By Mary Wiley
As we collectively walk through what is sure to be one of the defining moments of our generation, there’s a stealthier epidemic proliferating in our midst.
A Health Resources & Services Administration study found 43% of seniors feel lonely on a regular basis, resulting in a 45% increased risk of mortality and a health impact similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
A Psychology Today survey in late 2019 showed seniors aren’t the only group dealing with loneliness. The loneliest group included in this particular survey were Millennials.
I’d love to think that these statistics are far from true within our churches, but anecdotally, what I see in my local church and the churches I have connection points with would indicate these are probably frighteningly accurate in both accounts.
Social media has left my generation distracted, seeking approval from algorithms rather than people who know and love us on our good days and our bad days.
In many cases, we’ve traded depth of relationship for breadth of relationships who might give us our desired dopamine hit by double tapping our photos online.
Our concept of beauty has even been affected, as 20-and-30-somethings flood plastic surgery offices seeking the perfect “Instagram face,” while feeling wholly unknown and unloved in a culture that will cancel you for a single misstep as quickly as it elevated you to stardom.
We chase a fleeting promise of connection, of love, and of relationship before we find it’s a phantom, leaving a vacuum of loneliness in its place.
In a time when our world is more individualistic than ever before, the fall-out of me-centric thinking is multiple generations who lose connection and close relationships with loved ones.
I find myself guilty of being in the same room as those I love while scrolling through images on my phone of those I don’t even personally know, and I imagine I’m not the only one who has felt the conviction of creating a scenario where it’s easy to feel alone in a crowded room.
So, as a global pandemic that has created more isolation than we’ve ever experienced continues, how can we as a church respond to the crisis around us—for all generations? How can a theology of presence inform your response to the lonely in your church?
1. God’s good gift after salvation is His presence.
Our God is a personal, near, communal God. This is not someone you check in with on social media and go on about your day. He is not a watchmaker, far from His creation. He is separate and exalted, yet near.
Union with Christ conveys to us His right position in full access to God’s presence and His presence with us is seen in His continual intercession for us before God.
The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is our plumb line; our most faithful companion in suffering. Our God is present in our lives, and He cares.
Loneliness will be no more upon Jesus’ return, but we have access to the Father through union with the Son and the indwelling of the Spirit. From the garden, presence has been a purpose God has been working out so that He might be with His people.
In the tent of meeting, the tabernacle, with Moses on Mt. Sinai, the temple, with Jacob wrestling in the dark, in the work of the kings and judges and the words of prophets, and ultimately, in Christ and the Holy Spirit, God has been working to be with His people.
God both fully knows and fully loves His children, and He will never leave them alone. Teaching this truth is an excellent reminder of God’s intentional presence with His people.
Let’s also remember the greatest element of the curse: isolation. Adam and Eve were removed from the garden, separated from the God with whom they held close communion.
Isolation is also one of Satan’s biggest ploys in falling the faithful. He took Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days to tempt Him (Matthew 4:1-11) and made sure to have Eve alone before convincing her to disobey God.
Isolation makes us vulnerable, but knowing God and His Word (as Jesus did in the wilderness) and having the support of others strengthens.
2. God’s Church is to be a conveyer of His presence.
God’s promise of His presence is for His people—for His Church. There’s belonging to Him that creates intimacy of relationship.
Likewise, we must be diligent to create belonging through membership. Being known and loved best happens within committed relationships, and both teaching and modeling membership establishes both a means to being known and loved and a means to accountability to know and love others.
The Church is the body of Christ, the outpost of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the collective representative of God on earth.
The Church is a family; spiritual family trees bearing far more fruit than biological ones. Familial love is intentional, unconditional, and often probing. A family holds the status of presence with one another.
3. Jesus was embodied among His people.
John 1 announces Jesus as God’s Word who has become flesh and made his dwelling among His people.
Eugene Peterson paraphrased John 1:14 as the moment Jesus “moved into the neighborhood.” Jesus as God with us, Immanuel, was personal and present.
Does your church know where your people live? Are there shepherds within neighborhoods who can check in, even during a global pandemic? Jesus practiced radical hospitality and was present with people.
From the youngest to the oldest, loneliness will creep in from time to time, but know your church will be checking in and asking the tough questions, is only a phone call away, and really truly cares can be a balm to the lonely.
There will be no cure for loneliness until Jesus returns, as it is a rite of passage of our human condition, but God has been in the business of relieving the curse through His work and His people since the beginning of time.
The Church—your church—can be the answer to the loneliness epidemic, even during a global pandemic in this way.
Let us remember how God is present and patient with us, practicing presence with others knowing that we may not be the cure for another’s loneliness (or our own), but we might certainly relieve some of the pressure from its weight.
There’s no amount of social media consumption, event attendance, or even family gatherings that can remove the tentacles of the evil one in our world through the work of loneliness, but we can be aware of the perils, watch for those who might be falling into its snare, and snatch them out of harm’s way as we embody our theology of His presence.
MARY WILEY (@marycwiley) is the author of Everyday Theology: What You Believe Matters and holds an MA in theological studies from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She and her husband, John, have two children and live in the Nashville area. She works in publishing and hosts the Questions Kids Ask podcast.