By Eddie Pipkin
Loneliness is in the news again. In a world in which we are constantly connected in ways previous generations could never have imagined, people still report feeling lonely. As church leaders argue about the church’s relevance and future, I like to remind folks that there are still things that faith communities offer that people desperately need – things like meaningful relationships (the antidote for loneliness).
Here’s the latest news report: “Americans Are a Lonely Lot, and Young People Bear the Heaviest Burden.” It recounts research by CIGNA in partnership with UCLA:
More than half of survey respondents — 54 percent — said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well. Fifty-six percent reported they sometimes or always felt like the people around them “are not necessarily with them.” And 2 in 5 felt like “they lack companionship,” that their “relationships aren’t meaningful” and that they “are isolated from others.”
The survey found that the average loneliness score in America is 44, which suggests that “most Americans are considered lonely,” according to the report released Tuesday by the health insurer. “Half of Americans view themselves as lonely,” said David Cordani, president and CEO of Cigna Corp. “I can’t help but be surprised [by that].”
There are two ways for churches to process these startling statistics. The first is in considering them as a malady affecting the people “out there in the world” to whom we can offer solace and Good News. The second is in processing them as evidence of a disease that infects even those within our local faith community.
In the first case, whole nations have begun identifying this problem as a public health issue. In Japan, so many elderly people live and eventually die alone that a whole industry has arisen to clean apartments where corpses are discovered. In Great Britain, the government announced in January that it had named a new “Minister of Loneliness.” Tracey Crouch, citing the loneliness epidemic that is “the sad reality of modern life” and the 200,000 elderly Brits who report no meaningful conversation with anyone in the past month, will facilitate
non-profits in the U.K. [that] have begun working on loneliness issues in recent years, especially through work connecting lonely seniors with schools and young families. [Prime Minister Theresa] May says that in recent years the U.K. government has engaged loneliness by building neighborhood “pocket parks” to encourage personal engagement, improving mental health support and by supporting volunteer efforts that connect lonely people with the community.
Churches are non-profits that can focus on this kind of outreach. More than that, faith communities are called to extend love and care to those most desperately in need. We have built-in opportunities for socialization, relationship building, and purpose-oriented work in which anyone can get involved. The challenge is for us to be intentional in connecting with people who may be susceptible to loneliness:
- Widows and widowers
- Singles (who have always been single)
- Singles (who are single because of divorce)
- Special needs families
- New parents
- Those struggling with anxiety and depression
- The unemployed
- Addicts (and those who love them)
- People who have just moved to the neighborhood
We can build ministries around these groups. We can encourage existing ministries to pay special attention to these groups. We can be strategic about partnering with other community groups to communicate our welcome and services and connections we can provide. We can train leaders to be attuned to people who are trying to connect with us because they are lonely. We can train leaders and congregation members on how to integrate those seekers into the fold with an authentic welcome.
This is, of course, a challenge: helping those within our church family who are lonely find ways to meaningfully connect. It is a truth that there are people within our worship services (and even active participants in small groups and ministries) who feel left out. This is the persistent feeling of isolation noted in the loneliness study, and its cure can be tricky. On the one hand, we need to train congregants and congregational leaders on how to be open and engaging in inviting in the relationship-challenged. On the other hand, we need to equip the lonely with the tools to help themselves enter into opportunities for deeper engagement. Here’s a blog by Caroline Garnet McGraw, called “When You Feel Frozen and Alone at Church,” that explores her loneliness story and the steps she took to accept the help that was offered in working her way to a more engaged place. (I include it, if for no other reason, for the wonderful quote, “So I did what we perfectionists do as a last resort: I asked for help.”)
McGraw’s story is a reminder that every person’s experience of loneliness and its challenges is personal and unique. One of our greatest challenges as leaders is developing a resistance to lump people into categories. Instead, we should build cultures that listen (carefully) and promote environments in which people can find their own unique paths of engagement.
I wrote on this loneliness topic last year in a blog entitled, “Loneliness and the Church.” That blog focused on the ways in which we can institutionally address the systemic habits which leave a place for loneliness to exist within our ministries. It included some thoughtful strategies for building a culture that help people combat isolation and disconnection:
- Talk about the issue of loneliness in honest ways.
- Give people a clear path in taking a step towards connection.
- Give people more one-to-one relationship options (as opposed to only always group gatherings).
- Engage people in conversation. Don’t just make assumptions.
- Make sure everyone knows her or she can be a bridge (in helping someone else find a way through their loneliness).
- Be sure and involve single people in leadership roles.
- Be careful not to unintentionally marginalize people who are single.
- Focus on relationships rather than programming.
- Embrace anti-clique strategies.
Read that entire blog for a further discussion of each of those suggestions and how they can be implemented. Combating loneliness, inside and outside the church, is one of those goals we could take on for strategic vision that could impact our local church ministry across the board. Just focusing on this one question, within each of our many sub-ministries, could revitalize and repurpose the work of those ministries. As an exercise with your leadership team in the coming weeks, use this as a point of discussion and see where the conversation takes you. In a worship service, ask for a show of hands as to how many people have experienced some form of loneliness in the past month? How many people think they know someone right now who is lonely?
How would Jesus have us respond? Share your results with us here in the comments section (always a place for engaging conversation.)