This week, we hear from Elena Larssen, a candidate for the Doctor of Ministry at Pacific School of Religion and serves as Minister of Volunteer Engagement on the National Staff of the United Church of Christ. A noted preacher and executive leader, she is the current Chair of the United Church Board for Ministerial Assistance and co-chaired the establishment of the 2030 Clergy Network in 2006.
According to new research, average Americans are spending dramatically fewer hours per week with friends than ever before.
The venerable Pew Foundation reports 35% of Americans say that socializing in large groups is less important than in their past. Fewer Americans – 21%- said it was more important to gather with large groups of friends. As is so often the case, the divergence in opinion is telling: the COVID crisis caused differing reactions among different people.
Yet, even when the cataclysmic disruption of quarantine is considered, most Americans spend 58% fewer hours per week with friends than a decade ago.
Less “We Time” and More “Me Time”
A decade ago, Americans spent 6.5 hours per week with their friends, a number than began to drop in 2014, reaching 4 hours per week in 2019 and 2 hours and 45 minutes in 2021.
This drop is still shown when the definition of “friends” is expanded to include co-workers and neighbors. While this number has rebounded slightly as COVID conditions have improved, the trend is clear: people are spending less time with friends, and more time alone.
The decline in “we time” is attributed to major social factors: the rising use of private smartphones, social media, and increased political tensions. Most Americans spend around five hours a day on their smartphones, most of that time using apps. 
Congregations are formed of relationships – networks of friendship, shared mission projects, and even romances, and relatives. What then does it mean for churches when people are spending less time with friends than ever before?
Where Everybody knows your name
It is an old saw among Conference staff that every church thinks it is the “friendly church.” Much attention and energy are devoted to being just that: elaborate welcome kits, nametag campaigns, “Pack a Pew” and “Elbow Sunday,” even training on how to approach new faces at Coffee Hour with just the right amount of enthusiasm…but not too much.
This value of friendliness is not misplaced. A high percentage of newcomers to congregations attend because they were invited by a friend.
Christian identity may flourish in families, but relies on the voluntary association of unrelated people: friends or people who become friends because they share a call to the church of Jesus Christ. Friendship builds congregations while congregations build friendships.
Ecclesiologically and strategically, congregations are constituted of relationships. Recall the scriptural descriptions of diaconal ministry and the well-documented role of musicians; joining church groups and accepting leadership roles furthers the ministry of the church and draws people together into a caring community.
Friendship as a Gift of the Spirit
If we are spending more time on our phones than with our friends, what can churchfolx do to promote friendship in our church spaces…even our online spaces?
- Preachers: deliver a sermon on the importance of friendships: Job, Colossians, Proverbs, and the stories of Paul’s travels all offer great material for examining friendships – even ones that are tested. Ancient notions of friendship differ from today, making this kind of study very thought-provoking.
- Worship-planners: Celebrate friendship in worship and pray for friendships, not just romantic or familial relationships. Can friends light the Advent wreath together, instead of conventional families? Surely they can, and some singles or seniors may get a chance for the first time.
- Community builders: Devote extra energy to social events that provide fun and meaning, recognizing that people are still divergent in their needs for “me time” and “we time.” Effective events can be shorter and simpler, with more advance notice and information to suit shorter post-covid bandwidth for big groups. Meetings are not social events.
- Church friends: Give lots of love and attention to the online spaces of your congregation, for that is where people are spending their ‘me time.’ Online worship attendance is real and virtual members rely on social media to be a part of the community.
Supporting “we time” with friends is good for people and for congregations.
Said another way: the Holy Spirit is alive in our friendships wherever two or more are gathered. And that is good news to celebrate and support in the life of the church.
 Opinion | Americans are spending more time alone. Let’s reverse that. – The Washington Post
 How Americans say their priorities changed during COVID-19 | Pew Research Center
 American Time Use Survey Home Page (bls.gov): More-and-less-important-topline-1.pdf (pewresearch.org)
 Demographics of Mobile Device Ownership and Adoption in the United States | Pew Research Center
20 Vital Smartphone Usage Statistics : Facts, Data, and Trends On Mobile Use In The U.S. – Zippia
 Pre-COVID statistics about the number of people who join a church because they are invited by a friend are high: 40% according to Martha Grace Reece, historically as high as 87% according to The Inviting Church by beloved thought leaders Ron Oswald and Speed Leas in 1987. Current statistics are not available; if you discover a reputable study, please share with me at LarssenE@ucc.org.
 Mark 10:29–30
 Shares of Americans attending religious services unchanged since fall 2021 | Pew Research Center
 Per Dr. Dollhopf: The CAARD 2022 Supplemental Survey found brand new data that 78.7% of UCC congregations holding virtual worship report that their virtual worship attendees are family, friends, or colleagues of current members. This data will be officially published in the 2022 Statistical Profile and released before Christmas.
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Brilliant, as usual. Thanks, Elena.