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Patryk Sobczak on Unsplash
Patryk Sobczak on Unsplash

How Your Church Can Respond to the Loneliness Epidemic

By now, you’ve probably seen the headlines:

  • “Surgeon General Says There’s a Loneliness Epidemic” (The Washington Post)
  • “Young People Report More Loneliness Than the Elderly” (USA Today)
  • “The Biggest Threat Facing Middle-Aged Men Isn’t Smoking or Obesity. It’s Loneliness” (The Boston Globe)
  • “The Surprising Effects of Loneliness on Health” (The New York Times)
  • “Loneliness Begets More Loneliness” (The Atlantic)
  • “How Social Isolation Is Killing Us” (The New York Times)
  • “Social Isolation Kills More People Than Obesity” (Slate)

Americans are lonelier than ever—even though opportunities for social connection have exponentially increased. Even with affordable phone calls and free email, we’re talking to each other less. Despite the prevalence of car ownership and the low cost of cross-country air travel, we’re spending less time with our families.

After decades of bowling leagues, Americans began bowling alone. Today, in the age of social media, we’re not even bowling.

We’re scrolling alone.

How did social isolation become such a disturbing trend? And how can the church respond to the loneliness epidemic?

My thesis is simple. Western community is in sharp decline, and radical individualism has become the functional status for even the most devoted churchgoers. This radical individualism has engendered unprecedented social isolation and yielded a depth of loneliness unique to 21st-century American culture.

This is troubling because we’re relational beings—a reality long affirmed by Christian theology but now also supported by neuroscience. By understanding ourselves as social beings, we can regain social connectedness, friendship, and community in the church and the world.

Epidemic for the 21st Century

Earlier this year, a 20,000-person Cigna study, based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, revealed that those aged 18 to 22 identified with loneliness at a significantly higher rate than those 72 and older. But this study only confirmed what researchers had already discovered: we’re a lonely nation.

The former surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, was the first to call loneliness an epidemic. Murthy has shown that loneliness causes “an insidious type of stress” that leads to chronic inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes. Loneliness has the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Loneliness has the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

It could be easily argued that loneliness is the epidemic of contemporary Western culture. And most of our other epidemics—from heart disease to pornography use—can trace their roots back to a lonely heart.

Mother Teresa was right in stating that life without other people is “the worst disease any human being can ever experience.”

How did we get here?

Me before We

Loneliness is the unsurprising symptom of an individualistic society. Historians and philosophers have both traced the rise in individualism over the last 70 years.

From the perspective of philosophy, James K. A. Smith suggests that the shift in the Western mind from primarily religious to primarily secular has coincided with the rise of individualism (over communalism) as the primary view of self and meaning:

Not only were things invested with significance in the [past], but the social bond itself was enchanted, sacred. [Quoting Charles Taylor] “Living in the enchanted, porous world of our ancestors was inherently living socially.” . . . Once individuals become the locus of meaning, the social atomism that results means that disbelief no longer has social consequences. “We” are not a seamless cloth, a tight-knit social body; instead, “we” are just a collection of individuals—like individual molecules in a social “gas.”

As disenchanted individuals searching for our true selves in all the wrong places, we must remember we aren’t merely individuals in need of autonomy and self-esteem. We are persons-in-community wired for deep relational connection.

Vanishing Relationships

Healthy community requires a frequency of local interactions that’s becoming increasingly rare.

Recently my wife was telling me about her day. She ran into our friend Lindsey and our new friends Brad and Chesney at the grocery store. That same day, I ran into my friend Ross at the bakery and stopped by my bicycle shop to chat with Angela about some new tires I’m considering. We were pleasantly surprised by these “chance encounters,” but many days go by where we don’t run into anyone and think nothing of it.

True community requires a frequency of local interactions that’s becoming increasingly rare.

Marc Dunkelman has made the case that these chance encounters are key to a sense of belonging and community. In public spaces like grocery stores, coffee shops, and playgrounds, neighbors connect through healthy interaction face-to-face.

