Only the lonely
It is said that loneliness can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. James Glass argues that the Church is well placed to be part of the solution to the problem.
In January, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Tracy Crouch as minister for loneliness. The appointment was prompted by the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission Report, which headlined amongst others, the following statistics:
9 million people across the UK are either often or always lonely.
Disconnected communities could be costing the UK £32 billion per year.
43% of 17-25 year olds who used the services of Action for Children reported being often or always lonely. The findings are hardly surprising. What might be more surprising are the health risks that are attributable to loneliness.
A few years ago David Halpern , of the Behavioural Insights Team, was asked about how government might en courage older people to stay active. He replied, "!f you have got someone who loves you, someone you can talk to if you have got a problem , that is a more powerful predictor of whether you will be alive in ten years' time, more than almost any other factor, certainly more than smoking."
Whatever our experience or otherwise of this phenomenon, we are called to be the Church and to do mission in a society in which loneliness is a major factor.
Clearly, that provides us with a challenge as the Church. Partly, we too have been shaped by the cultural currents that have brought about the kind of relational disconnection that is taking its toll on our society. Churches are usually good at offering care and concern. That is good in as far as it goes. But care and concern are only one aspect of a deeper need for community.
Sometimes we are quick to offer counselling for the symptoms of loneliness. That, however, can become a kind of turbo-charged pastoral care. And let's face it, counsellors cannot offer ongoing friendship. It would simply hamper their ministry and would impose on them a wildly unrealistic and unfair expectation.
Some see the solution as simply a sharper and more precise use of charismatic gifts. Whilst that might bring momentary insight and encouragement, it provides no long-term solution to the pain of loneliness.
One of the challenges for the Church is to think of itself as a community. To see ourselves in this way means that we see ourselves offering something more to society than what have been the more usual patterns of ministry in the Church of recent years. We might also think of the Church as family, but our idea of family is so shaped by the nuclear family that the term sometimes becomes unhelpful. There are good reasons for seeing the Church as community or extended family.
First of all, this was how Jesus and the apostles intended the Church to be.
Jesus chose his 12 disciples so that as well as preaching and driving out demons, they might be with him, (Mark 3:14). Paul addresses the members of the churches to whom he writes as brothers and sisters ( 1 Corinthians 1:10-11; Ephesians 6:23).
Rick Warren has said, "Most people think that Christianity is a belief system. There are beliefs that are involved, but it's more than that. It's a belief system. It means you belong to the family of God. It means you are a part of the body of Christ."
Secondly, when we think of church as family or community we image the Trinity. JI Packer once described God in terms of a team, drawing attention to God as an inter-relationship of persons.
As the body of Christ, our inter-relatedness reveals something of the nature of God. Paul implies as much when he begins his exposition of spiritual gifts (I Corinthians 12.4-6).
Thirdly, thinking of the church as an extended family means that everyone can be involved. When you think of it, there is only one qualification for being in a family: relationship. Family membership is not based on how good or bad you are, or think you are, academic ability, social poise, financial resources or anything else. Just relationship.
Fourthly, churches that are serious about extended family have an incredible ability to impact the surrounding culture. Jesus said that his disciples' love for one another would impact the world (John 13 .34-35). He said that the unity of his people would cause the world to believe (John 17.22-23). The first three centuries of Church history proved the accuracy of his statements.
Finally, if you are part of a church that is serious about the extended family/community then you will be impacted for life. And it's not just the Bible and its exhortations to have a positive impact on one an other that indicate the power of healthy relationships.
Neuroscientist Moran Cerf believes on the basis of his research that 'the people you hang out with actually have an impact on your engagement with reality beyond what you can explain. And one of the effects is you become alike.' We need to choose our friends wisely!
The potential for just being with people is enormous!
Mark Easton, BBC Home editor, remarked in a blog post entitled 'How should we tackle the loneliness epidemic?': "Just imagine if the world could offer those people the hand of friendship. A smile and a word. Company when they want it and privacy when they don't. Now that would be a great service to humankind."
Just imagine if the Church can become better at connecting people in an age of loneliness.
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