It’s hard not to be reminded of mortality at my stage of life. Almost daily I receive news of a friend who has passed on or a friend who is struggling with a critical illness. I do not fear death per se. I know where I am going, though I hope the transition will be free of pain. But I am convicted of the need to be more focused as to where I invest my energies and time. I have decided to return to the original mission of Graceworks — the promotion of spiritual friendship. I am trying out a new mission statement:
“Building communities of friends in a lonely world through the promotion of spiritual friendship.”
What do you think?
There is no disputing the fact that we live in a lonely world.
Even before the coronavirus triggered a ‘social recession’ with its toxification of face-to-face contact, three in five US adults considered themselves lonely.
In Europe it was a similar story. In Germany two-thirds of the population believed loneliness to be a serious problem. Almost a third of Dutch nationals admitted to being lonely, one in ten severely so.
In the UK, the problem had become so significant that in 2018 the prime minister went so far as to appoint a Minister for Loneliness. . . . The data for Asia, Australia, South America and Africa were similarly troubling.
We are in the midst of a global loneliness crisis. None of us, anywhere, are immune. (Noreena Hertz, The Lonely Century [London, UK: Sceptre Books, 2020], 4–5.)
The health impact of loneliness is also well documented.
Loneliness can be deadly: this according to former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, among others, who has stressed the significant health threat. Loneliness has been estimated to shorten a person’s life by 15 years, equivalent in impact to being obese or smoking 15 cigarettes per day. A recent study revealed a surprising association between loneliness and cancer mortality risk, pointing to the role loneliness plays in cancer’s course, including responsiveness to treatments. (Claire Pomeroy, “Loneliness is Harmful to Our Nation's Health,” Scientific American, March 20, 2019.)
The fact that the New Testament has at least 24 “one another” commands is proof enough that the normal Christian life is one lived in community and that social isolation is toxic to the life of faith as well. There are many articles reminding us of the spiritual dangers of loneliness. (See, for e.g., Marshall Segal, “Me, Myself, and Lies: The Spiritual Dangers of Isolation,” Desiring GOD, April 26, 2022.)
All the above should not come as a surprise to followers of Jesus who are told by God very early in the Bible that it is not good for human beings to be alone (Gen 2:18). We note that this testimony to the need for human beings to live in community was given when sin had not yet entered the picture and Adam had perfect access to God. A relationship with God does not replace our need for a relationship with others, just as a relationship with others does not replace our relationship with God.
We shouldn’t be surprised then that the gospel restores both our relationship with God and the creation of a new community where people love each other. I have been particularly moved by John 15 in recent times where Jesus calls His disciples friends and then He tells His disciples that they are to love each other as He has loved them. At the very least followers of Jesus are to call each other friends. But Jesus also defines for us what loving each other as friends looks like: we are to lay down our lives for each other (Jn 15:13).
Unfortunately, the church is one of the loneliest communities around. Mike Frost lists some reasons why it is so hard to make friends in church (Mike Frost, “The Lonely Crowd: churches dying due to friendlessness”, July 22, 2020, MIKE FROST.)
- Church people aren’t good listeners;
- Church people struggle to be vulnerable; and
- Church people need to be less busy.
And so he writes:
I’ve lost count of the number of Christians who’ve told me they either stopped attending church or left their church to join another one because they couldn’t make any friends there.
They report that the church people were friendly enough. They were hospitable and welcoming.
As one person told me, “They’re nice to you, but no one becomes your friend.”
Learning to be friends has missional implications as well. As we learn friendship in the church community it also trains us to better offer friendship and the friendship of Christ to a lonely world.
Clearly the church needs to get its act together where friendship is concerned. This is why I feel convicted that, going forward, this will be the primary focus of my research, reflection, writing, teaching, and mentoring. I appreciate all the help and encouragement I can get.