Friday, July 19, 2024

The Crisis of Loneliness

by Ben Hein

How do adults make friends? We don’t. At least that is how it feels. A common “adulting” joke I often hear today is how difficult it is for adults in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s to make new friends. A quick search on Google revealed this Buzzfeed article that humorously captures how many adults feel today.

These jokes are funny because they’re true. In the time since my wife and I have been married, one of the most frequent conversations we have is how desperate we are for close friends that we can share our lives with. While the circumstances of moving to several different churches in a short time frame hasn’t helped anything, we have found it tremendously difficult to create deep and lasting relationships with others. Between our busy schedules and the apparent lack of interest from other people, friends are really hard to come by.

We are not alone in this feeling. In fact, all signs point to the fact that Americans have ignored an epidemic of loneliness which has swept through our society, leaving our communities to erode from under us. If Christians are going to be salt and light in this world, then the most important thing we could do is live in a way that promotes deeper friendship and stronger local communities.

An Important Distinction

When we first hear the word loneliness, we often think of it in terms of the absence of other people. Defined in this way, overcoming loneliness sounds as simple as coming into contact with other human beings. The solution is not as simple as it may seem.

In his recent book Lost Connections, Johann Hari argues that people in the West have a deep disconnection from other people. In an interview with Dr. John Cacioppo, Hari makes an important distinction about what loneliness truly is:

Loneliness isn’t the physical absence of other people, John said – it’s the sense that you’re not sharing anything that matters with anyone else.[i]

In other words, our proximity to others is not necessarily what makes us more or less lonely. In order to end loneliness in our society, we not only need to be near other people, but we also need to share meaning and value with them. There has to be a sense that we are “in it” together.

The Danger of Imagined Community

Yet close proximity to others is still incredibly important. The danger of living in a high-tech world is that it is easy to believe we are more connected than we really are. This reality has given rise to the term imagined community: a community of people who don’t really know each other but imagine that they do.[ii]

In order to end loneliness in our society, we not only need to be near other people, but we also need to share meaning and value with them.

Examples of imagined communities are easy to come by. Whenever we identify ourselves as “American,” “Democrat,” or “Republican,” we are identifying ourselves as members of an imagined community. These communities are not evil in themselves, and they’re often necessary (we need some kind of group structure to make discourse at a national level possible). But problems arise when we try to find our need for belonging, meaning and value in these imagined communities rather than real, intimate relationships with others.

On June 22, 2017 Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech where he argued that the greatest social problems of our time (rampant drug addictions, totalitarian regimes, etc.) are due by and large to the disintegration of human communities. He promised that Facebook was going to do everything in their power to rebuild communities that will promote a healthier society.

Facebook is the king at creating imagined communities. Every time we view our feeds, we place ourselves into a network of people that gives us a sense of being connected – but also somehow absent from real relationship. It’s easy for me to join a Facebook group with 100,000 other suburban dads, and while we might share a few things in common, I’m never going to know any of them on a level that would make me truly feel connected to them.

In his newly released book In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World, Jake Meador makes the point that looking to technology to solve our loneliness problem comes from ideas about human beings that are entirely untrue. Meador says it this way:

The right tool or part solves a problem when you’re dealing with a machine. If I have a program on my computer that isn’t doing what I want it to do, I can use some kind of tool to make it do what I want. But this isn’t actually how human beings work. We are creatures, not machines. So assuming that our loneliness is essentially a mechanical bug that can be fixed via a new means of communicating with friends from a distance…is simply to misunderstand the problem.[iii]

You don’t need to share a Christian worldview to agree that human beings are, in some sense, embodied souls. Yuval Noah Harari is one of the most insightful commentators on our society that I know of. He is also an avowed atheist. But he agrees with Meador’s conclusion when he says,

The attempt to replace small groups of people who actually know one another with the imagined communities of nations and political parties will never succeed in full. Your millions of brothers in the national family…cannot provide you with the warm intimacy that a single real sibling or friend can. Consequently, people live ever more lonely lives in an ever more connected planet.[iv]

Being members of imagined communities is not enough. We need to share both close proximity to other people as well as a deep sense of meaning with them if we are going to address the loneliness epidemic sweeping through our communities.

