So Lonely

Can you hear Sting’s unique voice repeating the chorus, “So lonely, so lonely (I feel so lonely)” in the Police’s 1978 anthem to loneliness and isolation?

Sting was once asked if it was ironic singing this song to large crowds. He replied, “No, there’s no irony whatsoever. From the outside it might look a bit strange, being surrounded by all this attention and yet experiencing the worst lonely feeling…but I do. And then suddenly the attention is withdrawn a half an hour later. You’re so isolated….”

Nearly five decades later, increasingly, loneliness and isolation impact all ages and demographics. It’s not just the young or the old, the rich or the poor, the urban or the rural. It’s an epidemic around the world. Just like Sting could feel lonely standing in front of thousands of adoring fans, everywhere we find people who identify with the Police’s anthem to loneliness.

A Loneliness Epidemic

A little more than a year ago, the United States Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued an advisory about this epidemic of loneliness and isolation. Murthy noted, “Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight—one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives. Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders.”

This situation is not unique to America, and its impacts on physical and mental health are significant. According to the US Surgeon General, the consequences of loneliness and isolation include “a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease, a 32 percent increased risk of stroke, and a 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. Additionally, lacking social connection increases risk of premature death by more than 60 percent.”

Furthermore, a lack of social connection and social support impacts our mental health: “the risk of developing depression among people who report feeling lonely often is more than double that of people who rarely or never feel lonely.” The combined risks to our health due to this loneliness epidemic, according to a meta-analysis co-authored by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a Brigham Young University psychologist and neuroscientist, “are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity.”

This is why the Surgeon General issued the advisory. “With more than one in five adults and more than one in three young adults living with a mental illness in the U.S., addressing loneliness and isolation is critical in order to fully address the mental health crisis in America.”

I see a new headline about the crisis of isolation every couple weeks—whether it involves clergy, young people, older adults, or the general public. With each one, I begin to hear the “So Lonely” earworm and then wonder how the church can help.

The Benefits of Social Support

I’ve spent a good bit of time with scholarly literature around the ways regular church attendance is good for our health. Numerous rigorous studies have shown that people who attend church regularly live longer and fare better than non-attenders on various measures of health and wellbeing. One of the most common explanations for why we see these benefits is social support.

Knowing the prayer chain is lifting us up to God, receiving meals, receiving rides to and from medical appointments, and fellowshipping within a regular church gathering (be it a small group, Sunday school class, college ministry, or prayer breakfast)—all provide a measurable boost to our overall health.

Yet, medical researchers wonder how to foster connection and social support to address the crisis of loneliness and social isolation. Science magazine recently reported that while the WHO suggests joining clubs or pursing hobbies, “the reality is that ‘we don’t know what works for which person,” said King’s College London psychologist Samia Akhter-Khan.

Certainly, in countries with low levels of religiosity, the potential of congregations to address a public health crisis is limited. That leaves researchers searching for possible interventions which include “resources for individuals—from chat services and support groups to social skills training and robotic pets—and broader policy changes such as increasing transportation access or creating shared public space.” Yet, most of these new approaches have not been carefully researched like the work in spirituality and health which has repeatedly shown the benefits of regular participation in religious congregations.

Even in America, where church participation is declining, there are congregations within a few miles of nearly all our homes. With some intention, these are places where we can find and give the social support our society needs.

“I Am With You Always”

Matthew’s Gospel and the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) end with these words from Jesus, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” That is a good reassurance that we don’t need to feel so lonely.

However, the wider context for these comforting words is the assignment of tasks the church is called to pursue. New Testament scholar Eric Barreto writes, “These are towering demands, lofty calls certainly. They require followers of Jesus to experience a radical transformation to see neighbors where we previously saw the ‘other,’ to seek God’s people wherever they might be. But these are not lonely tasks, for Jesus promises to walk with us, to accompany us in the difficult but transformative work of going and making and baptizing and teaching.”

Following the Great Commission may be a solution to the loneliness epidemic. We invite everyone, especially the lonely, to become disciples, baptized, and taught in the ways of Jesus through participation in the Body of Christ, the Church.

Led by clergy and choirs, we gather each week to worship, for fellowship, and to be commissioned by Jesus just like those first disciples who launched the church. This is precisely the context where we can find the healing that comes with social support and where we can offer a better anthem for our feelings of loneliness, one that reminds us that Jesus is with us always.

“What a friend we have in Jesus
All our sins and griefs to bear
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!

Can we find a friend so faithful
Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness
Take it to the Lord in prayer.”


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