In a recently released advisory, the U.S. Surgeon General raised an alarm about the “devastating impact of the epidemic of loneliness and isolation in America,” citing harm to individual and societal health and calling on the nation to “prioritize building social connection.”
At the same time, studies show a continuing decline in the percentage of Americans who regularly visit the one place where the ultimate connection is formed and joyful, relational communities thrive — their neighborhood church.
What if this is not merely a coincidence or an ominous indictment on American culture? What if this present moment represents a tremendous opportunity for the church to do what it does best and to grow?
Is it possible that “times such as these” were made for the church to demonstrate God’s love in action and to introduce our neighbors — or bring former members back — to caring Christian communities? What if ministering to the silently suffering among us is not another responsibility for pastors, but a calling for entire congregations?
“What if ministering to the silently suffering among us is not another responsibility for pastors, but a calling for entire congregations?”
Our current mental health epidemic is not unlike the physical health plagues of earlier centuries when the church discovered significant opportunities to truly be the church. And while its purported growth in response to Christians remaining in towns to care for the sick may seem apocryphal, Martin Luther’s vow during the Bubonic Plague of 1527 (“If my neighbor needs me … I will go freely”) should inspire us to do the same.
Without question, God has well-positioned the church to lead the battle against this modern-day plague, but it’s worth examining the facts behind our society’s growing sense of loneliness, the decline in church attendance, and the relevance of our core belief in a triune, relational God.
The loneliness epidemic
Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, defines loneliness as “a subjective distressing experience that results from perceived isolation or inadequate meaningful connections, where inadequate refers to the discrepancy or unmet need between an individual’s preferred and actual experience.”
A lack of social connection, he continues, is as dangerous and can increase the risk of premature death as much as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
Indeed, Murthy’s 64-page advisory paints a dire picture of the consequences social isolation can inflict on individual health and well-being. These include a 29% increase in the risk of heart disease, 32% increase in the risk of stroke and 50% increase in risk of developing dementia in older adults.
Even more alarming is recent reports that one-third of teenage girls in America seriously considered attempting suicide in 2021. Suicide rates across all populations have increased nearly 30% in less than 20 years.
Most respondents to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey said they found it harder to form relationships now, and a quarter of them felt anxious about socializing. The biggest source of anxiety (shared by 29%) was “not knowing what to say or how to interact.”
According to estimates, loneliness and isolation are more widespread than smoking, diabetes and obesity. The fact is, we live in a country where more than one in six adults say they are depressed. And we know that such depression is caused by or exacerbated by a lack of meaningful social connection.
“We live in a country where more than one in six adults say they are depressed.”
Despite — or perhaps because of — the ubiquity of digital devices and advances in technology that have led to vast social media networks, virtual meetings, shared online gaming platforms, Facetime conversations, online dating and other means of digitally enabled connections, only 39% of adults in the U.S. feel very connected to others.
Would you ever have imagined we would become a society wherein more than one-half of all adults exist with no meaningful relational connection?
Communities also have been affected by social disconnectedness, as evidenced by the increase in gun violence, theft, vandalism and poverty. Cities, towns and neighborhoods where residents are more connected with one another fare better on several measures of population health, community safety, community resilience when natural disasters strike, prosperity and civic engagement. The advisory also notes one standard deviation increase in social connectedness has been associated with a 21% reduction in murders and a 20% decrease in vehicle thefts.
The decline of the church
Once the social and spiritual centers of communities throughout America, today the church is struggling. Even before the pandemic, church attendance was declining at a rapid pace. The number of U.S. adults who identified with Protestantism dropped from 51% in 2009 to 43% today, and the number of those identifying with Catholicism dropped from 23% to 20%. Now Protestant pastors are reporting typical church attendance is only 85% of pre-pandemic levels.
According to a Gallup poll released this past December, American religion already was trending in that direction. More than a third of Americans surveyed said they had stopped attending religious services regularly in their lifetimes.
This aligns with a report by the Survey Center on American Life which found that in 2022, just over a third of respondents said they attend church at least once a year. Another third reported never attending religious services, a stark 8% increase in just the past two years.
Sadly, attendance has dropped most dramatically among young adults. In 2019, 36% of 18- to 34-year-olds attended church at least once or twice a month. That has fallen to just 26% now.
God and the church
The loneliness epidemic gives Christians an enormous opportunity to model the supportive and nurturing environment that is the defining characteristic of Christian spirituality, thus reflecting the nature of our God.
Our God does not exist in isolation. The Godhead consists of three persons, who are intimately connected with each other. God did not create humankind to live an isolated existence, either.
God has called out and formed a people (ekklesia) — through the death and resurrection of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit — to live together in covenant with God and with one another. Covenant speaks of love, accountability and being there for one another.
So, despite the troubling overall narrative and mood on the Christian landscape, we cannot wring our hands but instead must declare boldly, “We are here because God is here. God is at work and answers in the form of healing and hope.”
We must take a lead in facing the epidemic of social isolation, but at issue are such fundamental questions as: What is behind the epidemic? Who in our congregations and outside community need friendship and connection? And how do we deliver grace in ways that will be accepted?
Certainly, there are myriad cultural and age-related nuances that must be considered to build connections. Many young people may not know the difference between the quality of relationships online and in-person; but they do know the profound loneliness that comes from artificial connections.
Some theologians have claimed churches lack ways of speaking about friendship theologically and of developing friendship as a genuine practice of community. So, are we equal to equip, encourage and inspire people to be connectors?
“We need to have conversations in our congregations about loneliness and the prevailing sense of isolation.”
At a minimum, we need to have conversations in our congregations about loneliness and the prevailing sense of isolation, as well as how the church is called to embody the opposite: a community of hospitality, care and covenanted friendships.
There are insights and wisdom in every church, and we can draw from the gifts, experiences and ideas of missionaries, youth pastors, Sunday school leaders, ministry directors and others. Our leaders and the people of our congregations need to share and pray about how the church is uniquely empowered to address the social epidemic that’s plaguing our land. The conversation can address the lonely and isolated within each church, then extend outward to reach those who are suffering beyond the gathered community.
As the president of a seminary, I am challenging my faculty to address how theological schools can put a special emphasis on teaching skills that help pastors and church leaders build connections. We cannot assume seminary students already have the needed social skills to meet the complex challenges of our present culture. Should theological education become more interdisciplinary, integrating psychology, sociology, anthropology and other related disciplines to address the causes and effects of social isolation?
I also challenge my fellow pastors and church leaders to address how we involve and equip our congregants to reach out to their neighbors, to identify the disconnected among them and to invite them into meaningful belonging to discover real community, real love and the joy of serving one another.
This present moment may be one of the most significant opportunities the church ever has faced, and we must enter this conversation to discover God’s specific solutions for the growing challenges and ongoing negative effects of social disconnectedness.
This truly represents an amazing and exciting opportunity for the church to be the church. We most certainly represent the solution, and we must step into this present cultural reality with loving care, commitment and, most of all, hope.
Kenneth R. Pruitt serves as president of Leland Seminary in Arlington, Va.
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