It turns out that peace and quiet is good for a while, but not if it goes on for too long. Too much peace and quiet can damage your health. During Covid many of us struggled to juggle multiple responsibilities- work from home, housework, home schooling etc. and we would have paid handsomely for a bit of peace and quiet, but others felt isolation weigh heavily on them.
Indeed, an epidemic of loneliness had been spreading through our communities for years. As Noreena Hertz wrote ‘loneliness was becoming one of the defining emotions of the 21st century, even before coronavirus struck’. In 2019 one in eight Britons admitted to not having even a single friend that they could rely on and a British Red Cross study found that over 9 million adults in the UK are either always or often lonely.
As we emerge, hopefully, from the privations of lockdown this must surely be an urgent priority for government, after all the country is experiencing a mental health crisis with loneliness contributing massively to it. But is this a problem government can solve? And what role does the Church have with its message of reconciliation and restored relationships?
Loneliness is not simply a consequence of social isolation; it is an emotion of sadness arising from unmet relational need. It says to the lonely “you have no role to play, no contribution to make, you are superfluous and therefore you are of no value”. And yet we know that everyone is created to love and to be loved, and to serve a living God. The consequent sense of significance, purpose and belonging speaks eloquently to the loneliness that many experience, especially among younger age groups.
To be part of a church is to be part of a community; a community with blurred borders and sticky edges, and one which is generous in its friendliness and bountiful with its love. To be part of a community implicitly means having a contribution to make and hence having significance.
Because loneliness causes loss of confidence, small gestures such as a smile, a wave or saying hello can communicate significance without being intimidating. Communicating significance is to communicate love. Kind words expressing thanks or appreciation, phone calls, text messages, handwritten letters, emails, offers of practical support, invitations to meals can make a huge difference for people who are lonely and all foster an inclusive and welcoming environment, building people up and helping some to overcome a natural shyness.
Blended church with both in-person services and online worship and teaching makes it easier for the lonely to dip their toes into the church pool, to cautiously connect at their own pace. Small actions may seem inconsequential but can be deeply meaningful. An environment with a rich relational matrix which treats people with dignity, persuading them of their significance, enables belonging and counters an existential loneliness as they encounter the loving kindness of God.
What is true in the church context is equally true in the broader community. Seemingly insignificant things such as an offer to help, an enquiry after someone’s health, an expression of gratitude build relationships and are especially valuable when involving those who are overlooked or ignored. Covid lockdowns resulted in many of us becoming more familiar with our neighbours and with the local area. Loving our neighbour found practical expressions and new relationships were forged. To use the jargon, this built social capital and deepened communal wellbeing. Gated communities, large sports utility vehicles, online commerce militate against human contact diminishing opportunities to get to know one another, but research shows that the more interactions people have in their neighbourhood the safer they feel.
Local churches are uniquely equipped and often strategically located to address loneliness. Training for church members in befriending can increase confidence and competence. Allowing the biblical emphasis on the importance of the person to find expression in how we extend friendship into the surrounding community will inevitably reach lonely people. Indeed, this is the work of the kingdom, embodied compassion changing lives and communities.
The need may appear overwhelming but small acts of kindness can touch lives deeply, promoting human flourishing, which is after all a thoroughly godly occupation.
Dr John Kyle is a retired GP, Belfast city councillor and Contemporary Christianity Board Member. Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.
To read more about this subject, visit www.contemporarychristianity.org to view the first of our ‘Sounding Board’ papers, with a more in-depth exploration of loneliness by Dr John Kyle, Deborah Miller and Sonia Magee.
As an organisation we (Thrive Ireland) have helped churches to listen to their community and find out what the needs are. I don’t think there is one church that did not find isolation and loneliness one of their top needs. This is very helpful. Thank you John.
Excellent article. Our church has worked at befriending people, especially the older members of the local community. This has been really appreciated.
Excellent article. Here in Greater Manchester via Movement For Recovery what the churches have been doing through lockdown has been recognised and is being included in the GM Combined Authority Covid Recovery Strategy. This includes what we routinely do for people’s loneliness and well-being, almost without noticing or realising how important it is. It will be the same in NI.