How to Make Friends at Church (or Anywhere)
The better you understand how friendships form, the better you can troubleshoot your parish hospitality efforts.
This is a follow-up to what turned out to be just an opening salvo on hospitality at church. The main reader request, in response, was for tactics for becoming a more hospitable parish. We’re going to do that. But in order to do that, we need to first understand the friend-making process, so that we can then see how different aspects of parish life can help or hinder that process.
As I work through this topic here on the substack, if you haven’t already read the How-To, you may want to do that. Maybe Lent-a-Claus can put that in your cap along with your ashes.
Also, reminder that while I can’t commit to making individual replies, I do read all subscriber e-mails, so if you would like to provide feedback or make additional subtopic requests, just hit reply to the e-mailed version of this newsletter in your inbox. New readers: Subscription info is on the About page, scroll down for details. (It’s free.)
And in we go.
Step one in making friends is that you have to know somebody exists, they have to know you exist, and you have to not be afraid of each other.
This is the “friendly strangers” level of friendship, and it’s not a bad place! You can’t know everybody in the whole world, and if your parish has more than a few hundred people in it, you’ll be hard pressed to know everyone there, either.
Friendly strangers include:
Ushers and greeters who smile and say hello.
People you make the sign of peace with during Mass.
Staff or parishioners you habitually see around, whether in church or elsewhere, and you might have a general idea of who they are, but you don’t really know them.
The person who spent all Mass making funny faces at your baby, and neither of you are completely sure whether that was a good idea or not, but now your baby has a friend, even if you don’t.
I want to emphasize three important facts about friendly strangers:
1. They aren’t a given. To even get to this stage can require effort by both the parish and the individual. We’ll have some stern words about this in a future tactics post.
2. Friendly strangers form the superstructure of community life. On an ordinary day, they are the familiar faces who provide you the emotional security of belonging to the specific group of people with whom you share your communal home. In a crisis, they are the people whose presence is deeply meaningful, and to whom you are likely to instinctively turn in an emergency.
3. Therefore, even though “friendly stranger” is the usual first stage in a deeper friendship, it is also an invaluable type of friendship worth pursuing for its own sake.
Cue the Benedictines in the readership muttering knowingly about the virtue of stability, pastors weeping silently about our highly mobile and fragmented society, and volunteer coordinators shamelessly eyeing you up and deciding you’ve been here long enough, time to put you to work.
An acquaintance is someone you know well enough that you might casually apply the term “friend.” What makes an acquaintance?
You’ve met. You sat at a table together, you shook hands when a friend introduced you, you chatted briefly at a social event, you volunteered together that one time at that thing.
You know each other’s names. Alternately: You know each other well enough that you should know each other’s names, but maybe you were never introduced.
Alternately: You should know each other’s names, but one or both of you have forgotten, and, yes, you are probably deeply embarrassed about this.
You can honestly say you know each other, albeit not that well. You each have a clear sense of who the other person is, and a sense that you have something of a relationship with each other.
The depth of acquaintanceship ranges considerably:
New acquaintances: People you’ve just met for the first time, but now you do know each other, you aren’t strangers anymore.
On-going acquaintances: People you encounter regularly and you pass the time of day, but that’s it.
Outer reaches of situational friendship: People you work or study with habitually, and your relationship is friendly, perhaps quite long-lived, but not very deep.
Obviously, the more deep your acquaintance, the more comfortable you’ll be making the move towards the next level of friendship.
Some reality checks about acquaintances:
Sometimes, from the moment you first meet each other, a deep and real friendship is sparked. You just have so much in common! There’s nothing wrong with pursuing an intentional friendship from the get-go.
Sometimes you know someone for years, they are perfectly nice, and yet you have no such spark that makes you want to get to know each other more deeply. This is fine. You can’t be best friends with everybody.
Sometimes the person who seems on the surface like not-that-interesting turns into your closest friend at some later date.
