For almost a decade, I professionally led different forms of community building. That’s essentially a fancy way of saying my job was helping grown-ups make friends.
It’s a bigger need than you might think. Or maybe you already get it. We live in a lonely country. It’s hard to make and keep real friends.
My job happened to be at a church, but the solution we found spanned people who associated with God and who didn’t without skipping a beat. One answer worked across the board, and it was simple.
There is something unexplainably magical about eating together. Jesus modeled it, and it was part of the spread of the early Church. Whatever you believe about God, you have to admit that the Church (despite its many flaws) is one of the most wildly reproduced gatherings of people in history. And it was largely built around a table.
Whether you’re after something deep or you just want some friends, give it a try. Start your own version of what we (uncreatively) call “open house.”
There are a million different ways to do it and just a few keys you have to keep:
- It must be regular: a dependable rhythm that you do not cancel. Weekly is best.
- You have to open up: self-disclosure creates a culture for friendship like nothing else.
- It must be easy to sustain: pick what’s easy and let everyone help.
- Be creative: People and life stages will change. Don’t let it throw you. Keep adjusting.
If you’re trying to bind existing friends back together, you’ve only got schedules to conquer. You will probably have to sacrifice, but it can happen.
But I especially love seeing open houses come together though with all new people. That’s right—I mean total strangers. We failed our way through figuring that one out and felt like we hit the jackpot of fantastic people at the end.
Start with a mass text. Something simple like:
Hey! We want to start gathering people for good food (or friendship or conversation or drinks or to watch a game) every Monday. Would you or someone you know want to try something like that regularly? Feel free to forward.
I’m not going to lie, that was a scary text to send. In fact, the first week—no one came. Lesson learned: Ask people to RSVP before you cook for ten. But that was solved by a simple group text asking “who’s in?”
The next breakthrough was finding another person or couple to be our wingman. Having a reliable base of a few you know will always be there really helps. We had another couple who was always there, who invited, and who made it so much fun.
Every week, we learned more and more about how to pull it off. We started as newlyweds and kept hosting through various houses and expanding our family.
Here’s a glimpse at the variations that all work and make any life stage doable:
- It doesn’t have to be a big dinner. You can do pancake and mimosa breakfasts, lunchbreak hangouts, happy hours, dinners in or out, late-night drinks, backyard firepit s’mores, front porch ice cream Sundae bars, weeknights, weekends—any time of day or type of food works.
- You don’t have to cook. You can cook. You can potluck. Everyone can pick up their own food on the way to someone’s house. You can all pitch in for take-out. Whatever is easiest and most sustainable for you, do that.
- You don’t even have to host. You can always meet at the same place, or you can rotate around different houses, restaurants, bars, or parks. Pick whatever is convenient and creates a good atmosphere for conversation. A group text makes it work.
Be sure to keep it easy:
- Practice hospitality, not entertaining. If you want to cook, you must let people help. We always cooked the main dish and let people bring something. It’s easiest to have people bring something that could be prepared in five minutes or less when they show up (salad, bread, asparagus, edamame, dessert, corn on the cob, wine, you get the idea) and that they can pick up from the store on their way there. The less work for them and you, the better.
- Share the cost. If you’re carrying the load, ask everyone to pitch in financially. For a while when we preferred to cook the whole meal, we just asked everyone to bring $3-5 each. No one minds. It’s not as awkward as it sounds. We set out a jar, and it worked great. Some people (especially single dudes and busy families) prefer paying vs. bringing something.
- Develop a core and welcome strangers. Over time, you’ll have a core group. They’re the key. Ours eventually grew to about 25 people weekly (in a 600 sq ft apartment I might add). But whether your core is one other couple or the main 8-10 who come every week, train those people to invite. We found we attracted people who were transplants to our city and didn’t have family in the area. I couldn’t believe random strangers showed up at our house, but they did. Some even became dear friends. We had families and singles. Sometimes we even had 3-4 races around the table—people we never would have ever met on our own, but our friends invited their friends. I’m still in awe of how the diverse backgrounds brought a hospitality culture to our house in ways that left a powerful, permanent mark.
- Make it easy for people to help you clean up. Keep brooms and cleaning supplies in a visible spot, or just tell people where they are. Help people fall into regular roles like doing the dishes or sweeping or wiping down the table. People actually prefer to help. They just feel awkward asking, so don’t make them. Besides eating together, it’s the fastest way to feel like a family, and it keeps it sustainable.
- If people have kids, make them comfortable. For us, we started when we were newlyweds and figured it out with several newborns and kids up to age ten. We’d all eat together and put babies down in pack-and-plays in various corners or closets throughout the house—even when we lived in a small one-bedroom apartment. Have the parents share with everyone else how we can all engage their kids well. Make parents feel comfortable even when the baby cries or the night doesn’t go as planned. It won’t go as planned, but the mess is part of the beauty. It can work, people.
From a group text to a bunch of friends inviting freely, we ended up with a real community. People who ate together weekly, helped each other move, and who knew each others’ stories and struggles. We just opened up our house and let it grow.
Lots of people isn’t the goal. A few true friends meeting regularly is an incredible win. Real friendship can lead to miracles. Regularly being together can conquer all sorts of depressing cultural norms that stem from loneliness, isolation, and stress because we were designed for community in the core of how we’re made. I think God inextricably linked food and friendship, because I’ve seen how deeply it can bond us. If you could use a community boost, give it a shot. Send a text, make a plan, and see what happens.