A Conversation about Loneliness

I heard it when I was a youth pastor, and I’ve heard it over and again as a pastor.

“I have no friends” or “I’m lonely” are common refrains in the church. The Barna Group released a report on “the state of friendship in America.” Interestingly, I find the conclusions about the broader range “America” equally true in local churches.

Americans Are Friendly but Lonely

The research says a majority of American adults actually have friends, and most adults have 5 people they call close friends. Despite the fact of friends, a significant number of people say that they often feel lonely.

Friends Are Found Where We Spend the Most Time

More adults find their friends at work than in any other social construct. Not surprisingly, teens (ages 13-19) make their friendships in school. There is one outlier to the study when it comes to teens. Christian teens who are active in the life of their local church find friends in school but at a lower rate than those of other faith traditions or no faith tradition at all. Friends of committed Christian teens are more likely to come from their local church.

What You’ve Always Heard Is Not True

Sure opposites attract when it comes to magnets, but opposites don’t attract when it comes to friendships. We are far more likely to be friends with people who share our politics, our ethnicity, our education level, our economic status, and our life stage. Barna reports, “Evangelicals are less likely than most to have friends who are different than them, especially when it comes to religious beliefs (91% mostly similar), ethnicity (88%), and political views (86%).”

What This Means for the Church

If you feel lonely at times, you’re probably not alone. There is a strong likelihood others who sit near you in a church row or who drop kids off for children’s ministry or who shake your hand on the way in to the building are lonely too. Maybe our experiences of loneliness can prompt us to express love to another potential lonely human.

One natural but unhealthy response to loneliness is to withdraw even more. For some the withdrawal takes them to a dark place of addiction, self-abusing behaviors, depression, or rage. When faced with the struggle of loneliness, maybe a response that loves another lonely person can stave off what lies ahead for you. A text message, a phone call, a change in where you sit in the auditorium, an act of kindness like stopping by with a plate of cookies or a pot of chili can move both of you away from the precipice. The truth is we don’t have to be lonely.

Barna’s report may signal why many churches experience very little evangelism among its members. We have few friends who are not like us. This shows up when people in a church are asked to invite others to church outreach events or even to weekly Sunday morning worship. It is more likely for a guest to be someone who is like them, a member of an evangelical church. It is less likely a guest will be someone who does not believe the gospel.

Our Lord’s method of rescuing people from hell has been the same from the time of The Great Commission. Born again people tell lost people about Jesus. But, if our friendships are only with saved people, who is hearing from us the message of the gospel?

Following the logic of Barna’s report, one reason there is little evangelism in the church is because there is little friendship by the members of the church with those who need the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What other conclusions do you draw for the church?

As always I welcome your feedback and any suggestions you might have for an upcoming Lunchtime Musing.