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Levi Lusko: How the Church Can Solve the Loneliness Epidemic

Levi Lusko: How the Church Can Solve the Loneliness Epidemic

Our society is experiencing massive problem: an epidemic of loneliness.

Blame it on the pandemic, blame it on the rise of technology, blame it on myriad different issues. But the fact of the matter is, more and more people have shared they experience loneliness and isolation. In an age where technology seemingly connects us more than ever, it’s a conundrum that our culture hasn’t quite figured out how to remedy.

But things have to change, and soon. Last year, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, reported that loneliness is as deadly as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. If left untreated, this epidemic could wipe out thousands.

While things are unlikely to change overnight, there are ways to help. And the Church can play a big role in leading that change. Levi Lusko, author and pastor of Fresh Life Church, shared how our society’s battle with loneliness has grown over the last few years, and how Christians can step up in a powerful way.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Why does it seem like everyone’s experiencing loneliness these days?

Levi Lusko: Loneliness and anxiety is not just a current problem. We have to always remind ourselves to ground ourselves in true history. It’s a human problem. It’s always been a thing, but it is in our country, in our culture, something that we have the privilege of dealing with more and more because we are capable of being complicit in our own suffering. Technology and the modern age has allowed us to build lives where we don’t talk to strangers anymore.

We used to stand in line at the bank. We used to stand in line at the grocery store. Now we don’t even have to have a driver in our Uber in major metropolitan areas. There’s autonomous self-driving vehicles that can take you point A to point B without even the banalities of conversation about the weather with a stranger. You have Instacart that allows you to say, leave the groceries at the door, don’t even ring the doorbell so I can come out of my lair only to snag them quickly. We shut the garage doors before we get out of our cars. We shifted from being a front yard people to being a backyard people.

And now we wonder why we’re miserable when loneliness has been proven to be the same on your body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having six alcoholic beverages per day. It’s bad for your heart, bad for your immune system, bad for your inflammation, it’s terrible for you. I mean, in newsflash in prison, they put you in solitary confinement as a punishment. But somehow we’ve built a life of ease and convenience transactions that is lonely.

What’s a good first step for someone who wants to push back on loneliness?

I think the church is one of the best places in the world to meet lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds and areas of life.

There’s a very famous book by Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone, that really exposed the breakdown of not only churches, but also in our culture, institutions that were traditionally good vehicles for meeting strangers that have gone away. Bridge club, sewing clubs, bowling leagues all those things are gone now. Although now there is pickleball, which is kind of everyone in them in the secular media is kind of heralding as the panacea for all male loneliness — specifically because men do struggle worse than women statistically at having close friends and maintaining them specifically through their 30s.

So I think joining something like a small group, or going to a bingo night. I think if you go to an environment where you’re have to interact with people, you’re not going regret that.

You mentioned men statistically struggle more with women than loneliness. Why is that?

I do think it tends to — whether it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy or whatever it is — men have a harder time admitting their suffering. Relationships are established oftentimes through the willingness to be vulnerable. That’s the cement of a good relationship.

Men have this kind of sense of, I’m a doer, I’m productive, I am my work. And whether or not this is a stereotype, women have an easier time doing being vulnerable and admitting when they’re hurting. That’s endearing to people. So I think that’s part of the reason.

But I also came across a Harvard study published in the Journal of American Medical Association that you’re less likely to die a death of despair as defined by drug overdose, alcohol, poisoning or suicide if you go to church once a week. That’s it. This was 2020, and produced by Harvard. Something so small , like attending church once a week means you’re literally 70% less likely to die from these things that are killing a generation — things like fentanyl, alcohol, and suicide.

Church is a place where you are encouraged to admit your weak. It’s encouraged to come forward if you need prayer. Come forward if you’re broken. It’s an institution that, for all this ills and all of its problems, where else in culture are we given a spot where it’s actually cool to say you’re broken?

What are ways the Church can directly address the loneliness epidemic?

I mean, it’s not it’s not rocket science. You know, we got orphans, we got widows, we got prisoners. Jesus seemed to care about all these. And as I read the Gospels, when Jesus when you visited a prisoner, I don’t think it was a metaphor. He literally meant to go to people that society says don’t have the same kind of value.

And what’s cool about the church is it’s a place where — if we get it right — people who are solitary can be set into families. A single mother can have their son or daughter around positive male role models who are the ushers and door holders and Sunday school teachers.

The upward mobility factor can’t be overlooked. You know, our society is a place where if you’re rich, you tend to only eat with rich people. But the church is a place where if you’re serving on a team at your average church, you’re going to literally have the chance to talk to people who have a different earning power than you do. You’re potentially going to become friends with richer people or poor people.

I think that’s the kind of paradigm-shattering power of the church is that lonely people, people who are of a hard way or not privileged, can rub shoulders and do life with people who have the capacity to help them think differently.

Recently, there’s the idea that we’re in a “friendship recession” right now, meaning that even the few people we have in our lives are not necessarily good quality friendships. Do you agree with that assessment?

I think it’s empiric. I think the data is there for that to be said without equivocation. That, and 15% of men say they have no close friends. They’re less likely to have friends if you’re under 30. Whereas only 10% of women say they have no friends. It’s 15% for men. So loneliness is a fact. And the friendship recession is a fact.

It makes sense how we got here when you think about it like this: maybe you used to go to SoulCycle,  but then you got a Peloton. So now, you’re seeing people on the screen, but you can’t go get a latte after that class. It’s become more transactional.

You’re not going to have the people for when life really hurts the most there to have your back. Think about how many people have your garage code. That’s the question you should be asking. When my wife and I lost our daughter who went home to be with Jesus in 2012, we had a beautiful amount of people who knew who could come put away the Tupperware, you know what I mean? People who could be there parked in front of the house within minutes, who could almost beat the ambulance to the ER.

There’s lots of ways that could happen, but for us it happened through the church, and I’m so grateful for that. I might not be sitting here had it not been for the church, because I had suicidal ideations and depression and a lot of darkness in my life, from being lonely and from being with the wrong friendships, which is just as dangerous as the lack of friendships, truly. Had it not been for the youth group, discipleship leaders and the people who did not get paid that were kind to me and allowed me to experience community that I could call and tell them anything, I don’t know if I’d be sitting here today. I certainly wouldn’t be a pastor of a church.

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