Why Is It Hard to Make Friends After 30? And What it Has to Do with the Church


Image: Kleinefotografie

A few years ago the Alex Williams of The New York Times shared a story mixing anecdote and research called “Friends of a Certain Age.” The basic question is why is it so hard for American to make [good] friends after age 30? What did he find?


Sociologists consider these three conditions crucial to making close friends:

  1. proximity
  2. repeated, unplanned interactions
  3. a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in one another

By one’s 30s and beyond,

“you have been through your share of wearying or failed relationships. You have come to grips with the responsibilities of juggling work, families, and existing friends, so you may become more wary about making yourself emotionally available to new people. ‘You’re more keenly aware of the downside…You’re also more keenly aware of your own capacity to disappoint.” (Williams)

Friendship and Church?

John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard Church (and movement), observed: “People come to church for a variety of reasons, but they stay for only one—friendship.” This principle drives the ambiance and culture of Alpha, but it can mean so much more for churches.

I’m in my 30s right now and it’s an interesting* decade of life. Many Americans are starting families, highly engaged with the bustle of school-aged children, or entering a new realm of parenting teenagers. Many of us have relocated, are relocating, or will relocate for jobs or family. Many consider changes in life style or career in their 30s, or struggle with questions of purpose, ambition, and vision (Miller, “The Ambition Collision”). Some go through a divorce/separation, or end a long-term dating relationship. For those who identify as no particular religion, it can be a time of completing a process of “adulthood” by forming some personal conclusions about the meaning of life, human nature, and more. For all these reasons and more, it’s a time when deepening or developing friendships can be a practical challenge, yet when the fruit of friendship is profoundly needed. 

Proximity, Repeated Interactions, and Openness

When churches can offer settings where adults can let their guard down, and engage in many, repeat, unplanned interactions, then friendships are born. Unfortunately, a lot of what many of our churches do well is exactly the opposite of this–classes, lectures, coffee/donuts, structured small group discussion, prayer, worship, etc. These things are good without doubt, but they are not the most fertile ground for forming new friendships.

Settings for being, not doing or accomplishing a certain task/learning are key. But they must be inviting. For decades, Youth Ministries have grasped the importance of informal socialization among teens. This human desire doesn’t disappear when teens become adults. It takes more creativity though to envision what this might look like for your specific setting–maybe it’s centered around certain career interests, maybe it involves hobbies or maker-spaces (note: many public libraries have evolved into offering these types of public gatherings–check out yours for ideas!), maybe it’s an appealing environment for families to gather and play, maybe it’s appealing food/drink. Many studies have shown Americans becoming less and less social. This is a challenge (because we work against this tide by cultivating opportunities for this through churches), but also an opportunity to help adults experience connection to each other, to develop friendships that will keep them coming back, maybe coming to something more overtly “spiritual.”

God is a communion of divine persons, the closest, most perfect friendship imaginable–something we can never completely experience on this earth. This longing for communion is written into us as human beings, created in His image and likeness. Our intentionality in helping adults cultivate friendship helps them experience God, even if in a very small way–something especially valuable for adults in their 30s, and more broadly, for all of us!

* = note, I’m only half-way through…so maybe the rest will be boring 😉 just saying…it’s always a possibility 🙂


“Losing Our Religion” — Key Point #2, We Don’t Know If Parents Are Coming Back

9781479883202_full“They’ll come back to church…once they marry and have kids…”

How often have you heard that assertion? Is it true? Is it an assumption? Wishful thinking?

Christel Manning’s book  “Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents Are Raising Their Children” offers some evidence-based insight into this perplexing, and important, question for ministry leaders (as well as other useful research, check out my series on book and other sociology and demographic data here).

Key Point #2: We Don’t Really Know if Marriage and Family Brings Nones Back to Church

Some background: 

Prior to the recent statistical increase in Nones, there was indeed “a life cycle pattern in religious affiliation,” where young adults disaffiliated and then re-affiliated once they married and had children. Those who re-affiliated, typically returned to the religion of their childhood or their spouses’–this was especially true for Baby Boomers (p. 34). Also, the female spouse’s religion tends to be more likely for re-affiliation.

It’s probably not a sound conclusion to assume that this will continue with younger generations because “the societal pressures that may have pushed previous generations of None parents back to religion are less powerful today” (57). What we see already is that “though it’s true that Nones are more likely to be single and childless than religious Americans, that difference is largely because they are younger” overall. When controlling for age, it turns out to be a relatively small difference between the religiously affiliated or unaffiliated based on parenthood/marriage (57). Marriage and family life doesn’t seem to cause a significant increase in religious affiliation.

