In Norman Rockwell's classic 1943 painting, "Freedom from Want," an extended family is gathered around the table to celebrate a holiday feast. Fast-forward 63 years to Thanksgiving 2006 and—while lack of food is still a problem for too many in this land of plenty—you are much more likely to find want of a different kind. More and more Americans are starving for significant relationships.



Earlier this year, the American Sociological Review published a disturbing study, "Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades." Researchers Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew E. Brashears reported a "remarkable drop" in the size of people's core network of confidants—those with whom they could talk about important matters.

As of 2004, the average American had just two close friends, compared with three in 1985. Those reporting no confidants at all jumped from 10 percent to 25 percent. Even the share of Americans reporting a healthy circle of four or five friends had plunged from 33 percent to just over 15 percent.

Increasingly, those whom we consider close friends—if we have any—are household members, not people who "bind us to community and neighborhood." Our wider social connections seem to be shriveling like a turkey left too long in the oven.

"You usually don't expect major features of social life to change very much from year to year or even decade to decade," Smith-Lovin, a sociologist at Duke University, told the news media.

Some may contend that the trend is no big deal, because the population is growing older and more racially diverse, and these demographic groups usually have smaller networks where friendships form. However, the nation's increasing level of education, the study says, should more than offset those factors (because, it argues, education often brings more social contacts). Yet our isolation has increased, leaving us at higher risk for a host of physical, social, and psychological ailments.

Certainly, the pressure to isolate ourselves is longstanding in our increasingly fragmented society based on the radical autonomy of the individual. Perhaps the same thing that is sabotaging marriage is undermining friendship: our increasing unwillingness to commit to relationships that require sacrifice, mutual accountability, and a generous share of humility. That refusal is often not so much willful as fearful. Back in the '60s, cultural critics Simon and Garfunkel noted the temptation to what is now innocuously called cocooning: "I've built walls, a fortress deep and mighty, that none may penetrate. I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain. It's laughter and it's loving I disdain."

Well, yes and no. People may fear the commitment friendship entails, but they remain fascinated with it. The long-standing popularity of TV programs such as Cheers, Friends, and now Grey's Anatomy—which portray the lives of people in multilayered friendships—signals that fascination.

One wonders what it would take for the church, the new community, the friends of Jesus (John 15), to hold equal fascination for our lonely culture. To draw our culture to Christ, evangelical churches spend enormous amounts of money on slick marketing materials, enormous amounts of creative energy crafting "authentic" worship, and enormous amounts of intellectual capital on postmodernizing the faith. We're not convinced these strategies get to the heart of our cultural malaise.

Perhaps another "strategy" is in order. What if church leaders mounted a campaign to encourage each of their members to become friends, good friends, with one unchurched person this year?

Oh, but that would require so much commitment, sacrifice, and humility! Exactly.

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Related Elsewhere:

Here is the American Sociological Review's study "Social Isolation in America," and a Washington Post article that followed.

Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want" is at the Norman Rockwell Museum of Vermont and other sites.

Social isolation is a hot topic in medicine and sociology, as it has been found to be deleterious to our health in general but to have especially negative effects our elderly population. It is also linked to death a higher heart disease risk for men.

By all means, read CT online, but make sure it doesn't cut too much into your social time; internet use is linked to social isolation.

Here are some reflections from someone on the receiving end can be found at Subaru Swamp blog;

Washington State University School of Public Health planned and implemented an intervention, called Family Friends, to alleviate social isolation and connect people to local churches.

An editorial by The Baptist Standard says this study presents a challenge and an opportunity to the church.

Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam also addressed the issue of social isolation several years ago. Putnam looked at Saddleback church in his newer book, Better Together, reviewed by Books and Culture. "Bowling Alone No More" presents another idea for social integration: sports.

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