By all accounts, most Americans have fewer friends and are lonelier than at any point in our nation’s history. The percentage of men who have at least six close friends dropped from 55 percent to 27 percent since 1990. In the same timeframe, the number of men with no close friends increased five-fold, from 3 percent to 15 percent. A third of American citizens over 65 live alone, and the number jumps to half by age 85.
The effects of loneliness are catastrophic. Loneliness is more dangerous for middle-aged men than smoking and obesity. Data from a longitudinal study of 3.5 million people over 35 years showed that people who fall into categories of being lonely or isolated see a 26 to 32 percent rise in their premature death rate.
This crisis has only been exacerbated by the lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic. People have been even more isolated than usual – working from home and watching church online. It is not difficult to see how this could become a full-blown health crisis with effects that will last long after COVID-19 cases decrease.
There are very few easy answers to dealing with the loneliness epidemic, but one thing is certain – the church has a major role to play in helping people who are trapped in paralyzing loneliness. In fact, the church is our culture’s best hope for connecting lonely and hurting people with others who can offer companionship and healing.
The New Testament uses several metaphors to describe the church, and all of them are relational. The church is a building with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone, which means that we are all bricks, living interconnected lives with all of us rightly connected to Christ. The church is a body, and we are all members of this body. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians, one body part cannot say to another, “I don’t need you.” We all need each other.
Also, and perhaps most importantly, the church is a family. God is our father. We are his sons and daughters, which makes us brothers and sisters. We are the family of God, and each of us has a place at the table. If a member of the family is lonely or in pain, then that affects every single one of us and should move us to act.
There are practical solutions we should incorporate. Christians can help alleviate this crisis by reviving the ancient Christian practice of showing hospitality. This doesn’t mean inviting people over for an elaborate dinner party, but rather opening your home to others. In sharing a meal or coffee, you can enter into meaningful conversation with others and build a genuine friendship.
Jesus modeled this practice. In fact, Jesus ate at the table so often that he was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton. The people who gathered with him around the table came from such rough backgrounds that he was accused of being “a friend of sinners.” The accusation was true. He was and still is. I’m grateful for it, otherwise, he would have nothing to do with me. His example compels us to look for opportunities to welcome others around the table, showing them the same grace that we have received.
For many of us, we will have to rearrange our lives to create a margin for other people. The current pace of life most of us have chosen is not sustainable. Americans now spend twice as much time with their children as parents did thirty years ago while also working longer hours. Most of the time we spend with our children is not quality time but rather spent taking them to yet another practice or rehearsal.
What if we got home and started taking walks around the neighborhood? Make it a regular practice, and you will start seeing people and get to know them. Spend time in the front yard of your house rather than indoors or in the back yard. This will help you meet other people who are moving about the neighborhood. Go to the coffee shop or a restaurant on the same day and at the same time each week. Don’t spend your time with your head in your phone, but rather look for opportunities to talk to other people.
For church leaders, we are going to have to be proactive as well. “Church” has become more synonymous with Sunday worship time than ever. And while people may hear the sermons online, and we are glad when they do, other important aspects of church life cannot be replicated online. We must think through how we can get our churches back in circles, talking, sharing life around the table, and serving our communities shoulder to shoulder.
Loneliness is a real problem. It is driving many people to despair, depression, and anxiety. The church has the answer, both in the Lord Jesus, who is a friend who sticks closer than a brother, and in the life we share together as the body of Christ.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
Photo courtesy: S. Hermann & F. Richter/Pixabay
Scott Slayton writes at “One Degree to Another.”