A major cause of our loneliness epidemic is the 50-year deterioration of intermediate-sized groups—ethnic clubs, lodges, parishes, neighborhood associations, precincts, young adult clubs and even families. The extended family no longer lives within walking distance. Seniors relocate among strangers; their children often live in other towns.
A person who uses a social media platform has, on average, about 150 “friends.” Several surveys reveal that if friendship implies steady, close and dependable, the actual number is less than five. Gallup Poll reports a steady decline in friendship. The small friendship circle is further restricted because it increasingly contains only siblings and first cousins. A recent Cornell University survey defined friend as “someone with whom you discuss important matters.” The average number of such friends is two. The saddest in this survey were those who say they have no important thoughts or feelings to discuss.
OnePoll, a survey company, broke down friendship into levels. The number of close friends with whom you share important thoughts and feelings is three. Those three, by the way, are people from high school and/or college days or siblings. The survey says that most people make no new friends after their early 20s. According to this survey, a person has five more friends that they “like” and on occasion “meet one-on-one.” Finally, that person refers to eight other friends, but does not seek them out or spend time with them. This understanding of friendship without contact is baffling.
Let’s use parishes and young adults as an example to further this topic of intermediate groups and the situation of people alone; the phenomenon of hanging out but not joining. Of course, one blog column will not make for a mutual, solid attraction between young adults and a parish. And, any parish that reverts to 1950s-style will—despite good intentions—quickly squander any sustainable attraction for young adults. It is also inaccurate to say that “young adults are leaving churches in droves.” Or put it this way: A change in Roman Catholic gender exclusion in its ordained priesthood will not suddenly bring hundreds of young adults through the church door. To be accurate, let’s note that a fair number of young adults do worship regularly, but not at the pre-1970 rate.
Parishes and congregations are still the main entity for social capital, details Timothy Carney in Alienated America (Harper Collins, 2019). Not only do people make connections through church, those churchgoers are more likely to belong to other groups than non-churchgoers. Those other intermediate groups do not have to be sponsored by the parish. For example, a young adult who volunteers in a tutoring program for immigrants or for high school students is likely to also be a church member. Yes, some non-religious people are involved in circles of friendship and in volunteering, particularly with other college grads. But “the best predictor of civic virtues is regular attendance at church,” Carney writes in his important study.
Further, young adult churchgoers in general have better employment opportunity, stability in marriage, less drug use, less resentment and more frequent use of libraries, parks and museums. No, this doesn’t apply only to the upper-class. Immigrants who attend church or mosque or synagogue are upwardly mobile. Nowadays it is primarily working-class whites who do not attend church. These young adults hang out but don’t connect. Their conversations are superficial; their use of TV and mobile devices is often excessive.
Surprisingly, those people who are most likely to say that religion is very important are the least likely to attend church, Carney finds. They are not searching for a vibrant expression of their faith. They are stuck and largely disconnected. This is a sizable and growing number.
What will happen? To be continued…
Obtain Droel’s booklet, Public Friendship, from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5)