But just how bad it is it?

The Loneliness Epidemic

Sociologist Robert Putnam is one of the most well-known people to have first sounded the alarms on the loneliness crisis facing American communities. He released Bowling Alone in 2000, documenting the collapse of American institutions and practices that formerly brought communities together. A simple example from his enormous volume of research shows that the number of picnics Americans share together has declined by 60 percent from 1975 to 1999![v]

Putnam predicted that our culture would only continue down a path of disconnection and isolation. He was right. Today we are lonelier and more isolated than ever, and the statistics are incredibly alarming. An often-cited 2006 study shows that nearly half of all Americans had two or fewer friends they could talk about with their deepest fears or desires. A quarter of Americans said they didn’t have a single friend to have such conversations with.[vi] A 2018 Cigna study tells us this has only gotten worse: nearly half of Americans report “sometimes or always feeling alone,” and 47% of Americans also said they do not have meaningful in-person social interactions.[vii]

The effects of loneliness on the individual are equally alarming. Loneliness and isolation can be as destructive to our physical and mental health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Multiple studies have linked loneliness to diabetes, heart disease, depression, substance abuse, and early death.[viii]

That we live in a society where “deaths of despair” has become an often-used term should deeply sadden us. The number of hospital admissions for suicidal teens has doubled between 2007 and 2017.[ix] Since 1990, the number of deaths due to drug overdose has increased by 500 percent.[x] The suicide rate went up by 21 percent between the years 2006 and 2015.[xi]

A recent Time article indicates that deaths of despair are on the rise in the millennial generation, and the lack of social support is partially to blame.[xii]

While our relationships and communities disintegrate around us, we are driven into further isolation by the demands and expectation of the culture around us. For example, many working professionals are now looking to their jobs for the sense of meaning and purpose that community relationships once provided.[xiii]

Every statistic tells us that unless we do something, our loneliness epidemic is only going to get worse.

Less Busy, More Connected

Americans are lonelier, busier, and more overworked than we have ever been. One of the greatest cultural crises facing the Church today is the epidemic of loneliness and the erosion of our local communities. The absence of friendship and communal practices have led to a loss of social capital, support networks, and empathy for others. If we have any hope of seeing the Kingdom advance in this lonely world, the local church needs to become the communal epicenter that God intends for us to be.

One of the greatest cultural crises facing the Church today is the epidemic of loneliness and the erosion of our local communities.

The local church has unfortunately played right into the practices of our culture. The average church member does not feel as if their church community is a safe place to share their deepest fears and desires. While church members become busier and busier, attendance and participation in the life of the church declines. And what is our solution? We create more potential activities for members to be involved in. We buy into the cultural message that busyness is next to godliness, creating a hectic program of church events that somehow needs to fit into the already-packed schedule of long work hours, commutes, and extra-curricular activities for kids and families.

If the local church is going to begin to develop strong local communities, we first need to humble ourselves and accept that we have been more influenced by the trends of society than we want to admit. We are going to need to take a long, hard look at our practices and be willing to change not only what we do but how we do it. We must be willing to do the hard work of adopting practices and habits that promote a life that is less busy and more connected to people, thus embracing the things that really matter.

If the local church is going to begin to develop strong local communities, we first need to humble ourselves and accept that we have been more influenced by the trends of society than we want to admit.

The hardest things in the Christian life are always the most precious – but they also take the most effort for us to bring about. We will never simply drift into deep and formative community. What might this look like for local churches and church members? Below are several ideas that might serve to start a conversation in your local church.

