Ministry to the Lonely
How to respond to those who are struggling
I know a physician who can often identify physical problems by observing a person’s gait.
Where most people would simply see a limp, this doctor sees a twisted ankle, hip pain, or heel spur.
Like a limp, loneliness can have a variety of causes. But to help people who are suffering, church leaders need to look closely enough to discern what’s really going on.
Loneliness in America
In early 2020, before the first wave of COVID-19 hit the U.S., research I conducted with Barna Group revealed alarming levels of loneliness. About 14% of Americans said they felt lonely all the time, 19% said that they felt lonely on a daily basis but not constantly, and 21% said they had felt lonely in the past week but not every day. Those who said they had not felt lonely in the previous week were in the minority (47%).
The share of people experiencing loneliness has likely increased since that time. Many have lost friends and family members during the pandemic. Others have become disillusioned with jobs, relationships and politics. Still others have felt isolated, ignored, unappreciated or vulnerable.
Even before the pandemic, loneliness was on the rise. In online surveys of U.S. adults by Cigna Corporation, the share of respondents reporting feelings of loneliness increased 7 percentage points from 2018 (54%) to 2019 (61%).
It would be convenient if we could blame all loneliness on social distancing, but this issue has clearly been around longer than COVID.
Loneliness is particularly prevalent among younger generations. In the 2019 Cigna survey, approximately 8 in 10 members of Generation Z (79%) and 71% of millennials reported feelings of loneliness, compared to 50% of baby boomers.
In the Barna study, only 32% of millennials (ages 21–35 at the time of the survey) said they had not felt lonely in the past week, compared to 43% of Gen Xers (ages 36–54) and 64% of boomers.
Marriage offers some insulation against loneliness. More than half of married respondents in the Barna survey (56%) said they had not been lonely in the past week, compared to 38% of single adults.
Nevertheless, youth does not cause loneliness, and marriage is not a panacea. Feelings of loneliness can affect anyone. The underlying issues begin with relationships.
Grief following the death of a loved one can contribute to feelings of loneliness.
Unfortunately, bereavement is a common life experience. Among Americans aged 75 and older, 58% of women and 28% of men have experienced the death of a spouse, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
One study estimated that for each COVID-19 death in the U.S., nine people, on average, lost a parent, grandparent, sibling, spouse or child.
When people lose a loved one, they go through a bumpy process of yearning, sadness and loneliness.
Even years later, the loneliness may return from time to time. Yet bereavement is not the primary cause of America’s loneliness epidemic.
Sometimes we are lonely because we don’t have deep enough, close enough, or sturdy enough relationships — that is, relationships that are both intimate and committed.
Family relationships, especially marriage relationships, often meet the need for intimacy and commitment.
However, young adults as a group are marrying later — if they marry at all. Along the way, many now live with romantic partners.
A 2019 report from Pew Research Center revealed it is now more common for U.S. adults to have cohabitated (59%) than to have married (50%).
Those who were in a cohabitating relationship at the time of the survey reported lower levels of trust and satisfaction than those who were married. For example, cohabitating respondents were less likely to say they trusted their partner to be faithful to them, act in their best interest, or always tell them the truth. They also expressed less satisfaction in key areas like communication, division of chores, and parenting.
In other words, cohabitation is far from a modern version of the close partnership marriage represents. It is an extra step many are now taking before marrying or returning to single life, and it often comes with a great deal of relational instability and insecurity.
Other relationships are also on uncertain ground. In Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, Cornell University professor Karl Pillemer reported that 27% of U.S. adults had cut off contact with a parent, child, sibling or extended family member.
Friendships, too, are endangered. According to the Survey Center on American Life, the number of close friends U.S. adults report has declined in recent years, especially among men. In 1990, 55% of men reported at least six close friends (not counting relatives). Just 27% of men claim that many close friends today. And 15% say they have no close friends at all (compared to 3% who said this in 1990).
Having inappropriate expectations of relationships can also cause loneliness. Some people put demands on relationships others can’t meet.
One young man suggested to me he would be less lonely if he could express his opinions without anyone disagreeing. This is obviously unrealistic. Disagreement emerges in the closest, most loving relationships — and, as social media demonstrates, in the most superficial ones.
But this young man’s fantasy reveals an expectation that those who love him will either agree or withhold all dissent. Someone who equates disagreement with rejection is likely to push people away and wind up feeling increasingly lonely.
Good relationships require investments of emotion and time. Those who want friendship with an endless stream of laugh-out-loud moments — and no, “Actually, something happened that really upset me” moments — don’t really want friendship at all.
People need relationships that involve mutual care and concern, rather than one-sided comfort. Anything less is a shallow relationship that leaves both sides feeling unfulfilled and lonely.
According to Pillemer, estranged parents often accuse a son-in-law or daughter-in-law of driving a wedge between them and their adult child, rather than changing their expectations for time and attention after that child marries.
Some people struggle with forming realistic expectations concerning their place in another person’s life. Even when they have a valued position, they feel rejected if they don’t have top billing. Whether it’s a relationship with a child, sibling or friend, unhealthy competitions for first place lead to unmet expectations, dysfunction and loneliness.
Social media plays a role in creating unrealistic expectations. Portrayals of seemingly perfect lives leave people feeling their relationships aren’t good enough. Those feelings contribute to loneliness.
The availability of so many ways to communicate can also give us the impression that we should always be in the loop if someone cares about us — and that we should keep them updated on everything that’s going on in our lives, too. That’s not necessarily true.
