Another Epidemic - but this one is called an "Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation."
Over the past 24 hours, there has been quite a bit of conversation about an alarming report released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Surgeon General. The report details the devastating health impacts of loneliness and isolation. ("New Surgeon General Advisory Raises Alarm about the Devastating Impact of the Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation in the United States," May 3rd, 2023).
From 2003- 2020, the time Americans spent alone increased. And the time they spent with others (family, friends, colleagues) decreased.
The category labeled "social engagement with friends" decreased by a startling 20 hours per month.
This, as you can imagine, is correlated with all sorts of negative emotional and psychological ills:
even greater risks for various physical ailments.
In short, more isolation and loneliness is bad for human well-being.
Naturally, the question is: Why?
Why has this happened? And what is to be done about it?
Of course, there are many possible contributing factors: from technology (rise of social media) to the decline of social organizations (Lions Club, Kiwanis, Optimist Club, and, yes, Christian churches).
The Surgeon General lists its recommendations based on the report on its website, including the need for more opportunities for both community and connection.
The Report called this "social infrastructure" (expand to see more).
That churches might be part of the story has sometimes been missed by media coverage of this epidemic of loneliness. A retired Sociologist of Religion, Nancy Ammerman, posted on social media, criticizing National Public Radio's reporting on this epidemic of loneliness:
What is "Bowling Alone?"
Dr. Ammerman is right to point out that congregations have declined and this might be part of the story worth investigating.
What is the church's response?
(click to expand headings for more information)
Is "Cultural Christianity" the answer?
For some Christians, trends like the ones discussed above these have inspired calls for a resurgence of a sort of "cultural Christianity."
Cultural Christianity values Christianity and the church primarily for its social function.
But, there are reasons to doubt that a promotion of a specifically "cultural Christianity" will be a solution to this loneliness epidemic.
A Few Problems with "Cultural Christianity"
First, some of the issue is with the premise itself: that the church would be the most efficient or effective means of organizing social change if only we could promote it via control of cultural institutions or the power of the government. This has not borne the desired results in Europe.²
Second, a promotion of cultural Christianity underestimates how "cultural Christianity," or Christendom, might actually distort the uniqueness of the Christian message and witness.
Ultimately, the main issue with cultural Christianity is this: it is not the way of Jesus.
The End of Our Search
While the issue of loneliness, modern technology, and twenty-first century society is undeniably modern, I un-apologetically believe we must turn to the ancient witness of Holy Scripture as we consider the church's response. There's no way around it: we have to go to the Bible.
Looking to Scripture, in response to the epidemic of loneliness, I hope Christians can hold two things in our head at once:
- I. "To Seek First the Kingdom and His Righteousness" and - II. "People come for bread, but stay for the Bread of Life."
I. Seeking First The Kingdom & His Righteousness
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives instructions on material possessions that are among his hardest and most ignored teachings. I know this, because (unfortunately) I've ignored them many times.
Jesus's command is not to worry about what you will eat or drink, or what we will wear, for your Heavenly Father knows we need these things. Instead, he says:
"But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." (Matthew 6:33, NIV)
While Jesus is speaking on possessions, his words are relevant when considering this epidemic of loneliness.
When we seek other things first, such as the cultural or social goods of Christianity, we're liable to miss both those desired secondary goods and the primary truth that Jesus is Savior and Lord of all as well. As Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) said, "Our hearts are restless, O God, until they find rest in you." Seeking other things first simply wouldn't be enough, even if it were possible to get them.
Russell Moore, editor in chief of Christianity Today, pointed out that the church is the solution to our loneliness not merely because it is a place of connection but because Christ has promised to be with us there.
Community can not be sought for its own sake. All community exists for some reason. If we try to have community for its own sake alone, we'll find community has quickly become an idol.
Instead, we must seek first The Kingdom and his righteousness, and then we will find we are necessarily drawn up into the community we call the church.³
Community Comes With Commitment (expand to see our church pledge)
II. People Come For Bread, But Stay For The Bread Of Life
We are to seek first the Kingdom and His righteousness, all fine-and-good. But what about people who come to church for other reasons?
I am glad to welcome anyone who wants to visit our church and participate in the life of our congregation! Anytime and always! But it is always my hope that if they come for bread, they'll stay for the bread of life.
What do I mean by that?
I take that phrasing from the Gospel of John. In the sixth chapter of John, Jesus performs one of his most famous miracles: the feeding of the 5,000. Then, he walks across a lake and appears to his disciples. Apparently surprised to see him on the other side of the lake, the crowd asks Jesus when, exactly, he got there.
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill." (v. 26, NIV)
The people do not come because they saw and understood the signs, but because of the bread. They come because their stomachs are filled. They come because they had a deep need, and looked to Jesus to fulfill it.
People came to Jesus looking for bread. And he gave them bread. But he would not leave them there. He told them he had greater food than that! The crowd asked him what that might be.
"Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." (v. 35, NIV)
But at this difficult teaching, many left. Many had known him since he was a boy and were in disbelief that Jesus could teach things like that he came from Heaven, or that he himself is the Bread of Life. His own disciples said, "This is a hard teaching who can accept it?" (v. 60).
When Jesus asks his closest followers, the Twelve, if they, too, will turn back and no longer follow him, Simon Peter responds:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69, NIV)
The Disciples were no less amazed than the people that Jesus provided bread. They each may have had their own reasons for seeking after Jesus to start. The same may be true with the body of Christ, the church.
People come to church for many reasons.
But might they stay because they believe, and come to know, the Holy One of God who has the words of eternal life.
Where else can we go?
What Does A Church Do In A Lonely World?
"Interesting, could've been shorter, but lots to think about," is my best hope for what any of you who made it this far might be thinking: "But what are we supposed to do about all this loneliness?"
I don't have all the answers, but I hope I can point to a way to begin (click each to expand).
Pray and Act on behalf of the lonely — even if and when you're the one who is lonely.
Stash the Phone and Get Out — the same thing which makes community hard is what makes it worth it.
"Come And See" (John 1:39). These are among Jesus's first words to his disciples. And maybe it's a fitting word for you or a friend.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:14, NIV)
¹ It just so happens both Dr. Ammerman and Dr. Burge are Baptists in addition to being scholars in their respective fields.
² Many examples document this decline of church attendance and rise in secularization, despite having state churches, a cultural Christian heritage, state funding for Christian schools in some cases, and Christian public holidays off. For example see: "'Christianity as default is gone': the rise of a non-Christian Europe'" in The Guardian, March 20th, 2018).
³ A book-length treatment of this idea can be found in the excellent "From Isolation To Community: A Renewed Vision For Christian Life Together" by Myles Wertnz. His Substack newsletter / blog is also worth checking out.
⁴ The Peace of Christ