  • The three pillars a local church needs to create deep and formative community are: 1) Honoring the Lord’s Day and corporate worship (Exodus 20:8, 1 Corinthians 16:2, Hebrews 10:25), 2) High participation in community groups that can only be explained by the gospel (these groups bring people from different backgrounds, cultures, sexes, and generations together), and 3) A spirit of hospitality amongst church members that is inviting to our surrounding community (Acts 2:46, Romans 15:7). If participation in any of these three areas of your local church is low, then it is worth asking why that is and what needs to change to correct that problem. Everything else is secondary.
  • Church leaders must model hospitality for their congregation (1 Timothy 3:2). Pastors ought to regularly train officers (elders and deacons) on how to grow in hospitality. Hospitality is not a “feminine attribute.” The men in the church who have been elected to lead must model it for the church.
  • Any discipleship program in the church ought to be formative in developing counter-cultural habits and practices. Two great resources (there are more) to use are You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith and The Common Rule by Justin Whitmel Early.
  • Local churches must be a safe place to share our deepest desires and fears. Church leaders may choose to lead by being vulnerable themselves, but a firm identity in Christ and the freedom to be vulnerable should also be a repeated theme we teach on in our churches.
  • In an over-worked and crazy busy culture, we need to be intentional about prioritizing and celebrating rest in our churches. This begins with church leaders who can model rest well. It also means paying attention to the added stress we may be creating on volunteers. Many church volunteers burn the candle at both ends – overworked in their jobs, and overworked in the church. This should not be.
  • To develop empathy with people from different backgrounds or cultures, churches ought to encourage their members to read books or articles that come from different perspectives. This also serves in creating the ability to listen well.
  • Church members need to be taught the difference between entertainment and hospitality. Entertainment focuses on putting on a good show and making sure everyone has a good time. Hospitality invites people into the ordinary and messy parts of our lives.
  • Christians must be present in those places where relationships can still be found and formed in our local community. We need to be engaged with the people around us, display our Christian friendships in front of them, and invite them into the fellowship that we share in Christ. A local church that is unknown to the local restaurants, clubhouses, coffee shops, gyms, etc. is a church that has little hope of creating deep community.
  • Local churches must be intentional about creating communities with depth for its members but also bridges for new members to join in the life of the church. A great resource for looking at practices of a strong community is The Art of Community by Charles Vogl.

It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. The crisis of loneliness is not going to cure itself. Capturing the seriousness of the task before us, Jake Meador says this:

It is not simply Christian community that is in danger but the very notion of community. The crisis is not one of ascendant secularism prepared to batter Christianity into oblivion. It is rather one of a comprehensive social breakdown that leaves no corner of life untouched, no person immune to its effects. What we are seeing is a comprehensive crisis of public life.

But there is hope. Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and that gives us great purpose to pursue our calling to be the salt and light in a dark and broken world that God would have us become.

[i]Johann Hari, Lost Connections, pg. 83

[ii]Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens, pg. 362

[iii]Jake Meador, In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World, pg. 37

[iv]Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21stCentury, pg. 87

[v]Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone, pg. 100.

[vi]Henry Fountain, “The Lonely American Just Got a Bit Lonelier,” New York Times, July 2, 2006. Cited in Meador, In Search of the Common Good,pg. 35.

[vii]“New Cigna Study Reveals Loneliness at Epidemic Levels in America,” Cigna, May 1, 2018, Cited in Meador, In Search of the Common Good,pg. 35.

[viii]See: Jayne O’Donnell and Shari Rudavsky, “Young Americans are the Loneliest, Surprising Study from Cigna shows,” USA Today.Also, “Many Americans are Lonely, and Gen Z Most of All, Study Finds,” CBS News. Cited in Meador, In Search of the Common Good,pg. 35.

[ix]Benoit Denizen-Lewis, “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety?”, The New York Times. Accessed October 11, 2017.

[x]Josh Katz, “You Draw It: Just How Bad Is the Drug Overdose Epidemic?” New York Times.Cited in Meador, In Search of the Common Good,pg. 43.

[xi]“Suicide Statistics,” American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Cited in Meador, In Search of the Common Good,pg. 43.

[xii]Jamie Ducharme, “More Millennials are Dying Deaths of Despair,” Time.

[xiii]Derek Thompson, “Workism is making Americans miserable.” The Atlantic.Accessed February 25, 2019.


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