These days, however, such localized conversations have been replaced by furious tapping on glowing screens separated by hundreds of miles. These changes reflect the larger problem of vanishing American community, Dunkelman suggests:

Adults today tend to prize different kinds of connections than their grandparents: more of our time and attention today is spent on more intimate contacts and the most casual acquaintances. We’ve abandoned the relationships in between—”middle-ring” ties. (xiii)

Without middle-ring ties, much falls apart in our social fabric. These sociological findings resonate with our experiences; no wonder they’re being backed up by neuroscience.

When Neuroscience Supports Theology

A researcher at UCLA has been among the first to apply functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to questions of relationship and community. Not surprisingly, his research has profoundly affirmed the need for social connection:

Using tools like functional MRI (fMRI), we have made startling discoveries of how the human brain responds to the social world—discoveries that were not possible before. These findings repeatedly reinforce the conclusion that our brains are wired to connect with other people. . . . These are design features, not flaws. (9)

In other words, our brains are social. These discoveries also reveal the power of social isolation to adversely affect our brains. The region of the brain that’s activated when we experience rejection or loneliness is the same region that registers the pain of stepping on a Lego (Cacioppo and Patrick, 8).

Loneliness hurts, and the pain compounds into physical sickness, which isn’t cured with medication, but friendship.

In other words, both the soft and hard sciences agree: We’re relational beings, designed to connect with one another—not mere individuals but interdependent persons-in-community.

Relational Beings

Jesus models perfect being-in-relationship for us. He was never not in relationship. He entered this world not by splitting the heavens but by gently growing in his mother’s womb. He entered a normal family, spent his childhood and early adulthood in obscurity, and then launched his ministry by inviting others to follow him. Even on the eve of his crucifixion, he gathered for a meal with his disciples, then led them to pray with him at Gethsemane. With his final breaths, he instructed his disciples to care for his mother.

If relationships were essential to Jesus, shouldn’t they be for you, too?

On occasion, Jesus left his disciples to pray in solitude, but in general, he did everything with this ragtag bunch. His life and mission remind us that even he refused to live life in isolation. If relationships were essential to Jesus, shouldn’t they be for us, too?

Like Jesus, we exist for relationships. Created in the image of a triune—and therefore eternally relational—God, to be fully alive means to live in relationships. If Jesus was history’s most “fully alive” human, it shouldn’t surprise us that a person can’t become fully human without a community.

Simply put, we were created for community.

Lonely at Heart

Even though loneliness abounds, few people consider themselves lonely. Researchers use the UCLA Loneliness Scale since most of us rate ourselves as “not lonely” until we answer tough questions and take stock of our actual relationships and daily habits. Am I lonely?

For me, I’m in my mid-30s, married, have three kids, and meet with people for a living. How could I be lonely? My wife recently joked that my ideal vacation would be getting sent to a minimum-security jail for two weeks. Three square meals, time outside in the yard, and no crying children? She might be on to something.

But I don’t have as many close friends as I did in my 20s, and I certainly lack the free time and late-night energy to hang out that I had in college. And this confirms most studies: Even though we’re surrounded by people in our 20s, 30s, and 40s, these tend to be the loneliest decades of our lives.

We’re busy, but disconnected. Our relationships are several, but superficial (frequent social media use either has no effect or a negative effet on loneliness). Our brains and hearts claim to be overwhelmed, but at bottom we’re painfully lonely.

So how do we fight off isolation in a lonely world? How does God come to us in our loneliness? And where does the local church factor in?

He Sets the Lonely in Families

Our first need is to turn to God. In Psalm 68, David praises our fatherly Lord:

A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling.

God sets the lonely in families,
he leads out the prisoners with singing;
but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land. (Ps. 68:5–6)

What a beautiful phrase: He sets the lonely in families. Loneliness isn’t new, and God’s redemption includes salvation from its deepest form—isolation from God and his people.

Loneliness isn’t new, and God’s redemption includes salvation from its deepest form—isolation from God and his people.

In this psalm, God is praised for being our Father, our defender, and our liberator. He liberates us from the prison of loneliness, into the freedom of family life. But of course, the family life pictured here isn’t a biological husband-wife-child system, but the family of God.

Social Gospel

Our good news is irreducibly relational. It’s a social gospel.