Okay, so what is it about marriage and/or starting a family that might cause Nones to re-affiliate with a religion? Some theories (that likely interact/overlap)(p. 55-56): 

  • the new spouse (especially the female) influences the other
  • a desire to do so “for the sake of their children,” i.e. an interest in life cycle rituals, positive emotional ties to one’s own childhood religion, and/or a marker or preservation of ethnic/cultural identity
  • desire for community

Manning’s research revealed that “there is something about having a family that raises questions about religion identity and commitment for people” (58). However, these questions don’t automatically lead back to religion (seeking answers to the questions raised by marriage and family can also lead someone from an Unchurched Believer to Indifferent, etc.). As a parent of young children (as Manning is as well) this rings true. The questions of children force adults to grapple with their core beliefs. As Manning explains it, children’s questions and/or existence in a family structure often lead to:

  • open articulation of worldview identity as parents interact with others in the family
  • a new articulation of boundaries and/or the importance of their worldviews in their lives

She explains:

The most powerful relationship to shape a parent’s religious or secular identity may be with the child…thinking about and interacting with their young children compelled None parents to consciously confront and continuously reevaluate their worldview ways in ways that are different from those induced by interactions with their partners and extended families…because a None’s worldview can be transmitted to another, [who is “unformed”], it suddenly matters (69)


This makes sense. For me, just thinking deeply about the prospect of raising children in my mid 20s compelled me to discern moving from identifying as “Christian” to the truth of particular traditions–reaching a “room” from in the “great hallway” of Christianity, as C.S. Lewis imagined it.

Ministry Applications

For those in ministry, Manning’s research on this pressing question reminds us:

  • Avoid making decisions as if history is normative or determinative, just because Baby Boomers “came back” doesn’t mean that holds true for others–>awareness of current trends is necessary for informed decision-making and expectations
  • Not to assume or take for granted that GenX and Millennial parents will return to a church of previous affiliation once they marry and/or have children
  • See the opportunity in the “baby” years of 0-3, when many children’s ministries do not yet “offer” anything specific for children, but when parents may be starting to ask those big questions about life, the universe, and religion/spirituality. These can be socially isolating years for new parents, so there’s a significant and meaningful opportunity here to offer a supportive spiritual community for Nones at this time (and, believer-parents as well!)
  • Follow-up to the sacraments of baptism and marriage may be even more important than the preparation for these sacraments (which typically receive more resources in parish life) when it comes to helping parents explore those big questions of life, especially for Nones

Stay tuned in the coming days for more key points and applications from this study! And, as always, feel free to offer your own insights, observations, and applications in the Comment box. 


Christian Unity as a Millennial

We’re nearing the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (aka the Octave of Christian Unity, signifying the eight days of prayer stretching from January 18 (Feast of the Confession of St Peter in older calendars) to January 25 (the enduring date for the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul). A desire for greater and greater unity among Christians has been on my heart since my teenage years, and the very first time I submitted anything theological for publication, it drew from ecumenical experiences (“A Catholic’s Gratitude to Evangelicals”).

Indeed the fruits of ecumenism too influenced my conversion of assent to the Catholic faith, a true praying of, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” Prior to that full conversion, my parish had undertaken a shared reading and discussion of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) with a nearby ELCA Lutheran Church, something that allowed a Baptist-shaped Catholic like myself to experience a true home in Catholicism.

This all happened in the 2000s, and as Kimberly Belcher recently wrote:

Among ecumenical theologians, the years of the 1990’s and 2000’s (even to the present moment) have sometimes been called an “ecumenical winter.” It is funny to consider that all my experiences of ecumenism have occurred during this winter, but of course, when the seeds are germinating, you don’t see the growth above ground. There is no doubt that the Spirit continues to work with the churches.

Among millennials and younger Christians, I see both a stronger commitment to practices and beliefs that are particular to each tradition (Eucharistic Adoration, for example, which raised concerns for ecumenism in the 1980’s and before) and a stronger commitment to honor brothers and sisters in other traditions as Christians. In other words, ecumenists of my generation and those younger than us love our diversity and long for our unity. (Read more in “What Can Catholicism Still Draw From the Wells of Ecumenism?”)

As a Millennial, the 2000s have not been an “ecumenical winter,” but a time when the fruits of ecumenism have permeated my life and led to growth, knowing and understanding more and more the awesome mystery and power of our intimate, personal relationships with Jesus, experienced within the Body of Christ.

