A Church for a Lonely World
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).
First on the Surgeon General's list is to "Strengthen Social Infrastructure": "Connections are not just influenced by individual interactions, but by the physical elements of a community (parks, libraries, playgrounds) and the programs and policies in place. To strengthen social infrastructure, communities must design environments that promote connection, establish and scale community connection programs, and invest in institutions that bring people together."
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?"
The book Ammerman referenced is "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community". The book, published in 2001, was a best seller about the collapse of community participation. Then, one of the culprits was cable television. The title comes from the decline in a once incredibly popular past-time: bowling. (Muncie is a great example of this: the own once boasted five bowling allies, we now have two). The trend has only continued in the years since its publication, it seems.
Dr. Ammerman is right to point out that congregations have declined and this might be part of the story worth investigating.
Ryan Burge, a researcher of American religious trends, is one of many who has documented the decline of congregational participation.¹
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."
Typically, calls for a renewed cultural Christianity are interested in Christianity primarily because it is believed to be socially effective at promoting good moral values, or to have good effects for a community, rather than primarily because it is true.
Cultural Christianity values Christianity and the church primarily for its social function.
I could link at least half-a-dozen online essays arguing in favor of cultural Christianity. But I think many will know what I am talking about without a full length argument.
But, there are reasons to doubt that a promotion of a specifically "cultural Christianity" will be a solution to this loneliness epidemic.
To be clear, the church has an answer for, and responsibility to address, loneliness. It's also true our faith affects how we live our lives, including in the public square. But neither of those are seen in "Cultural Christianity" alone.
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
Pastor Wade Allen, the previous pastor before Kendall and I began as Co-Pastors, received a Lily-Grant to study "Post-Christendom" in Europe. It's worth noting:
that many European countries have state churches (something Baptists, as "dissenters," have always opposed),
mandated time off for Christian holidays (you can get fined for running your lawn mower on Good Friday in Germany!),
and plenty of public and tax support for Christian Churches,
and yet church attendance and Christian-affiliation has decreased even faster in Europe than in the United States.
Second, a promotion of cultural Christianity underestimates how "cultural Christianity," or Christendom, might actually distort the uniqueness of the Christian message and witness.
Scripture warns repeatedly of having the form of religion, but denying the power thereof (2 Timothy 3:5). Jesus himself lived in a highly openly religious society. A moral and religious society was not enough: Jesus was not impressed with the public prayers of the Pharisees. (Matthew 6:5-6).
Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish Philosopher, wrote "Attack Upon Christendom" shortly before he died. In it he said, bitingly, about his own country (where cultural Christianity reigned supreme): “What we have before us is not Christianity but a prodigious illusion, and the people are not pagans but live in the blissful conceit that they are Christians. So if in this situation Christianity is to be introduced, first of all the illusion must be disposed of.”
There is always a danger with cultural Christianity in that it is more interested in institutions using social effects of the Gospel. Often, the church proclaiming and living the good news becomes, first, an afterthought and, in the end, forgotten.
Ultimately, the main issue with cultural Christianity is this: it is not the way of Jesus.
It is not how Jesus talks about the reason he came, and what his followers are to do. There were plenty of religious zealots, revolutionaries, and others who were eager and prepared to take the reigns of both the government and the Temple. Jesus refused control of both.
Now, clearly, following Christ affects all that we do, but it is clear that Jesus did not come primarily to gain control of government institutions or create a robust program of civic piety. We see this when Pilate questions Jesus:
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36, NIV)
When Jesus says, "Take up your cross and follow me," it should be clear he is not seeking a generic piety but complete devotion from his disciples. We will have to look elsewhere than a romanticized version of American Protestantism's past (say the 1950s or 1960s) to find what Jesus desires.
Instead, we need to look at what Christ ordains: a church, the outpost of the Kingdom of God, the community called according to his name which believes and repents. It's the community united in the Spirit, and known by the practices Jesus gave them: Baptism and the Lord's Supper.
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.