From beginning to end, the gospel has relational dimensions. The curse of Genesis 3 is relational: Conflict between husband and wife; pain between wife and child; enmity between the offspring of Eve and the offspring of the enemy. Thus, God’s reversal of the curse is relational: Israel is a new family; the church is formed through witness, fellowship, hospitality, and ethnic reconciliation; and eternity is described as a people and a place.

We Americans tend to read Scripture from an exclusively individualistic framework. We’re surprised to find that the Lord’s Prayer contains only plural pronouns (“Our Father . . . Give us . . . Forgive us”) and that Paul writes “our Lord” 53 times but “my Lord” only once. Our salvation isn’t less than personal; it’s more than personal. As Peter wrote:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession. . . . Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God. (1 Pet. 2:9–10)

Responding to Loneliness in the Church

The loneliness epidemic creates an ideal opportunity for churches to prioritize fostering authentic community. Here are five ways we can push back loneliness with the power of the gospel.

1. Establish Belonging through Membership

When I was part of a team rethinking the membership process at Sojourn Church in Louisville, we decided to reframe church membership from merely a commitment to a place of belonging. I think the shift is important. Although calling for commitment is important, we found that appealing to our sporadic attendees’ shared hunger for belonging to be a far more compelling invitation. Research has shown that belonging—not personal freedom or self-esteem or meaningful work or marriage and kids—is the most fundamental human need beyond food and shelter.

Belonging—not personal freedom or self-esteem or meaningful work or marriage and kids—is the most fundamental human need beyond food and shelter.

In church membership, we don’t simply say “I commit,” but also “I belong.” If new members are making public statements of commitment to the church, the church should likewise be making public statements of commitment to them. Early Christianity scholar Joseph Hellerman puts it well in When the Church Was a Family:

Spiritual formation occurs primarily in the context of community. People who remain contented with their brothers and sisters in the local church almost invariably grow in self-understanding, and they mature in their ability to relate in healthy ways to God and to their fellow human beings. This is especially the case for those courageous Christians who stick it out through the often messy process of interpersonal discord and conflict resolution. Long-term interpersonal relationships are the crucible of genuine progress in the Christian life. People who stay grow.

Call people to commit, but also invite them to belong.

2. Prioritize Life-Giving Community

I’m an advocate of life-giving community groups. My heart isn’t simply for small groups that gather two or four times a month at someone’s house—as great as that step is. My hope is that adults, teens, and children find rhythms of true community together. A small group is a people, not a time on the calendar. Healthy groups encourage, challenge, and support one another.

But while I’m all-in on community groups, I deeply believe there’s no one right way to cultivate community in a church. If your church currently provides community through Sunday school classes, midweek services, or community service ministries, cultivate community where it exists—and when necessary, start new ministries to promote deeper relationships.

3. Commit to Shared Leadership

When we ponder the influence of loneliness on the Western church, we can make sense of several other pressing challenges—the lack of truly diverse congregations and ministries, the moral and relational failures of many leaders, and so on. Many failures of leadership are first failures of relationship, accountability, and shared authority.

For the church to take loneliness seriously, we must question the “leaders are lonely” logic. While primary leadership of a congregation or organization is indeed a heavy burden, loneliness can be significantly mitigated by shared leadership. A healthy group of elders, staff, or team of volunteer leaders—and an engaged church membership—decreases the burden on any one pastor or leader, protecting everyone involved.

4. Teach on Friendship and Community

Although many churches rightly teach on marriage, parenting, and family issues, it seems rare for a church to do a deep sermon series on friendships and community. But the Old Testament highlights Israel’s calling as a family, the friendship of David and Jonathan, and wisdom regarding friendship and loyalty. The New Testament provides a vision of Jesus’s intensely relational discipleship, the witness of the early church community in Acts, the “one another” commands in the epistles, and the hope of eternal fellowship at the end of the age.

Churches promote what they preach. The church that values friendship and community will leverage the pulpit to combat the loneliness epidemic.

5. Be Devoted to One Another

Western individualism has sparked unprecedented social isolation, so we need to work tirelessly to recover the biblical vision of human nature and community in our local churches.

Of course, this is hard work. That’s why Paul’s letters emphasize establishing healthy community in the local church through sacrificial relationships. By God’s grace, may we increasingly embody the call of Romans 12:10–13:

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

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