I do feel a sadness that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity seems lost amidst the busyness of our Christian lives in January. I cannot help but chuckle each January, when I’m reminded that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the USCCB’s Poverty Awareness Month, the 9 Days for Live all overlap. Not to mention some years, when National Catholic Schools Week (which starts the final Sunday in January) also overlaps. 🙂 My finite ability to enter into each one fully in prayer and spirit is simply not enough. I’m sure I’m not the only person without the focus to pray and act for all of these things well at the same time.

Yet as Cecilia Cicone reminds us via Twitter, division–the opposite of Christian Unity–impacts our ability to eliminate poverty, to understand what a truly Catholic education is, to demonstrate the intrinsic value of life in all forms, and more.

Christian Unity Still Matters

Just last week, a devout Christian shared with me how he perceives the Catholic Church as viewing him as unworthy as not a Christian. This can be shocking and heart-breaking to hear as a Millennial Catholic! As I’ve grown up in a Christian world where the clarity of baptism and the Body of Christ seem obvious (and this is a good thing, a blessing I’ve inherited).

As I shared with him the reality that I cannot dispute his perceptions, experiences, and opinions, I asked if he’d be willing to hear what the Catholic Church does say about him. He agreed, and I read him this:

Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren. It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood. For God is always wonderful in His works and worthy of all praise.

Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church…

…Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren. It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood. For God is always wonderful in His works and worthy of all praise.

Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church. (Decree on Ecumenism)

How blessed and thankful I am to be living in a time that, while some aspects may be as a “winter” season, it is nonetheless a winter filled with overflowing fruit as we await with joyful hope the true, eternal, and everlasting unity of Christ’s Body.

Millennials in Ministry: Lencioni Thinking

Too often, people in church-world speak of “reaching” Millennials as if we’re some “foreign entity” (h/t Tim O’Malley) or a group solely in need of being reached/served/ministered to, in contrast to being baptized-believers whom God is already at work in and through–right now.

Patrick Lencioni, co-founder of Amazing Parish, offers these thoughts on Millennials:

As it turns out, there is a better way to think about hiring good people than focusing on a person’s generational stereotype. It comes down to looking for three simple, timeless and observable virtues that are reliable predictors of whether someone of any age will be a good team player. Thankfully, while generations change, the nature of teamwork does not.

I agree! A healthy organization is a healthy organization not because of the particular generational identities of its members, but because of their common commitment, the way the relate, and the way they make decisions together.

Millennials are largely missing from the teams of leaders in many church ministrieswhat holds us back? Maybe, a better appreciation of what makes a healthy organization and what cultivates effective teamwork is a missing piece. We don’t know how to “talk” about being an effective ministry organization because we lack the vocabulary, and so we default to stereotypes, thinking it’s because of a person’s age, marital status, regional identity, race, gender, etc. that “we can’t work well together” or “we always communicate poorly.”

As I’ve said before, I highly recommend Lencioni’s The Advantage for anyone in ministerial leadership. And 🙂 as a Millennial, I’m looking forward to reading Lencioni’s latest book, The Ideal Team Player, to see how it connects with each of our own baptismal vocations in ministry and some of the classic scholarship on “courageous followership.”

Have you read “The Advantage” or plan on reading “The Ideal Team Player” through a ministry lens? Share your thoughts in the Comments.

Millennial Scrabble
Jeff Djevdet (Flickr), CC by 2.0

Apprenticeship in Work and Faith

Is “parish” all too synonymous with a building [set of buildings] or a group of people who have voluntarily registered? Yes.

But how do we change that mis-perception? Actions speak louder than words. To see the parish as the full geographic entity that it is–a collection of baptized, non-baptized, de-Churched, and more–we need to do the parish well beyond the walls of the church in a way that’s intentional.

Jonathan Sullivan (building on James Pauley) kicked off some practical, catechetical reflections on what apprenticeship has to do with forming disciples and creating a more authentic manifestation of “parish life” in our communities. Christian apprenticeship is this:

something that happens outside the immediate orbit of the parish…It could center on a stable, long-term group or activity. It could involve strangers coming together for a short time…What distinguishes apprenticeship from other pious activity is a desire to come together as followers of Jesus Christ with the aim to grow in holiness through specific, intentional acts of faith

By way of example, taking teens to serve at a soup kitchen could be an act of Christian apprenticeship if it is more than just a “service trip” — that is, if it integrates various facets of Christian living, including prayer, fellowship, and theological reflection.

One I’ve been thinking about is something picking up on the Center for Faith and Work initiative of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC. When we think about what occupies a significant portion of time of any person–especially single people–one’s job often comes to mind. And this work, regardless of its essentially secular character, in most cases, is still part of our Christian lives. It spiritually forms us (for better or worse). It enables us to integrate our works of creation, service, etc. with how God models this.