My point is that if we really pay attention to what is going on—with the loneliness, disconnection, and fanaticism disguised as “conviction”—we can see that the local church is, in many ways, not the problem but the solution. This is true not only because churches provide a place of connection that works against loneliness. And it’s not only because churches give a sense of purpose and meaning beyond screaming into the void of cyberspace. It’s not only because churches that train people to evangelize signal that one’s neighbors are a mission field, not a battlefield. All those things are true and important. But, far more importantly, Jesus told us he would come to us, uniquely, within the context of church fellowship (Matt. 18:20)—in the breaking of bread, in the building each other up with spiritual gifts, in the encouraging one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. If the church is what we believe it to be—a body connected to a Head (Eph. 4:15–16; 5:29–30)—then we know that we are shaped, formed, and made holy mostly through a set of rhythms and practices we often don’t even notice is changing us. And the whole body is “supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews” as we grow (Col. 2:19). - "When The South Loosens Its Bible Belt," August 11th, 2022, Christianity Today
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
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.
People may come to the church for bread. They may come because they are lonely, and a friend invited them. They may come because they lack direction, and they're hoping for wisdom. They may even come because a lingering (albeit fading) cultural Christianity makes them think it's a good and moral thing to do.
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.
Loneliness is a terrible thing to bear. It is debilitating to bear alone (and in fact, the great irony of loneliness is how impossible it is to bear alone). We have the promise of the Holy Spirit to be with us when we are lonely. God's Spirit is with us personally, and God's love and presence is also known to us through the hands and work of others. Both are important.
There is an English prayer book prayer meant to prayed in the deep of night which says:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.
There are many things I love about this prayer. One is that it says "Keep watch, dear Lord with..." The Lord is with us. That is the meaning of a title of Jesus: "Emmanuel."
Then, when you have prayed generally, make a list of people specifically:
Of friends to check in on: make a plan to meet up and stow away your excuses!
Of neighbors you see but have not spoken with: could you connect with them, with a card, or a home made plate of cookies, or simply by checking-in?
Of people you cross paths with at work, or school, that you can listen to. Ten minutes of someone really listening, just might change someone's day - if not more.
Here comes the hard part: write down days and times and ways you'll try to connect with each person. Try to find one simple way to connect with someone you haven't spoken with in a while. You may be surprised on the connections you make. You may even be surprised when the person you're making less lonely is not only other people, but yourself.
Stash the Phone and Get Out — the same thing which makes community hard is what makes it worth it.
Fair warning: I'm a hypocrite on this one. I'm on my phone a lot. I'm what people call "too online." That said, speaking personally, as "always connected" as we might feel with our smart phones, there are limits to that connection.
Real community demands things from us. I can mute people who irritate me on social media. I can turn off videos or switch the channel. I cannot do that when someone says something I disagree with in Sunday School. And yet, the person I disagree with in Sunday School might be the person who is first to bring me a meal when a loved one dies.
Just this morning, I thought I would just work from home all day. I decided to go to a local coffee shop instead. I saw a church member there, unplanned. It made a real positive difference to be out and speak to others. This might sound like "grumpy old man" advice, but I'm afraid it's legitimate and among the most practical things you can do. Aim to be in community with people with whom you disagree from time to time, but you also love.
"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.
If you are a Christian, invite a friend to church. We can't wait for people to magically walk into our building or for a cultural Christianity to share the good news "for us" (it was never capable of that, anyway). We have to extend Christian love and hospitality personally. For us as a Church, this requires us to get to know our neighbors! Yes, I'm talking to you! I'm even talking to me! All of us!
If you are not a Christian, but are curious (but unsure) about Christian community, we'd love to invite you to join us. Whatever draws you to seek God may be a way he meets you— but fair warning: God tends to give us more than we are looking for... in the best way.
And if you're unsure what to expect, this website has a "What To Expect" on Sunday page, and a Contact Page as well. We'd love to speak with you. "Christian Community" is a phrase which can be read about in theory, but only makes sense in practice.
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