicator of deeper and troubling forms of digital inequity. Social digital and networked media use is where young people gain everyday fluency and comfort with the technology and social norms of our times. Whether it is managing a LinkedIn network or learning to code, young people who lack digital fluency and full access will always be a step behind their more connected peers.

If you’re not reading carefully, the words “digital fluency” might race past you as you find yourself reluctantly agreeing with the authors’ conclusion. After all, isn’t the computer and the internet both integral parts of our modern economy? Isn’t inability to use email and web browser an obstacle to employment, even in the most non-tech industries?

Well, yes, but that’s not what is being talked about here. Rather, the researches seem to be equating familiarity with smartphone-only applications like Instagram and Snapchat with “fluency.” They apparently believe that the social and economic obstacles that encumber Americans who aren’t good with computers or the internet are also awaiting young children and teens who aren’t able to harness thelatest hardware and applications that their wealthier classmates might be using.

This kind of prognostication faces an obvious problem: How do you ever end up with reliable data when the products are so new and diversifying so quickly?  The research presented in this piece relies heavily ] on projection and a functional equivalence of social media with other digital tech like email. Why accept that equivalence though? Facebook is wildly different, both in form and function, than it was when it launched in 2006. MySpace, once considered the crown jewel of social media, is decrepit, and the much hyped Google+ is almost totally irrelevant to the average American teen. Forecasting what tomorrow’s social media platforms will even be is difficult enough; predicting their economic impact seems like a fool’s errand.

But that’s not this article’s biggest problem. Its biggest problem is its unqualified view of social media as something that automatically enriches a child’s life.

Let’s assume the research’s premise for one moment, and imagine that it really is true that not having an iPhone or Galaxy disadvantages teens in their future economic mobility. The next question should be: So what? Does an economic disadvantage automatically trump any and all other concerns that parents and families might have about allowing teens (and younger) unfettered access to social media?

And there are many such concerns. Of course there are the usual ones:  Sexting is pandemic among American teenagers, and it is well-known at this point that compulsive social media use (and many teens know no other kind of use) can have serious  effects on mental health. But even beyond this, there are worthy questions about why young people need to be trained on social media at all. After all, the astronomical usage rates of “connectors” like Facebook and Twitter are accompanied with the near-universal acknowledgement that our culture–particularly the Millennial culture–is marked by pathological loneliness and personal fragmentation. The stated goal of social media is to connect people with each other. If it is failing in that goal–and our reasons for suspecting it is failing are increasing–then why is it necessary?

Rather than assuming that the latest novelties from Silicon Valley will dictate our children’s futures, we should empower parents and churches, of all income levels, to take a higher stake themselves. How many teenagers spend hours on Twitter, enchanted by the most banal and transitory “Trends,” because they are left to themselves without any inkling of the delights of imagination and wonder, delights that exist right outside their window? Are many of the children I see in restaurants glued to their iPad having their mental and moral faculties shaped by corporations, merely because their parents are too glued to their email and Facebook notifications to notice?

It is one thing to submit that economic flourishing benefits the young. It is altogether reasonable as well to suggest that the youngest generation be trained in the tools of the modern economy. But it is quite another thing to urge parents to hook their children up to the most dehumanizing and trivial portals of diversion, merely out of the fear of having an incomplete resume.

If raising people who are capable of living healthy, rich lives apart from the soft blue glow of digital enchantment means a slightly less thick college application binder, so be it. One’s life, after all, does not consist in the abundance of possessions–or followers.

(featured image credit)