Again: Acquaintances are an essential part of a parish community. It is important for parish hospitality to facilitate acquaintanceship. It is not enough to have only acquaintances and no deep friendships in your life, but it is normal that most people you know are people you know only at this level.
Possible Stage: Colleagues, Classmates, and “Church Friends”
Ideally you are able to get involved in parish life beyond just attending Mass. (Heck: Ideally you’ll be able to attend Mass! Sheesh.) You volunteer to help with a ministry that needs your gifts; you attend a Bible study that intrigues you; you make a point of getting to that social event you particularly enjoy.
When you do this, you get to know the other regulars there. You have people there you particularly enjoy being with, and you look forward to seeing each other. When there’s time to chat, these are the people you chat with, if you can help it.
Over time, a friendship forms. These are the people you keep updated on your life. You pray for their intentions. You likely help each other out in small ways over the course of your church activity together. They are your “church friends.”
You have these people in other parts of your life, as well: Your work friends, your friends from the team, your friends from the club, your friends from the bar, and so forth.
These are real friends, but what makes them “work friends” or “team friends” and not just plain old “friends” is that your friendship is localized in that specific place you have in common with each other.
If you quit the team, you won’t see your “team friends” anymore. If you change jobs, you won’t stay in touch with your “work friends” anymore. When the Bible study ends, or you can no longer volunteer with the ministry, or you develop a gluten allergy and can’t be in the same room as donuts, your “church friends” recede into the “people I know from that thing” category.
Some reality about this stage:
Many, many people find it more comfortable to pass through this stage than to jump straight to pursuing a deep personal friendship. Organized parish events create a safe place to form and deepen acquaintances.
This is initially an exciting and satisfying form of friendship. It is good to have a wide variety of “church friends” that you don’t pursue deep friendship with, you just enjoy being together when you can.
It is when none of these friendships ever progress to a deeper level that we get more disillusioned and feel that “alone in a crowd” or “no one really knows me” feeling.
These situation-dependent friendships can also mask the lack of deeper friendships. We can become unaware of what we don’t have.
When the situation changes, these shallower friendship dry up. This is not because of ill-will or “we were never really friends.” It is because these friendship were situation-dependent.
Still, again: These friendships are an important part of parish life.
Furthermore, they are not guaranteed to happen. It is very, very easy for a class, ministry, or social event to be organized in a way that makes it difficult or impossible for “church friendships” to form.
There are specific steps ministry organizers need to take to make it more likely that situational friendships can occur, and so yes, that’s going to be a future topic here in this series.
Possible Stage: Discipleship Friends
“Discipleship friends” are a specific type of situational-friendship that is deep, meaningful, and spiritually important.
This is a person or group of people you get together with on a regular basis for the intentional purpose of working together to deepen your relationship with Jesus Christ. With your discipleship friends you:
Talk about highly personal matters, including spiritual experiences.
Are vulnerable with each other, discussing areas of struggle and sin.
Share how important parts of your life are going, including sharing confidences.
Pray for each other and offer each other spiritual guidance.
Correct each other (lovingly), not just about matters of theology or Biblical knowledge, but concerning personal decisions and sin.
This is obviously a deep form of friendship!
I categorize it as a situational friendship, though, because it typically forms due to a specific intention to get together for discipleship mentoring. This could be a friendship formed with a spiritual director, a pastor or staff member who provides counseling of some nature, fellow members of an addiction-support group, others in a bereavement group, or members of a discipleship-oriented Bible study.
It can be a formal structure or it can be an ad hoc or privately-organized set of encounters. It can be a one-on-one, a very small group, or a smallish-medium group. (Larger groups can’t physically share this much, there isn’t enough time for everyone to talk.) It can be a mentor-student relationship, or it can be peer counseling, or some fuzzy combination of the two.
==> Keeping in mind that certain forms of spiritual direction and counseling should not involve mutual sharing — we’re speaking here of situations where a healthy, appropriate amount of personal disclosure is happening, whatever that amounts to in context.
