Social Isolation and the Loneliness Epidemic
The 21st century has seen an enormous global rise in what sociologists have begun to call the “loneliness epidemic.” While a lot of the research is still in very early stages, the general consensus is that extreme loneliness is one of the leading social issues of our day. What do we do with this new reality, why can the church speak into this issue and how should our missions practices change as a result?
12 Minute Read
By John Hawke
I used to believe I was failing at life for only having a small handful of really close friends. Not surface-level friendships—those are a dime a dozen. But the types of friends who know everything about me and who I trust enough to actually speak truth and change into my life. I’m going to refer to them as “confidants.”
Anyway, if you asked me for names, I could come up with about four confidants in my life right now, and honestly, that feels a bit pathetic. I’ve traveled around the sun 31 times, and that’s seriously the best I can do? Surely that’s due to my rampant cynicism or one of my many other flaws. Surely other people have lots of close friends, right? Right?
Well it turns out, I’m not that alone in feeling alone (yay?). MIT’s Technology Review (Go Tech!) reports that on average, people only have four to five such friends at any point in time. Other studies such as the General Social Survey (or GSS) report that the average is as low as two. And while it is tempting to assume this simply has to do with differing personality types; introverts and extroverts have a similar number of confidants.
However, I think the greatest revelation from the GSS is that roughly 25 percent of all Americans report having zero close friends, including their spouse. Let that sink in for a moment.
For even more perspective, the GSS also reports that number has tripled over the past two decades. Again, let that sink in.
This has led several, such as the Harvard Business Review and a former U.S. surgeon general, to refer to this as a “loneliness epidemic” affecting roughly 100-150 million Americans. That’s over half our adult population! And as the name “epidemic” implies, this lack of close social ties is deemed to be just as detrimental to your health as chronic smoking.
However, I believe this epidemic goes far beyond just our physical and mental health. Clearly this is not just a superficial “aww, nobody’s free to go bowling with me,” but a deep, soul-wrenching admittance that “I am not known.”
Whether they know it or not, people are grappling with deep spiritual and philosophical issues like purpose, community, belonging and love. And it’s leading to a spiritual crisis around the world.
Identifying and Facing Our Spiritual Pandemic
I personally think it is realistic to conclude that this lack of deep social ties will be one of the defining global issues of the next decade. In many ways, we’re already there. I’d go even further than calling it just an “epidemic”—I believe we’ll come to classify loneliness and social isolation as a full-blown, worldwide pandemic in the near future.
Recognizing this problem, the UK’s Prime Minister appointed a Minister for Loneliness in the beginning of 2018. Likewise, loneliness has become an increasing problem in many other European countries, perhaps most notably Italy and France.
However, this is not just a “Western” problem. The South China Morning Post has a fascinating article on the economics of loneliness in countries like China and Japan. Again, pause and consider the fact that social isolation has sparked a multi-billion-dollar global “loneliness industry” (and yes, that industry is thriving here in the U.S. in case you were wondering).
Separate research in both Korea and the ASEAN Countries (Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Cambodia and Indonesia) suggests that social isolation is a growing problem throughout most of East Asia.
And this of course is just what I was able to find in English (which might help explain why I found far less information on Africa and South America). I do find it interesting that almost every article I found in researching this subject has been written since 2016—we’re only at the tip of this iceberg in terms of research and understanding.
I’m not going to jump into all the different reasons for the apparent breakdown of intimate friendships (especially among men) in the 21st Century. But I don’t think it’s quite as simple as blaming social media and/or Millennials and calling it a day. I’ll suggest that something is fundamentally not working the way we expect it to when it comes to forming these deep, meaningful relationships, and leave it at that.
Hope for and From the Church
However, I don’t think this has to be all doom-and-gloom. On the positive side, I think this gives the global church an incredible opportunity to be the close friends that people are crying out for. Sure, befriending new people can be an uncomfortable stretch for many of us, myself included, but can we really afford not to?
Both the gospel and the body of Christ can speak enormous hope into this issue. Imagine an entire church working together as a body to glorify God and love others. Now imagine a group of churches in a city working together for that purpose. Now imagine the global church. Can you see it?
I see no better cure for this “loneliness pandemic” than the church—so much so that I think this will be one of the primary ways the church regains contextual relevance in the post-Christian West. The social connection that people are literally dying for is built into the very nature of what it means to be God’s people. That’s powerful stuff.
The Friendships That Shape How We Interpret the World (and the Ones That Don’t)
So far, we’ve been talking a lot about sociology and theory and billions of people. But I also think that it’s helpful to look at this on a more personal level as well.
So, let’s get personal. What’s your story, and more specifically, how did you come to believe what you believe about life? You know, the deep philosophical stuff like purpose, truth, good and evil, faith and love. Go ahead, I’ll give you some space to think about it.
As I think through my life, the ways I see the world have been strongly influenced by a handful of my close confidants. They’ve helped me define what it means to be a “good person” and continually help me grow into the man I want to become.
And yes, there’s also a much darker side. Other (now ex-) confidants have also been the source of untold pain, shame and downright evil in my life. Such is the risk of love and trust. And while I don’t like to admit it, this has caused me to interpret the world in some incredibly negative and dangerous ways as well.