But, it’s awfully hard to do this alone.

While the work itself is likely not an intentional act of faith, the decision to meet, pray, and talk with others seeking to integrate faith and work would be an act of faith. And, as Zach Yenter suggests, this may be especially important for Millennial generation adults.

The Bible and Church teachings offer a wealth of passages worth pondering in mentoring pairs or groups of those who work in similar fields/industries. Not to mention questions of discernment or particular intercessory prayers that may be relevant to specific sectors of employment. And, the common bond of a particular field of labor can help build community and affinity for actually being intentional off-parish-grounds about meeting, praying, and sharing life.

Check out Jonathan Sullivan’s recent blog posts on this topic, how could you imagine “apprenticeship” re-shaping catechesis in your parish? 

Vocation. Integration. Combination.

Patrick Didonato on work, ministry, and personal integration:

For the lay disciple, what is the difference between being just a great [insert a job title here] and working for the Church full-time?

It’s not just one or the other, but rather, audaciously fusing the two in every aspect of our lives.

That’s our mission as intentional disciples.

Why is this so important?

Because becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ and following Him means recognizing that God cares what we do with our time. Yet, this doesn’t mean that every single person who calls Jesus Lord is called to work (paid or volunteer) “full-time” in the Church. Church work is not, by default, better than secular work–or not working for pay, etc. This would fail to acknowledge that as Christians, we are not of the world–yet still in the world–and called to bring the Gospel into all spheres of society.

Failure to fuse or integrate the two ideas also reveals some real human resources issues in our design of “jobs” in ministry, i.e. treating full-time work as “better” or “more significant” than part-time work, rather than looking at actual outcomes; of thinking “more hours” is better (when this may prevent healthy integration of ministry and human formation/needs); and closing out many potential candidates for ministry work due to our own inability to recognize the evolution in more flexible work policies, and more.

To work “in the Church” or not is a false, humanly constrained set of choices. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we must pursue something more–“audaciously fusing” and integrating our lives in a way that opens us the most to follow the Holy Spirit and embrace the renewed life offered to us in communion with Jesus Christ.


When Jesus Speaks, Millennials Stay

Among Millennial generation Protestants, those who “say they believe Jesus speaks to them personally in a way that is real and relevant” remain active in church beyond high school significantly more than those who do not–68% versus 25% (Barna, 2013).

This might sound like the most unexciting, obvious statement ever.

But come back to it.

How often do Catholic leaders discuss what to “do” about younger generations leaving the church? How to do Young Adult Ministry more effectively. How to use social media to communicate with Millennials. The list goes on and on…

This study reminds us that effective ministry planning practices, use of social media, volunteer management, etc. are merely tools. Tools to empower our efforts to allow others to hear Jesus speak to them personally.

Ask this question of your ministry efforts, “how are we helping others hear Jesus speak to them, personally?” In some cases, we’re spending lots of energy doing lots of other good things, but while missing this critical piece. While leading adult faith formation groups, I’ve met more than a few who’ve been quite certain that God does not speak to us today. One explained confidently that this was something from the Bible, and instead, today we have the Church’s teaching authority. Yikes. How many who are less engaged in parish life hold this view (or worse!) when it comes to believing and experiencing Jesus speaking to them personally? There’s never any competition or division between Jesus speaking to each of us as individuals, through the Holy Spirit, in prayer, and faith in the Holy Spirit working through the teaching office of the Church.

Barna’s study also noted among the Protestant young adults surveyed, “the version of ‘Jesus in a vacuum’ that is often packaged for young people doesn’t last long compared to faith in Christ that is not compartmentalized but wholly integrated into all areas of life.” A focus on helping individuals hear Jesus and enter into relationship with Him shouldn’t lead to compartmentalization. And, most Catholic parishes aren’t in danger of encouraging this. There are often many more points of engagement–for service, community, and integrated living–compared to efforts to mentor individuals and help individuals open up to hearing Jesus in prayer. Or even spending quality time in prayer (liturgically, extemporaneously, contemplatively, etc.)

Unfortunately, in many Catholic settings, we jump to the trappings of integration, while young adults (and others!) trod through life without hearing Jesus speak to them personally. There’s a sadness in knowing that there are some in our parishes and pews who are not experiencing the comfort, joy, and fullness of life made present to us prayerful listening. So remember, whatever you’re doing as a disciple to build the Kingdom of God, ask yourself: “how are we helping others hear Jesus speak to them, personally?”