This type of friendship is central to the spiritual life. If you who are in parish leadership aren’t facilitating these kinds of opportunities you are doing it wrong.
However: These are situational friendships. When you can’t attend anymore, the friendship, though real and deep, fades into happy memory.
Therefore, we need to both contemplate how to make these types of relationships happen (because they are essential), and also move on with our steps in the friendship-making process.
Quick Cautionary Note:
Some discipleship friendships should not move on to the next step, because the nature of your relationship is not appropriate for other types of friendship. Two main examples:
Counseling-type relationships where your mentor or peer is privy to confidential information about others in you life they would be likely to meet when socializing with you, and who would find that encounter uncomfortable.
Any friendship that could conceivably lead to one or both of you being tempted to violate a religious or marriage vow.
Relationships up and down a chain-of-command, as well as relationships between minors and an adult mentor, are likewise situations where personal friendships need to be constrained in order to protect the vulnerable.
And seriously: It is AOK to have discipleship relationships that are only discipleship relationships. Quite often this is desirable, because it allows you to be more vulnerable and open in seeking spiritual guidance than you could be with someone you encounter in regular life.
Getting Up the Nerve to Ask for a Date!
You’ve made an acquaintance or a situational-friend. It feels good. But unless you take another step, a risky step, you will only ever be situational friends. The moment one of you quits coming around to the thing, the friendship will evaporate.
How to prevent that? You need to ask this person out on a date.
Note: If you are still faking like you know the other person’s name, but actually you don’t, you are going to have to figure that out. Tactics preview: This is yet another reason parish ministries should work hard at making it easy for parishioners to learn each others’ names.
So. What’s a friendship first date?
Invite that mom from the women’s Bible study to meet up with you at the playground so your toddlers can run around together while you two chat.
Invite that guy from the Knights to use your extra ticket to the game.
Invite that lady from St. Vincent de Paul to meet up with you for coffee.
Invite that family from religious ed to come have pizza at your place.
Try to choose an activity that will allow unstructured conversation time, since the goal is to get to know each other better. Since you may be guessing about your friend’s tastes, listen for subtle cues like, “I’m not into baseball, but any interest in seeing that Warhol exhibit at the gallery?”
Whatever you choose, the whole thing should be low-key. It’s a format that will probably work for both of you, and you’re ready to be flexible if they make a counter-proposal (“I don’t do late 20th century art, but you want to see that movie . . .?”). They can politely decline altogether if they aren’t interested.
If they decline: Unless they tack on, “But I’d love to get together another time,” don’t try to troubleshoot their reasons for being unable to accept. Let them out gracefully and stick with your situational-friendship for now.
But what if they do accept?
Then you go do that thing together. And you thus get to find out whether your friendship was indeed situation-dependent, or whether you actually get along so well that you have a serious prospect on your hands.
Following-Up if the First Date Went Well
The next stage in the friendship is simple: If you really enjoyed yourself on that first date, extend a second invitation.
You do not need to scruple over rules about reciprocating, though you should look for cues such as the other person saying, unprompted, “I would love to do this again sometime,” or offering you additional contact information.
If you had a fantastic time but you aren’t sure whether the other person did, give it a little time (a few weeks and another encounter at your common ground) before you extend a second invitation. If they turn it down and don’t try to propose an alternative (“I can’t meet Saturday, but are you free Tuesday night?”), let it go.
—> Don’t take this personally! Sometimes even people who want nothing more than to spend more time with you have other constraints on their life that make it impossible for them to pursue a deeper friendship right now. Or maybe you two just don’t have that much in common.
If you didn’t have that great of a time, then don’t pursue a second friend-date. You can just be situational-friends, that’s fine. Not everyone is going to become your next best friend.
But if the first friend-date went well enough that you are thinking, “I would love to spend more time with this person,” then sooner or later you need to propose a second date. Otherwise you will fade back into being situational-friends only.
