According to recent research, about half of all Americans could be considered lonely.((“Americans Are A Lonely Lot, And Young People Bear The Heaviest Burden,” NPR.org, accessed November 10, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/05/01/606588504/americans-are-a-lonely-lot-and-young-people-bear-the-heaviest-burden.)) Young people in the United States are profoundly lonely. Millennials and members of Generation Z score significantly higher on the UCLA loneliness scale than members of older generations. In short, the younger a person is, the more likely they are to be lonely, the more intense that loneliness will be, and the more ways that loneliness will present itself.
To spend time in isolation or to go through seasons of loneliness are not necessarily bad things. Throughout his ministry, Jesus would withdraw to the wilderness in order to pray (Luke 5:16). It was when Elijah was alone on Mount Horeb, after journeying through the wilderness, that Elijah intimately encountered God in “a sound of sheer silence (1 King 19:12).” It was in the stark loneliness of grieving and mourning that two women learned of and carried the news of the resurrection to the world (Matthew 28). For each of these persons, loneliness or isolation manifested in different ways and yet God met them in this loneliness and drew blessing out of it.
Yet, the loneliness that is plaguing so many young people is not temporary, nor born out of a particular event, nor a reflective or contemplative isolation.
It is a deep, abiding, and cyclical alienation from other people.
This isn’t healthy. Chronic loneliness can have similar health effects to smoking.((Sean Coughlan, “Loneliness More Likely in Young People,” April 10, 2018, sec. Family & Education, https://www.bbc.com/news/education-43711606.)) This isn’t holy. We are a people created to be in community who worship a God who invites us into relationship with Godself.
A few months ago I found myself in the basement of my church sharing greasy pizza with about twenty young adults. So many of these young folks are new to town and searching for community. So many people find meaning and hope in the Sunday morning worship services and want to go a little bit deeper. So many of these young people gave voice to the realities the present article is trying to express. My heart softened and expanded as I listened to their hopes and visions for what they are looking for in young adult ministries. Friends to do fun things with and with whom they can share a portion of their lives. A place they can ask faith questions honestly. People they can call on when they need support. They were all saying, in different ways, one thing, “I don’t want to be lonely.” Despite this, and despite our best efforts to offer ministries where and when people are available in ways people are interested in, sometimes folks just don’t show up.
Loneliness breeds loneliness. People who are lonely are less likely to pick up on positive cues in social engagements.((Mana Yamaguchi, Adam Smith, and Yohsuke Ohtsubo, “Loneliness Predicts Insensitivity to Partner Commitment,” Personality and Individual Differences 105 (January 15, 2017): 200–207, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.09.047.)) In response, one might choose to engage less and do fewer things. To quote comedian John Mulaney, “Percentage-wise, it’s 100% easier to not do things than to do them. . .”((“Funny Jokes | John Mulaney: Not Doing Things Joke | Comedy Central,” accessed November 12, 2018, http://jokes.cc.com/funny-partying—bad-behavior/qbwz9z/john-mulaney–not-doing-things.)) In doing this, in withdrawing to avoid the social and cognitive pain of interacting, people reinforce their sense of isolation and loneliness. The church is in a unique place where we can speak hope and community in the midst of this culture-wide isolation. I’m not quite sure what this looks like yet, but I hope these few suggestions offer ground for a wider conversation.
In an age of hyper-busyness and competing commitments, invitations are most effective when extended in person and, if necessary, reminders carried out over social media and email. We remember that God became flesh and dwelt among us, rubbing mud in eyes, touching the skin of those needing healing, and allowing the Beloved Disciple to lean on his chest. We must remember that we are not trying to sell a product; rather, we are attempting to minister to people here and now.
We deal in Word made flesh, not Good News sold cheap.
Christian hope is not a simple optimism about the future but is instead an understanding that, although the future may hold difficulty, God has been with us, is with us, and will be with us. These hopes are compressed into the current moment. As a church, we must be able to speak this hope into the lives of people:
“You are beloved and beautiful and made in the image of God.”
When we live this value we welcome people by reminding them that God is with them and so are we.
Build a Community of Grace
Can we as the church say to the person who is seeking loving community, “We’re not going anywhere?” This is a means of grace in the lives of folks who feel alienated and disconnected, who feel as if most social interactions head south. We build communities of grace when people show up not quite sure what to say, when they know they’ll be missed for who they are and not because the group will be smaller, when we create space for people to say what they mean without finishing their thoughts for them, when we take their questions seriously.
In this, we have the opportunity to reflect and indicate God’s grace because God first showed grace to us.
The church is in a unique place to minister to young, lonely people by virtue of our asking nothing of people but themselves. We have the holy obligation to create spaces where people can bring all that they are, including their anxieties and their loneliness, and be wrapped in the loving arms of the Body of Christ. In this way, we offer Good News to lonely people.