I imagine your story is similar—that both the wonderfully positive and brokenly negative ways you look at the world, others and even yourself have been heavily influenced by these relationships (or in some cases, which I well understand, the lack thereof).
Sure, this statement that intimate friends have shaped who I am isn’t exactly rocket science. But I think a related statement is a lot more applicable, especially in the realm of missions:
The way I see the world has never been significantly influenced by someone I did not first trust.
And that’s a message I think the evangelical church needs to hear. We can have all the truth in the world, but it doesn’t do much good if someone is unwilling to hear it. Something about noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.
I Just Don’t Trust You Enough to Talk About That
I didn’t care about Jesus the first time I heard the gospel. Or the time after that. Or the next.
I annoyingly dismissed several well-meaning Christians in my younger and less vulnerable years. I didn’t care how “true” or “good” or “whatever” they thought they were; I simply didn’t trust them enough to speak into my life. When I finally did hear someone out, it was (humanly speaking) only because I trusted that person enough to even consider what he was saying. I often forget the importance of this.
At least for me, it’s easy to prioritize truth over relationships. I spend more time trying to figure out the “right” thing to say or do in a given situation rather than focusing on how to build said relationship. What would it look like if we started prioritizing these kinds of deep, intimate friendships with both those inside and outside the church?
To quote a dead U.S. president with adorable stuffed bears named after him, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Or back to Paul, if I do all this great stuff without love, “I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-3).
For as true as this is when communicating the gospel with someone of your own culture, it becomes even more magnified when doing so with someone of a different culture. Imagine for a moment that a foreigner whom you’ve just met boldly declares that the fundamental core of who you are and what you believe is a lie. Would you honestly give them the time of day? Yeah, neither would I.
I Don’t Have the Time to Wait 500 Years!
The obvious implication is that (again, humanly speaking) someone isn’t likely to up and change their long-held religious beliefs and convictions because some stranger told them to. It takes an incredibly close and trusted friend to even begin to speak into that. Of course, that’s not to say that we should never share the gospel with a stranger or that God can’t somehow work in spite of that. Rather, building intimate, trust-filled relationships is often what gives credibility to our message.
At least in my mind, this begs the question, “How likely is someone to have a close and trusted friend who also happens to be a follower of Christ?” So, I built a computer program to find out. The results were pretty startling.
For those really interested in more information, you can read more about the results and methodology here.
Let’s assume for a moment that you are not a follower of Christ, you have zero Christian confidants and you live in the United States. Then statistically, you would just randomly become very close friends with your first evangelical Christian confidant in about 10 years. In fact, there’s about a 99.8 percent chance that you’d make one before you die. Sure those numbers are based on things like where you live and how many close friends you actually have, but it’s a pretty good average.
On the other hand, if you lived in Japan, you would statistically make your first evangelical Christian confidant sometime around your 491st birthday. This is of course to suggest that you are far more likely to die before that ever happens.
And if that’s not a compelling need for intentional cross-cultural missions among the unreached, I don’t know what is. That’s not to suggest that this is the only way someone would ever believe the gospel, but it’s certainly an important piece.
So, Now What?
Great question; I’m glad you asked.
To reemphasize an earlier point, there are billions of people deeply longing for loving, trusting relationships. This provides an enormous opportunity for you and I to become that loving friend.
So where do we start? I think the best piece of advice I can give is that we really don’t need to overthink it. “Hi, my name’s John. I like (something about you). Do you want to be friends!?” It works for a bunch of four-year-olds, and it works just fine for adults, too. Sure, you may not become instant-confidants, but all our relationships have to start somewhere.
On a slightly more serious note, I’d encourage you to take a quick inventory. Who are the people speaking into your life? Whose lives are you speaking into? Who might God be challenging you to befriend?
Regardless of your involvement or interest in missions, I’d like to challenge you to share some of these ideas with two people in your social circle. Bring it up with friends at lunch, share the article with your pastor, call up a relative or close friend and tell them how much you trust and appreciate them (they probably want to hear from you, and odds are, they’d really appreciate it!)
For those looking for ways to develop intentional cross-cultural friendships, I’ll break things down into a few different stages.
- For those just beginning—there are all kinds of opportunities to make new friends with someone from another culture. Pray that God would lead you to someone looking for one, and then keep your eyes open. It can be a little awkward at first, but most people are desperately longing for someone to be a close friend.
- For those with a bit more interest—how can you be a close friend to someone from another culture? ISI reports that 75 percent of international students never enter an American home. I imagine the number is similar, if not even higher, for international workers. Inviting someone over for dinner could be a great next step.
- For those looking to go overseas—practice building strong, trust-filled relationships with people from another culture who don’t know Jesus here in the States. Honestly, the ability to form deep, trust-filled friendships with people from another culture is probably more important than your ability to “evangelize,” especially in your first few years.
Please join me in praying that God uses his church to proclaim his love to those crying out for it.
Again, here’s a link to download the full methodology and results. Full disclosure, it reads like a research paper. (You like reading research papers on a Christian mission blog, too? We should be friends!!!)
John Hawke worked 10 years at OMF (U.S.) as a mobilizer-data analyst-coder-teacher-writer. His passions include running, satire, coding, board games, mobilizing the American church and medium-length walks on the beach.