Emphasizing: Unless you create the habit of getting together with a friend in informal, personal-life settings, that friendship is going to remain situation-dependent. You need to start meeting outside of formal events before your situation changes and you are no longer habitually seeing the other at your previously-shared activity.
Starting Over and/or Going Deeper
The friendship-building process is one of repeating those individual invitations until next thing you know you’ve got this friend you spend personal time with, and you both enjoy it, and you each become a regular part of the other’s life. You two are no longer friends via an activity, but rather your friendship is the activity.
It often takes a lot of attempts at friendship first-dates before you happen on that one friend who has the personality and outlook on life so compatible with yours that you both want to live your lives together as much as you reasonably can.
Most of the time, your first friendship-date is either not going to happen (they politely decline because they honestly aren’t looking to spend more time with you) or is going to be a one-time thing. That is fine! Give thanks for the amount of friendship you have and move on.
With a long-term best friend, though, that one friend-date will lead to another, which will in turn lead to increasing the depth of your friendship as both of you mutually pursue time spent sharing life.
Emphasizing, though: This deepening of your friendship will only occur if you make the effort. It is “magic” in the sense that discovering a kindred soul feels magical, but it’s not effortless-magic. It’s magic you have to work to dig out from the shadows.
Friendship and Evangelization
Over the coming weeks we’re going to continue dissecting this friendship thing, but I want to be very clear: Church is not a social club.
If your parish efforts at hospitality are only oriented towards secular friend-making, your parishioners would be better off joining a bowling team or a golf club – at least then they’d get exercise.
What makes church different, and the only thing that makes it different, is Jesus Christ. (Well, that and also your coffee probably isn’t as good.)
So parish hospitality is properly oriented not just towards satisfying the natural human need for friendship, but towards forming spiritually-meaningful friendships. That’s what we will have in Heaven.
When people come to your parish, they are looking for the things that are found in Heaven. Jesus Christ, first and foremost, and then all the rest that flows from our common friendship with Him.
Okay and here’s a preview of tactics, excerpted from this essay at The Public Discourse on the kind of emotional support young mothers are looking for:
At a Christmas Mass this past year, my youngest child threw a very public (and very embarrassing) tantrum in the communion line. I ducked out of the line and ran him outside to calm him down and restore peace to the sanctuary, when I heard a voice at my shoulder. It was an usher, and just behind him was a Eucharistic minister holding the communion plate. For a moment, I thought he was going to admonish me for disrupting the Mass, but instead he smiled and said, “We brought communion to you.”
That’s friendly strangers right there. You can do this.
Thank you very much for this. The Sunday after your previous article where I left that comment, God spoke to my wife and I from the pulpit and we had two excellent opportunities to serve dropped on our laps--one tailored for her and one tailored for me (very specifically, in both cases--God is good!). So we decided to make this particular parish our home parish and we spoke to the Priest and got involved right away. Our new acquaintances are not our demographic--my wife and I are in our 30's and most people participating in the Parish life are averaging 65 probably--but we see in this both the potential for our acquaintances to introduce us to other people; and an opportunity to help this parish grow in an age demographic that is clearly available judging by Mass attendance but whom the Parish is not equipped to serve (yet).
We did notice that on first participating in events, people default to treating us as strangers, but my wife was able to break through this and once she did she was one of the gang by the end of her event.
So my wife and I are trying to make ourselves "friendly strangers" to others, broadcasting openness, while we are pursuing these intentional avenues of discipleship that have high potential for friends.
I will add, through all this, my wife and I had a couple really excellent conversations with our priest, and asked him about his needs. I don't know if this tactic will fall anywhere in your planned list, but I realized talking to a priest is a great way to make the unknown, known. He will be aware of organizations and communities around the parish AND he will be able to articulate what would help him the most. Tell him what you need, ask him what he needs. There is sure to be an area where social life and service of the Church align.