19 October 2018

Loneliness and the Church

by Hohn Cho

Ben Sasse sells Runzas at a Cornhuskers game.
Ben Sasse sells Runzas at a Cornhuskers game.

enator Ben Sasse (R-Neb) is a solid Christian brother who was an "elder in the United Reformed Churches in North America and served on the board of trustees for Westminster Seminary California" and is currently "a member of Grace Church, a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) congregation" located in Fremont, Nebraska. He has been outspoken about his faith and his values while avoiding a blindly loyal Republican party line and maintaining a healthy (and I believe appropriate) amount of nuance, including in this recent speech on Justice Brett Kavanaugh. And whether or not one might agree with him on everything—he has been quite plain with his concerns about President Donald Trump, for example—it has been encouraging to see a Christian brother navigating with integrity the dirty field of politics.

He's just written a book entitled, "Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal" and an adapted excerpt of it is available here. Longtime conservative columnist George Will has covered it briefly but well, with a powerful pair of paragraphs here:

Loneliness in "epidemic proportions" is producing a "loneliness literature" of sociological and medical findings about the effect of loneliness on individuals' brains and bodies, and on communities. Sasse says "there is a growing consensus" that loneliness—not obesity, cancer or heart disease—is the nation's "No. 1 health crisis." "Persistent loneliness" reduces average longevity more than twice as much as does heavy drinking and more than three times as much as obesity, which often is a consequence of loneliness. Research demonstrates that loneliness is as physically dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and contributes to cognitive decline, including more rapid advance of Alzheimer's disease. Sasse says, "We're literally dying of despair," of the failure "to fill the hole millions of Americans feel in their lives."

...

Work, which Sasse calls "arguably the most fundamental anchor of human identity," is at the beginning of "a staggering level of cultural disruption" swifter and more radical than even America's transformation from a rural and agricultural to an urban and industrial nation. At that time, one response to social disruption was alcoholism, which begat Prohibition. Today, one reason the average American life span has declined for three consecutive years is that many more are dying of drug overdoses—one of the "diseases of despair"—annually than died during the entire Vietnam War. People "need to be needed," but McKinsey & Co. analysts calculate that, globally, 50 percent of paid activities—jobs—could be automated by currently demonstrated technologies. America's largest job category is "driver" and, with self-driving vehicles coming, two-thirds of such jobs could disappear in a decade.

I've always appreciated whenever science and statistical studies confirm basic truths which have been set forth in the Word of God for millennia. The emerging data regarding loneliness are no exception. Starting from Genesis 2:18, when God declared, "It is not good for the man to be alone," the entire sweep of human history has focused on relationships, whether vertical or horizontal. And our great God has always cared deeply about those relationships, even exemplifying them perfectly in the awesome three-in-one mystery of the Trinity. In the Old Testament, we see the history of the covenant people of Israel, and their relationships both inside and outside of that group. Likewise, in the New Testament, we see the history of the covenant people of the church, and their relationships both inside and outside of that group.

Outside the church, we see the imperative of evangelism, of "Go therefore" from the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20, to all nations, with the joyful truth of the Gospel and discipleship in the Word of God. In Romans 10:14-15, we read how preachers of the Gospel are to be sent to unbelievers, with even the preachers' feet being praised as beautiful. And in the second Great Commandment in Mark 12:31, we know that we are to love our neighbors even as we love our own selves. All of these verses and concepts demonstrate the critical importance of relationships with the outside world.

Meanwhile, inside the church, we see the glorious beauty of the one anothers, those commands which believers can only fulfill in Christian fellowship and the corporate assembly. It's a truth reinforced by the image of the church as the Body of Christ in Romans 12:5, Ephesians 3:6, Colossians 1:24, and perhaps most extensively in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, where we see that each member has a diverse role and function, and that only when working together as an organic whole is the Body truly operating as God has arranged and intended. Ideally, the Body of Christ ought never be a place where any member suffers chronic loneliness born from the negligence or apathy (much less hatred) of the brothers and sisters in his or her local church.



And yet as an elder in a relatively large church with approximately 5,000 members and many more regular attenders, concerns like these are the ones that really tie up my stomach into knots and drive me to my knees in prayer. How many of our members struggle with loneliness and alienation? How many people "slip through the cracks" and depart, feeling uncared for and unloved? We've had a homebound ministry for as long as I can remember, and several years ago, a godly, hypercompetent man named Justin Harris greatly improved and streamlined our membership and attendance processes before becoming the senior pastor at another blessed congregation, and it's both a joy and a relief to the elders to know that our members can be contacted regularly if certain needs or challenges might be resulting in extended absences.

But what about the rest of the Body of Christ, such as newer folks, or those who attend only sporadically, or perhaps even people used to participating only on the fringe? I know and understand that members themselves have a responsibility to be faithful and avail themselves of the ordinary means of grace, but what about my own role as a fellow member of the congregation and even more, as a servant-leader of my own particular local body? How can we better serve these beloved brothers and sisters, especially in a culture and age where singleness has become the norm for much longer periods of time, thus delaying or removing the traditionally and biblically normative alleviation for loneliness, specifically marriage and, Lord willing, family?

