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Why the Current Loneliness Epidemic Is a Historical Gospel Opportunity

At the center of the universe is a community. It is out and for that relationship you and I were created and redeemed. It turns out that community is the trinity.
Why the Current Loneliness Epidemic Is a Historical Gospel Opportunity
Image: Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

In 2018, a national survey exploring the impact of loneliness revealed that this condition is now at epidemic levels in the United States and poses a severe health risk to the general population.

Survey results were released by Cigna, a global health service company, based on the UCLA loneliness scale, an instrument that measures and assesses subjective feelings of loneliness, as well as social isolation, by using a 20-item questionnaire.

Four significant patterns related to feelings of loneliness and social isolation emerged from the survey of more than 20,000 U.S. adults, age 18 years and older:

Nearly half of the respondents reported feeling alone, occasionally or continuously (46 percent), or left out (47 percent). One in four rarely or never feel as if there are people who truly understand them. Two in five feel that their relationships are inconsequential (43 percent) and that they are isolated from others (43 percent). One in five report they rarely or never feel close to other people (20 percent) or that there is anyone they can talk to (18 percent).

Bob Dylan once said that New York is the only place where you can freeze to death on a busy street and no one will even notice. Although urban centers are incredibly dense and swarming with people, the density only seems to compound the loneliness.

Thus, the confluence of urbanization and globalization is creating an expanding mission field for the church, given most of the global population continues to migrate steadily into urban centers. What then can we do?

First, loneliness is a signpost to something deeper.

The psalmist writes in Psalm 4:27 that “deep calls unto deep.” Many confuse this deep longing with a form of chronic anxiety, or something that has gone wrong, when it is in fact a holy haunting for the presence of God. Deep calling unto deep is nothing other than the voice of God echoing from eternity.

Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes that God has placed eternity in our hearts. Loneliness peels back the curtain of a time long past. It shows us intuitively what quantum physics is now confirming: that at a subatomic level everything and everyone is interconnected.

Darrell Johnson, a long-time Professor at Regent College in Vancouver, and Bono’s former pastor at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, was studying to become an astrophysicist before he was seized by the beauty of God’s transcendence. In Experiencing the Trinity, he writes:

At the center of the universe is a relationship, that is the most fundamental truth I know. At the center of the universe is a community. It is out and for that relationship you and I were created and redeemed. It turns out that community is the trinity. The center of reality is Father, son and Holy Spirit.[1]

At its deepest level, the human heart aches for relationship more than anything else. This is because God himself is a community within the fellowship of the Trinity. We desire to be in communion because before the advent of creation itself, God was part of an eternal fellowship.

This ache in the human heart is clear residual evidence that we were created from community and for community.

No wonder so many people feel deeply alone and disconnected. If the residual imprint of the Trinity is lodged that deeply within our hearts, nothing will ever feel right until there is a homecoming of a sort.

In Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot imagines existentially what such a homecoming might feel like. “We should not cease from exploration and at the end of all our exploring we will arrive at the place we started and know the place for the first time.”[2]

Perhaps our culture’s current crushing opioid crisis, porn addiction, and the rise of Tinder are all part of this holy searching gone horribly wrong.

Second, the loneliness epidemic is a momentous gospel opportunity.

Dr. Douglas Nemecek, chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna, suggests that “loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.”

As loneliness reaches epidemic levels, the church has an incredible evangelistic opportunity, not only to mitigate the health risks involved, but to help lonesome hearts feast on Christ!

Another significant pattern related to the Cigna study of loneliness and social isolation is that Generation Z (aged 18-22) is now the loneliest generation in history. Although Gen Z is perhaps the generation that is most technologically connected, they scored the highest on the UCLA loneliness scale.

This is a significant discovery, for it reveals that social interactions online cannot fill the need for face-to-face interactions as a generation or as a society. As treatment for depression and anxiety reach hyperbolic levels and suicide rates skyrocket, the call to the church to be light in the darkness has never been clearer.

It has been said that the gospel is one hobo telling anther hobo where the bread is. For a culture starving for love, the church now has an historic opportunity to usher in a gospel movement unseen since the Jesus movement.

The harvest is plentiful, but workers who understand the heart of the culture are few. The church does not need more innovative or cool missiological schemes, but a return to simplicity. The culture today is saturated with sophisticated marketing strategies from Facebook and Google and other tech giants, and starved of authenticity and hospitality.

The church should not be distracted by popular trends, but should focus instead on creating meaningful social interactions with those of its neighbors, friends and family who need the Lord.

Close to half the respondents from the Cigna study said they did not have a single meaningful in-person social connection, such as daily conversations with friends, or quality time with family.

This is why the single greatest gift we still can give others outside of eternity is our time. Time is precious because it is the only commodity we cannot ever recoup.

Thus, intentionally taking time to drink a coffee or share a hot meal with a friend is still the most effective gospel witness today, as it was in the times of Jesus. It may not seem that much at first glance, but if we consistently practice a gospel-centered hospitality, we’ll see one day from the other side of heaven that we have touched and changed eternity, much to our surprise and delight.

Rev. Dr. Sam D. Kim is Co-Founder of 180 Church NYC, a community joining God to restore the beauty in all things. He is Postdoctoral Fellow-Scholar at Harvard Medical School Center for Bioethics. He is a recipient of the Lifelong Learning Fellowship at Yale Divinity School and Yale School of Medicine, which aims to close the gap between faith and science, and is awarded by the John Templeton Foundation and American Association for the Advancement of Sciences. He is married to his college sweetheart Lydia, Dad to Nathan & Josh and best-pals with his dog Brownie. Learn more: www.samdkim.com

[1] Darrell W. Johnson, Experiencing the Trinity (Vancouver: Regent College, 2002), 37.

[2] Eliot, T. S, Four Quartets (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Books, 2014). 59.

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