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How the Church Can Help Fight the Loneliness Epidemic

How the Church Can Help Fight the Loneliness Epidemic

The U.S. Surgeon General recently reported that loneliness is sweeping America, even classifying it as an “epidemic.” The study shows the health risks of being lonely are now just as damaging as a person smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and loneliness actually increases the risk of premature death by 30 percent.

Young people, who have grown up in an age of social media, the Covid pandemic and instant access to just about everything, have been the hardest hit by the epidemic of loneliness. While loneliness was common before the pandemic, Covid shed light on the pervasiveness of the issue, and feelings of isolation have seemed to linger, especially among teenagers.

This phenomenon is not simply the result of younger generations acting emotionally: this is an epidemic affecting some of the most vulnerable in our world — young people.

The loneliness epidemic reminds us that all people have an innate sense of wanting to belong — craving authentic community — and nowhere is that need more evident than among the teenagers I get to interact with as the president of Young Life.

Several years ago, I met Derek, a young man who reminded me of the human heart’s basic need for belonging. Growing up, Derek had an unstable family life and couldn’t find a group of friends at school; he struggled to make and maintain solid, authentic relationships. Although he dabbled in sports and club activities, Derek was not a star athlete, a stellar student, nor did he ever truly feel like he was part of a group.

Sadly, loneliness became his constant companion and a daily battle with depression ensued.

During the summer before his senior year of high school, Derek attended a Young Life camp where he met Jesus for the first time. Camp taught him that Jesus is a “friend that sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24), and he later joined his fellow campers at weekly Young Life club meetings. Through choosing to step into community, Derek finally discovered a sense of belonging.

In this world filled with lonely people, Jesus is calling us to create a culture of intentional belonging — to walk alongside young people like Derek and invest in them.

But perhaps even more than belonging, people long to be known — fully and authentically — by at least one other soul. In today’s social media-saturated society, I see teenagers place their worth in who has the most Instagram followers or social media “friends.” It’s easy to think that a teenager who has 3,000 friends (or followers) can’t be lonely.

But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, studies show a correlation between access to social media and rising loneliness.

So many of these kids long for genuine friendships. But friendship and connection can be scary and often entail diligent work. Authentic relationships require us to be vulnerable, to show that we don’t have it all together. It is far easier to mindlessly scroll, sometimes for hours, through Instagram feeds and TikTok videos. Of course, this leaves us feeling far more alone than before. Liking someone’s post is not the same as sitting face to face and listening to their life’s journey.

Loneliness recedes when we know that at least one person is in our corner — that at least one person truly knows our deepest desires and affirms our value and vulnerability. Being authentically known and loved is the antidote to loneliness.

We have a calling to listen — young people are longing for us to step in and fight this epidemic alongside them.

As we combat loneliness through creating a culture of belonging and investing in authentic relationships, I am also reminded that all people long for community. As church attendance drops in America and increasingly more people forsake religious affiliation, Christians have an important role to play.

We should invite our friends to church, and we can also work to better our community alongside others. Our friends, and especially the younger generations in our midst, may be more inclined to pack a food box, assist an individual with special needs, or collect donations for the homeless before they feel comfortable sitting in a church service. These opportunities can offer points of connection and forge community, bringing people together and eliminating loneliness.

Loneliness is real and proven. This crisis has become like a cancer, and it’s eating at the fabric of our society. As adults, we must ask how we have tacitly contributed to the cancer of loneliness — and rise up to solve it. Being an authentic friend, encouraging a sense of belonging and providing Christian community is the cure.

Let’s strive to combat the isolation people are experiencing by truly investing in those God puts into our lives, especially the teenagers and the younger people in our midst. Let’s be the first to put down our phones, look people in the eye and ask — sincerely and authentically — how someone is doing. Let’s be quick to include them in our Christian communities and volunteer efforts. And let’s get uncomfortable by getting out of our pews and inviting them to get to know us, too.

These simple actions could radically change the world — one lonely soul at a time.

Newt Crenshaw is the president of Young Life, a Christian ministry that reaches out to middle school, high school, and college students in all 50 States and in more than 100 countries around the world. Prior to his role with Young Life, Crenshaw served as a senior executive with the global bio-pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly. Newt and his wife, Susan, have four children.

© 2023 RELEVANT Media Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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