Study finds friends at church make faith more satisfying

About 10 years ago on an Easter Sunday, Rebecca Keck and her family, of New Berlin, Ill., visited Berlin Christian Church with excitement and some feelings of awkwardness.

It had been some time since Rebecca and her husband, Scott, had attended a church. That Easter Sunday was the first time they had gone to church as a family with their sons, Nolan and Lukas.

They need not have been concerned.

“When we arrived, I remember walking in and people were smiling and nodding. We made our way to the pew and had just sat down,” says Rebecca. “We were so taken by the bells that were being played in the front of the church. It had only been a few seconds after being seated that a man walked up to my husband and I with his hand already held out and a big smile across his face and said, ‘Welcome to Berlin Church. I am glad to see you here.’

“The conversations and friendships grew from there. We felt so welcomed and wanted, and my husband and I had found our church home.”

Having friends at church contributes to happiness, a study has found. Led by Chaeyoon Lim, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it suggests that religion’s part in making people happy may have more to do with friends than with faith.

Using data from the Faith Matters Study, a survey of U.S. adults conducted in 2006 and 2007, Lim and his colleagues found that 33 percent of people who attended religious services every week and reported having close friends at church said they were extremely satisfied with their lives. Only 19 percent of those who went to church but had no close connections to the congregation reported the same satisfaction.

Berlin Christian Church tries to be a church where people feel welcome and where friendships can blossom.

“There are studies that show … when a first-time guest comes onto your property, within the first two minutes they’ve already decided if they’re going to come back or not,” said Pastor Warren Brosi who works with Berlin Christian Church. “Before they’ve heard a song, before they’ve heard a sermon, by the way your parking lot is, by the way people are at the front doors welcoming you — they’ve already kind of subconsciously decided yes or no whether they’re going to come back or not.

“There are a lot of things you can do to tweak that. The principle is pretty good: make a good first impression. That’s what we are trying to do, is make a good first impression with having greeters — people just being a friendly face.”

People who attend Berlin Christian for the first time are called “guests,” not “visitors.”

“It’s just a semantic, but a ‘guest’ sounds like something special. A ‘visitor’ may or may not be a positive thing. It’s kind of neutral,” Brosi said. “We want people to think in terms of we have first-time guests. We want to be a place and a group of people that welcomes.”

Relationships beyond the threshold

Any successful relationship first begins with a relationship with Jesus Christ, said Pastor Charles Campbell, an elder of Delta Church in Springfield, Ill.

“For us, the primary relationship is with Christ. If that relationship is not good, all the other relationships, they’re going to get stuck at some point or not work at some point,” Campbell said. “No matter how welcoming we try to be or how engaged and connected we try to help our people to be … if your relationship with Christ is not good and strong and healthy or if it’s nonexistent, then all the other relationships are not going to work.”

Campbell said Delta Church is “heavy on relationships,” and as such, asks visitors to “hang with” the church for at least six weeks, including visiting the church’s home-based community groups that meet throughout the week.

“To really get to know us, you can’t just do it on one Sunday,” Campbell said.

Delta Church has Newcomer Desserts, usually every other month, where visitors can learn more about the church. The church’s community groups are where “life happens, and that’s where relationships are built, friendships are formed,” Campbell said. “Marriages have come out of our community groups.”

Although Kate Beasley jokingly describes her friendship with fellow Berlin Christian Church churchgoer Greg Patterson as being a pairing of a “couple of idiots,” Beasley has found a place of belonging at the church.

“I actually ‘ran away’ to Berlin Christian Church after my husband died, and it was too painful to continue at the church we had attended for years,” said Beasley, who lives in Pleasant Plains, Ill.

“About the second time I went, (Pastor Warren Brosi) sat with me before service and told me to just ‘use the church’ as I needed. He told me he would love to have me stay, but if I got to the point that I wanted to return to my previous church, I was welcome to use them in the interim, and let my wounds heal.”

Beasley met Patterson when she volunteered to run the computer at the church. Patterson runs the soundboard. The two share similar likes, including a love of “old stuff,” jigsaw puzzles, acting goofy, remodeling, landscaping and flower gardening.

“I haven’t told him yet, but soon he’s going to like watching birds in the winter,” Beasley said. “I found Greg to have as weird a sense of humor as I did, and we just seemed to hit it off. He is a wonderful man, and my kids and grandkids think he’s great fun to be around.”

Developing friendships

People have their identities in their families and work, but they are looking for a third place to belong, Brosi said. That’s where church can fit in.

“We’re hoping that we as a church can be that third place for people in our community to kind of connect and find some of those relational needs met through some friendships because there are a lot of lonely people out there,” Brosi said. “Just to be friends is good, so we try to be that third place for people.”

Among activities Berlin Christian has implemented with a goal of cultivating friendships is “spontaneous fellowship,” where congregants are surprised after service with a special activity three or four times a year. The idea is to have people connect and not rush off. One time, hamburgers were cooked.

“When they walk out, we’re just going to say, ‘Hey. Stick around. Have a hamburger. Have a hot dog. Have a soda, and just meet some friends.’ That went really well,” Brosi said. “People were like, ‘Whoa. Didn’t come to church for that.’ You don’t expect that.”

Another time, the church had root beer floats after service.

“I was doing a sermon series called ‘Love Lessons from the King,’ and it was all about Elvis Presley songs, and I had tied into the Scriptures. We had this soda-fountain-type theme. We had root beer floats for people when they walked out,” Brosi said. “They stood around, and they visited and met some friends.”

It can be a challenge for new people to get “plugged in” within churches that have been established for generations where congregants are close-knit and have a select group of friends, Brosi said.

“That’s a challenge for a lot of churches. Our church is no different with that type of mentality, but we’re really becoming more outward focused and wanting people to come in,” Brosi said.

Berlin Christian’s welcoming posture has affected Rebecca Keck and her family to the point that they have extended their family from “our local little town of New Berlin to a family we have fallen in love with in Oklahoma,” she said. That came about after the family hosted a fellow minister from Rainy Mountain Kiowa Baptist Church in Oklahoma, and from doing mission trips.

“I love my church family. They are always there for us no matter what the circumstance. So when asking if friendships grow from attending church functions, yes, they most certainly do. And when you least expect it, you have another person you’re calling family — what a gift,” Keck said.

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