Country singers know a thing or two about the simple life: porch swings, making supper with grandma, hanging out under the stars with friends and family. This kind imagery has been woven throughout country music for decades. And as the world moves faster every day, people resonate even more with a longing for that kind of lifestyle. People like me, who grew up in a pre-cell-phone, pre-internet era, tend to get nostalgic for a slower pace. We miss spending time with family and friends on the front porch, watching kids ride by on their bicycles and laughing together as the sun goes down.
Those kinds of idyllic images aren’t etched in everyone’s memories, of course, and those times weren’t without difficulty, but I think we can all identify with a longing to slow down and connect with the people around us. For all the incredible things technology has brought us (can you imagine 2020 without Zoom or FaceTime?), I do believe we have lost something as well.
The Epidemic of Loneliness
In a recent study from Cigna, more than 3 in 5 people in the U.S. reported being lonely in 2019 — a seven percent increase from the year before. The report also says social media has a significant impact on feelings of loneliness and mental health, with 73 percent of “very heavy” social media users considered lonely and only 52 percent of “light users.”
“In-person connections are what really matters,” Doug Nemecek, chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna, tells NPR. “Sharing that time to have a meaningful interaction and a meaningful conversation, to share our lives with others, is important to help us mitigate and minimize loneliness.”
Science is actually telling us that connecting with others is important, and it not only affects our mental health but our physical health as well. Somehow we have got to recover what we’ve lost. We’ve got to prioritize building authentic, trusted relationships with one another.
If the World had a Front Porch
I recently sat down with one of my friends, country artist Tracy Lawrence, for the Real Hope podcast to talk about his upbringing, his career and of course, the annual Mission: Possible Turkey Fry he organizes each year to benefit the Nashville Rescue Mission. In our conversation we talked about one of his songs, “If the World Had a Front Porch.” In it, Tracy imagines what it would be like for people all around the world to gather around one enormous front porch and get to know each other better:
If the world had a front porch, like we did back then
We’d still have our problems, but we’d all be friends
Treating your neighbor like he’s your next of kin wouldn’t be gone with the wind
If the world had a front porch, like we did back then
One line that stands out to me is “we’d still have our problems, but we’d all be friends.” There’s a unique perspective in those words that recognizes we may never agree on everything, but we can build trust with one another and maintain relationships anyway. By doing so, we can truly work together to solve problems and make the world a better place. But we can’t do it if we don’t start by building trusted relationships.
Two Ingredients for Relational Trust
To me, trusted relationships start with two things: proximity and availability. That’s why the environment of a front porch fosters those relationships so well. We are simply nearby and available to spend time with anyone who walks by. We can wave to our neighbor taking out the trash. We can invite a friend over for coffee after they return from their morning walk. We can strike up a conversation while we get the mail. These often short, seemingly ordinary interactions are the ones that add up to be a trusted relationship over time. But we have to actually be there. We can’t hide in our homes or fenced-in backyards — nor can we pack our schedule so tightly we have no margin for dilly-dallying.
Author Rosaria Butterfield recently published a book titled “The Gospel Comes with a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in Our Post-Christian World,” in which she makes a compelling case for the importance of these regular, everyday moments. Even if they don’t occur on a proper front porch — that’s not the point. We simply invite others into our lives, making space in our schedules to be available.
“Let God use your home, apartment, dorm room, front yard, community gymnasium, or garden for the purpose of making strangers into neighbors and neighbors into family,” she writes. “Because that is the point—building the church and living like a family, the family of God.”
Rosaria also speaks to our fear in being available and hospitable to others, feeling like we have to get everything “right” or have the perfect hosting space before we can invite others in.
“Hospitality shares what there is; that’s all. It’s not entertainment. It’s not supposed to be,” she says.
What’s Your “Front Porch”?
Tracy says he wrote “If the World Had a Front Porch” based on real childhood memories of shucking corn with his grandmother and prepping purple-hulled peas until his fingers turned violet. Whether you’re literally welcoming others to your front porch for sweet tea, inviting someone to play ultimate frisbee in the quad or bringing an extra chair to the apartment courtyard, you have the opportunity to build relational trust with the people around you, listening to them and showing them they matter. And when we have that trust, we can discuss our differing views and work together — but not before.
“Your relationship with others must be as strong as your words,” Rosaria writes. “Having strong words and a weak relationship with your neighbor is violent. It captures the violent carelessness of our social media–infused age. That is not how neighbors talk with each other.”
We invite people in and get to know them, even when they’re different from us. Then and only then can we come together to work out differences. The Bible says that even if we’re saying all the “right” things, if we’re not building that relational trust — if we don’t have love — we’re just making noise:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” – 1 Cor. 13:1