50 percent of Americans feel lonely some or all of the time, with younger generations reporting the highest rate of loneliness, according to a survey by health insurer Cigna. Using one of the best-known tools for measuring loneliness, Cigna polled over 20,000 respondents across the country. 40 percent of survey respondents said their relationships “lack companionship,” “aren’t meaningful” or leave them feeling “isolated from others.”
“Half of Americans view themselves as lonely,” David Cordani, president and CEO of Cigna Corp, told NPR. “I can’t help but be surprised [by that].”
For those who work in churches though, this research is less shocking. Whether through conversations with first time guests or pastoral counseling conversations with long-time members, most pastors are fully aware how common a sense of isolation is among their congregants. Many pastors feel the same. The question then is how can the church respond? Here are four ideas:
4 Ways the Church Can Combat Loneliness
Point to the Root of the Loneliness
Underneath respondents saying they’re lonely is an existential sense of separation from who they are, or better phrased, from whose they are. If the chief end of man is to know God and enjoy him forever, then the most lonely state of man is to neither know or enjoy him.
Our culture has never been more physically crowded—from cubicles, to compressed neighborhoods, to traffic jams. The problem isn’t a physical isolation, but a spiritual one. The first step the church can take in response to this survey is to say “part of what you’re feeling is a separation from the God who created you, but there’s good news …”
Expose the Myth of “Being True to Yourself”
It’s not a coincidence that loneliness is coinciding with a spiritual culture that says “be true to you.” People are told that the key to every facet of life is to find the truest expression of themselves, but this creates two negative results: 1) an inward-focused narcissism, and 2) the false belief that we can find our identity on our own.
The church’s response isn’t to say “come find something true to you” but “come follow the way of Jesus with us, together.” We discover who we are not just from connection with God, but in community with others.
Call Out the Cultural Idol
One of Cigna’s findings is that there’s a direct correlation between “screen time” and loneliness. If an idol is something that receives our attention and affection, then it’s worth considering how beholden we are to our smartphones (to be clear, on this point, this author is chief of sinners).
Everything about a smartphone is designed to keep your attention. Facebook, Twitter, email, texts, all buzz and boop and have those pesky red notification numbers that tell us “look at me!” There’s nothing inherently wrong with smartphones of course, but it’s worth considering what it means that, for many of us, walking away from our phones makes us feel uncomfortable, as though we need it with us.
And of course, an addiction to our phones keeps us from engaging with the people in our life. How often are we mindlessly looking at something online instead of making eye contact with our kids or spouse? How disengaged have we become from those around us?
It might be worth the church tackling (in a non-legalistic way) whether our smartphones have become an idol relationally disconnecting us from both God and others.
Recognize the Loneliness in Ourselves
Pastors are often the loneliest people in a crowd. Maybe this stems from the weight of leadership they carry, the sense of being on a higher spiritual plane, or the feeling that most people want something from them. Whatever the case, a pastor who is isolated will ultimately create a church culture that’s the same way.
So how can you lean into some honest friendships? Who can you reconnect with? When’s the last time you went on a date with your spouse? When’s the last time you sat with God and focused on something having nothing to do with work?
Author Kurt Vonnegut once said the most daring thing someone could do “is create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” Likewise God said it is “not good for man to be alone.” As pastors, our job is to first live in communion with God and others, and then share that community with others.
The good news is the harvest is plentiful with people longing to be called out of their isolation.