I have only two suggestions in this regard. First, strive on and remain diligent in your efforts (Proverbs 13:4). Do not weary of doing good (Galatians 6:9-10), be devoted to one another with brotherly love and preferring one another in honor (Romans 12:10), even regarding one another as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). And when you're tired, pray for God to supply you with strength (1 Peter 4:11), knowing that the power of Christ is perfected in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), and that when we are weary and heavy-laden, our Savior will give us rest (Matthew 11:28).



Second, and far more importantly, the Scriptural truth is that God is the only one who will never leave us nor forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6). He is the one we must turn to when we are lonely and afflicted (Psalm 25:16). Even if our own parents were to forsake us, God will receive us (Psalm 27:10). And Jesus Christ is with us to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20), nothing can separate us from His love (Romans 8:35), and indeed, He is even dwelling inside of us in perfect union (Romans 8:10, Galatians 2:20)! Not only that, but He has sent His Holy Spirit to dwell inside of us (Romans 8:11, 1 Corinthians 3:16, 2 Timothy 1:14)! And as I reflect on the many missionaries and martyrs who have been imprisoned for years and even died physically all alone, I believe that conveying and reinforcing these incredible truths from the Word of God to every member of the Body of Christ can only serve to help them in the area of loneliness.

When we see well-formulated scientific studies showing the gravely detrimental effects of loneliness, it offers yet another reason why I believe the increasing obsession over ethnicity in the church today is such an unfortunate distraction. Among broader societal ills, I've written previously about why I believe abortion is arguably more than 5,000 times as important of an issue as, say, police shootings of unarmed people of all ethnicities. But even within the church itself, as someone who has a righteous hatred of ethnic partiality and believes actual sin in this area ought to be confronted and purged from the visible Body as much as possible, I still have to wonder whether issues such as loneliness might be an even more dire—if perhaps less stylish—concern than ethnic partiality, just as issues relating to adultery, divorce, and pornography might be an even greater corruption of our visible Christian witness. And as I strive to shepherd the portion of God's flock that He has placed under my care, I pray that I will always strive to be sensitive enough to reach out proactively to those brothers and sisters who seem perhaps a little bit out of place, out of sorts, or even out of hope, no matter what their ethnicity might be.

Hohn's signature

6 comments:

Phil Johnson said...

Good post. 👍🏻

Frank Turk said...

You would think that I would have a question about this post, given the interactions Hohn and I have had on Facebook.

I have no questions. I am filing it for future use.

Hohn C said...

Thanks very much, Phil and Frank!!

Tim Laitinen said...

This article is approximately 95% accurate. However, I think part of the problem in its author's perspective is that the folks from whom a church's marginalized attendees are expecting affirmation don't themselves go to church for genuine fellowship. They attend for a variety of other reasons, mostly cultural. These folks - the ones who seem to be the best-adjusted in church, the ones who seem to greet the most folks, and are the most "popular" - likely have their core friendship base outside of church. Maybe it's in their neighborhood (maybe their "gated community"?), or a club or business organization. Maybe some of their friends from the community attend the same church, but church isn't where they go to develop relationships, or meet new people who aren't like themselves. Church is a function of habit, or a check-box for their weekly spiritual quotient, or an expectation (a neighbor once told my Mom that they attended First Baptist because "it's good for us to be seen there."). These days, it's also an extension of their political stance, which is one of the least Biblical reasons to attend a church. So for those of us who ache from loneliness in church, perhaps we're expecting too much from the folks who either shun us outright, or only politely smile and pass generic greetings week in and week out. Let's face it - if they really wanted to know how our loved one's struggle with cancer was going, or if Cousin Lucy had found the house of her dreams, they'd have contacted us during the week to find out.

G Nave said...

Hohn,

Good stuff. My copy of Sasse's book is arriving today, so can't exactly comment relative to the book (though I have read a number of articles about the book).

One comment I would like to add is that the loneliness epidemic is especially pronounced among the youth... and there is now well demonstrated correlation (and some studies that indicate causation) between social media use and loneliness. More than ever, we need to engage our youth and create environments that encourage them to engage with one another.

Hohn C said...

Tim, thanks for your comment. You're correct in that I didn't address that subset of people overtly, although some might be swept into the category of, "I know and understand that members themselves have a responsibility to be faithful and avail themselves of the ordinary means of grace". But yes, there are always going to be wheat and tares, and only the Lord will ultimately be able to tell. The cultural Christians you mention will be on both sides of the equation, the lonely and the ones failing to reach out to the lonely. Prayerfully, however, there will be enough earnest Christians to look out for them all.

G Nave, thanks for your comment as well. Totally agree on the social media concerns. Seeing so many of us (young and old, myself included) overly fixated on our devices and virtual interactions at times, rather than flesh-and-blood people right in front of us, is saddening and convicting. I agree with you about the need to engage our youth and create meaningful opportunities for actual fellowship.