Loneliness Among Us
The first week of the New Year is often a time to take a breath and relax. Autumn was full of excitement with fall festivals, trips to the orchard and pumpkin-spice everything. We were still enjoying Thanksgiving leftovers when Advent ushered in the magic and joy of Christmas, with events nearly every day in December. And we probably stayed up too late on New Year’s Eve.
But now we’re looking at the remaining weeks of January and realize winter is here. Our calendars are empty, winter storms and Covid-19 are keeping us home more than we’d like, and stores have stocked up for Valentine’s Day — which is often one of the loneliest holidays.
We’ve entered a high-risk period for loneliness.
As church leaders, teachers and fellow Christian friends, it’s important to be on the lookout for indicators that loneliness is creeping into our circles. When we do see the signs, we need to know how to help people re-engage and prevent loneliness from getting deep into our sense of being.
People Affected by Loneliness
Anyone can feel lonely at times. Short periods of loneliness come and go, but when loneliness and isolation continue long-term, they can turn into something more serious. Be especially watchful with certain groups who may be at risk for chronic loneliness:
- Homebound and Elderly Members. Many of these members cannot leave their home for health, physical or practical reasons during the winter months. Engaging through technology or social media can be problematic, and they end up watching endless hours of television to pass the time.
- Singles (old or young). Young singles face increasing expectations to have a significant other. By the time they’re in their 30s, many of their friends are in long-term relationships, getting married and starting families. Those who aren’t in relationships may feel like outsiders. They may seem active, but when conversations keep turning to dating, marriage and kids they can feel alone, even when surrounded by people.
- Young Parents. This group may seem surprising, but parents with young children can feel the pull of loneliness — especially first-time parents. They may miss Sunday services or church events due to sick or growing children. If they work, they may have limited free time and can’t hang out to socialize. Stay-at-home parents face another challenge: They’re often left alone with only their beloved child for hours at a time, deprived of adult interaction. Social media is no substitute for a personal phone call or text from someone reaching out to check in with parents in this lonely routine.
- Widowed or Suffered a Death. People who have lost a loved one can experience intensified feelings of grief. Busy schedules and holidays can fill the time and provide perspective, but the quiet stillness of the winter months can make us miss people we love.
Loneliness is an unpleasant emotion that often coincides with isolation. And it’s not just physical isolation. It can be the social pain that comes from being in a group of people who all seem to have something in common — except for you.
Loneliness can last for a moment, an hour, a day or a week. But ongoing loneliness that lasts several weeks or more is a greater risk during the winter months. This type of loneliness has a significant impact on physical and mental health. It can lead to depression, sleep disorders, substance abuse and serious illness.
Signs and symptoms of chronic or prolonged loneliness include:
- inability to connect deeply with others, even with old friends or family
- the feeling that no one is close to you or truly understands you
- an overwhelming feeling of isolation no matter where you are
- negative thoughts of self-doubt and self-worth
- not feeling heard, even when you reach out
- exhaustion and burnout when trying to engage
What Does the Bible Say About Loneliness?
The Bible contains many examples of Scriptural loneliness. David was well-acquainted with it. Several Psalms can be found expressing his loneliness, like Psalm 25:16-21: “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress” (25:16-17, NRSV).
God’s prophets often suffered deep loneliness as they were rejected and abused for what they were saying. Jeremiah was instructed not to marry. He had few friends and is often called the “weeping prophet” by Bible scholars.
Even Jesus must have felt lonely after 40 days of fasting in the wilderness.
But God has answers for loneliness. He often makes deep connections with believers who reach out to Him in their time of need. He doesn’t expect us to be impervious to tough feelings, He simply asks us to reach out to Him and trust Him when these feelings overcome us.
First Peter 5:6-7 (ESV) says “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so, we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” (1 John 3:1, ESV)
Ways to Combat Loneliness in Your Circle
Understanding how loneliness affects people in a church setting is important, but what can we do about it once we recognize the signs? There are several ways you can help members re-engage in your small group, Sunday school class, youth/college group, or even in a friend circle at church:
- Talk about loneliness before it begins. When you’re feeling lonely, the last thing you want to do is reach out. Addressing loneliness proactively provides a well-traveled path for members to follow back into the group when negative feelings arise.
- Host activities that encourage singles. Baby showers for expectant parents are great, but what about other members in your class? Is someone starting a new job? Maybe a single person is moving into a new home for the first time? Think about celebrating those members and moments as well, not just occasions centered around relationships and marriage.
- Encourage members to engage with one another in positive, healthy ways. Volunteering, hobby clubs and service projects are great ways to unite members in a positive way. Research opportunities in your area, then make them easily accessible in your church newsletter or by posting in your classroom. Organize an “angel” program to help members who are confined to home. Volunteers can offer to pick up a gallon of milk or a prescription, or just call to chat. This also gives a sense of purpose and community to the volunteers, who may be struggling with their own loneliness.
- Try “gratitude” or “thankfulness” requests. Time set aside for general “prayer” requests often reveals struggles with life-changing issues. This is an important time, but it can make someone feel that their loneliness is not important enough to share. Guide your class to express gratitude or thanks to God for good things that have happened each week. You can always have a book or box to enter prayer requests to email out later or direct to individuals outside the class setting.
- Take your time. Don’t rush into a lesson or activity. Allowing small group or Sunday school members to engage and build relationships can be more important than the lesson itself. If you’re not comfortable with a spontaneous discussion, consider bringing in another “teacher” to facilitate a conversation and guide it in a Christ-like manner.
- Encourage outdoor activities or exercise. Connect members with similar interests and facilitate get-togethers. Sunlight and physical activity boost endorphins, improve mood and sleep, and can make people feel happier. This can be as simple as identifying a safe space for members to walk every Monday.
- Offer support groups. Loneliness often accompanies a death, divorce or breakup. Connecting people with others facing similar struggles can help them process emotions that may be contributing to feelings of loneliness.
- Recommend professional help. Encourage people suffering with chronic, painful loneliness to seek help through a doctor, therapist or other health care professional. Your pastor or church may have some Christian-based professionals who’ve been vetted that you can recommend.
Your role as leader of a class or small group is to help fellow believers connect with each other and with God. Simply filling up someone’s calendar doesn’t always resolve feelings of loneliness. Focus on events and activities that promote interaction and build relationships around Godly principles.
In the end, it’s up to the individual to overcome feelings of loneliness. You can help by offering opportunities and safe spaces for members to progress in their journey to become stronger in their faith and relationships.
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