The Loneliness Epidemic, Susan Mettes (Foreword by David Kinnaman). Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021.
Summary: A study of the prevalence of loneliness in America, misconceptions about loneliness, and steps leaders and individuals in the church can take to address loneliness.
Loneliness is epidemic in America. Over half the population feel lonely at least once a week and fourteen percent all the time. Forty-five percent describe their feelings of loneliness as somewhere between intense and unbearable. Loneliness is linked to depression and suicide and affects not only mental but physical well-being. It contributes to heart disease, weakened immunity, stress, sleep disorders, and dementia.
Susan Mettes introduces us to this data, much of it drawn from Barna Research. She offers this definition of loneliness: “the distress someone feels when their social connections don’t meet their need for emotional intimacy.” She describes two kinds of loneliness. One is that for a buddy, and almost any buddy whose company we enjoy will do. The other is our longing for intimacy, not just sexually, but with people we can be our truest selves with.
One of the most fascinating parts of her study were the ways in which it punctured our stereotypes. We often think of the old as lonely, but actually, aside from the bereaved or disabled, young adults are the loneliest. The emphasis on deferring marriage to focus on education and career may contribute. We think the solution to loneliness is finding true love. While marriage can help, the quality of our relationships, single or married is most important and cultivating community that includes singles is vital. We need both privacy and belonging. Loneliness and the lack of privacy actually rise together. It is insecurity, which may have to do with status as well as self-talk, rather than poor social skills that contributes to loneliness.
Social media can supplement in-person relationships but can also make people jealous and lonely if it becomes a replacement for those relationships. Contrary to the belief that church makes people less lonely, Christians are generally as lonely as non-Christians (and may under-report due to stigma). Yet the pandemic also revealed a striking finding: that practicing Christians exhibited a resilience against loneliness when it was not possible to meet in person.
The third part of the book looks at what leaders may do to address loneliness. One is to foster belonging. One key idea here is that we often fail to follow up with those we meet to do something of mutual interest together. Another is closeness, which may be nurtured as we practice hospitality, appropriate physical touch, and neighborliness. We can also help by setting real-world norms and expectations including the reality that we all experience loneliness (even Jesus) as well as the steps that help address this, like inviting people over while puncturing unrealistic, social-media fed expectations about “living my best life now.” At several points, Mettes challenges leaders to model a healthy relationship with devices, and ways we keep them from getting in the way of people.
This is an important book for churches thinking about the renewal of community, even as some are walking away from relationships. Authentic hospitality, enjoying shared interests together, even appropriate hugs never go out of style. Some of us may have gotten rusty in our relationship skills and coaching in community may help us get out of our rusty ruts. Creating a culture that includes singles and the bereaved makes sense when marriage is delayed, and the pandemic has taken so many. Perhaps it is time to think about how we may foster a community epidemic in a lonely, hostile, and divided nation.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.