Placing unrealistic demands on others strains their time and attention, even when their regard for us remains. Understanding this opens the door to healthier relationships.
Another reason for loneliness is insecurity. Looking beyond demographics, I asked people about feelings other than loneliness and looked at some that corresponded to loneliness. Insecurity stood out as closely linked.
The lonelier you are, the more likely you are to feel insecure. In fact, 70% of people who felt lonely all the time said they also felt insecure on a daily basis.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, 81% of people who reported no loneliness in the previous week also reported no feelings of insecurity.
When people say they feel insecure, they likely mean they don’t feel valued by those around them.
It might also be a logical conclusion to their lived experiences. In a culture of contempt, discrimination and bullying, many bear the emotional scars of abuse and mistreatment.
Some Americans live with the fear that their resumes will be thrown out or their lives endangered because of their race or ethnicity. Black Americans, in particular, face these barriers, which may help explain increased rates of loneliness within this demographic.
There are also other sources of insecurity that relate to loneliness. For a variety of reasons, some have trouble believing they are worthy of attention and affection, making it hard for them to form close relationships. This kind of insecurity can start a cycle of increasing isolation and loneliness as people perceive rejection where it isn’t or push others away to preempt rejection.
What Churches Can Do
God cares about loneliness. Certainly, people can turn to Him when they feel alone. God also calls the Church to reach out in Christian fellowship.
To combat loneliness, church leaders should do what they can to foster warm, deep, lasting relationships within their congregations and communities.
There are no quick fixes for most of the issues that cause loneliness. Neither are there long lists of research-backed solutions to loneliness.
However, there are at least four things every church can and should do.
1. Acknowledge loneliness. This begins with dismantling the belief that loneliness isn’t something a good Christian will experience.
I found that practicing Christians are more likely than other Americans to stigmatize loneliness. People have a need for relationships — with one another and with God. Loneliness points to that need.
David acknowledged his loneliness in Psalm 25:
Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart and free me from my anguish (verses 16–17).
People today should likewise be free to acknowledge their loneliness and need for God’s help. Loneliness should not be a source of shame, but it should drive us to prayer and other action.
2. Promote better relationships. As you teach biblical principles for relating to one another, also talk about managing the sense of rejection that often leads to loneliness.
One effective strategy is to help people reframe interactions they feel bad about by treating their negative assumptions as hypotheses to be proved — or refuted — with evidence.
For example, imagine a couple’s adult daughter did not come home for the holidays, and they believe the reason is that their son-in-law dislikes them. To counter this relationship-damaging assumption, ask whether they can prove there is no other possible explanation — such as a lack of time off or a sense of obligation to alternate the holidays with the other side of their family. If the couple can’t prove it, encourage them not to build up resentment or act as though their suspicions are facts.
In other words, a gracious way of thinking about interactions and relationships can help undo harmful cycles of relational dysfunction and loneliness.
As James 1:19 says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
Of course, sometimes people are rejected, betrayed and mistreated. Yet revenge and bitterness are not the way of Christ. There is hope and healing for those who are suffering from relational trauma.
Point people to forgiveness without dismissing their pain. And confront injustice when you see it.
Helping people deal with rejection — or perceived rejection — in a Christlike way reduces their risk of loneliness.
3. Provide a place of belonging. Belongingness and loneliness seldom coexist for long.
Belongingness is a mutual bond that forms over time through frequent, pleasant-enough interactions. We cannot make someone feel belongingness, of course. It’s something we have to develop together.
The Church should be good at this. After all, Scripture tells believers to come together and encourage one another (Hebrews 10:25).
Church leaders can also facilitate belongingness by supporting healthy families.
For example, if your church hosts weddings or offers premarital counseling, keep costs low or offer financial assistance.
And don’t stop with the wedding. Offer care and guidance before and after marriage.
4. Build closeness. Sharing time and space with others is an obvious way to address loneliness.
The apostles often reminded Christians to practice hospitality (Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 4:9; 3 John 8).
What does that look like today? It can include being friendly in church and perhaps meeting with someone in a neutral space outside of church, such as in a restaurant.
But more than that, hospitality is about opening our homes and lives to others. Even during a pandemic, many found safe ways to do this.
People who are homebound or widowed are at greater risk of loneliness. Yet so are young adults and people who are new to the area. Single adults may feel particularly lonely or isolated during the holidays.
If you limit visitations to births and deaths in members’ families, it can mean failing to help some people who are in a lot of need. Transitions into independence can be especially lonely, as can parenting young children or learning to live with lost mobility. Some Christians have callings or circumstances that mean they’ll never settle in a church for more than a couple years.
So, why not expand your reasons to send church leaders or volunteers over to help people with the tasks of daily life? Church members who send cards or deliver casseroles may well find their own loneliness addressed as well.
The Church has a role to play in reducing loneliness by promoting satisfying relationships. That means helping those relationships form, teaching relational principles, walking with the grieving, working through conflict, and establishing a culture of trustworthiness, friendliness, and belonging.
Encouraging one another is one of the reasons we come together. Addressing these issues from the pulpit is a good first step, but we can’t stop there. We need to talk about community, but we also need to build community. Much of this can happen organically as people take part in the life of the church.
If we promote programs and events while ignoring relationships, we’re missing the point. But if we’re intentional about reaching out to one another in friendship, we can combat loneliness in everything we do — whether we’re worshipping, stacking chairs, or feeding the hungry.
When we truly act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8), loving our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31), the people around us should feel less lonely.