Did you know there are three kinds of loneliness? I didn’t until I read the first chapter of Together (1). (Dr Vivek Murthy is the 19th surgeon general of the United States.) Here is what he wrote:

Researchers have identified three “dimensions” of loneliness to reflect the particular type of relationships that are missing. Intimate, or emotional, loneliness is the longing for a close confidante or intimate partner—someone with whom you share a deep mutual bond of affection and trust. Relational, or social, loneliness is the yearning for quality friendships and social companionship and support. Collective loneliness is the hunger for a network or community of people who share your sense of purpose and interests. These three dimensions together reflect the full range of high-quality social connections that humans need in order to thrive. The lack of relationships in any of these dimensions can make us lonely, which helps to explain why we may have a supportive marriage yet still feel lonely for friends and community. (p. 8)

Reading this was a significant ah-ha moment. I have been researching and teaching on spiritual friendship for some time now and I point folks to three ways we can connect as friends: social groups where we begin the journey of friendship usually through shared meals; small groups like cell groups that provide Christian fellowship for our discipleship journey; and micro or intimate groups where we covenant to go in-depth in sharing our lives in Christ. I am quick to point out that these three categories of connecting come from Jesus. He shared meals as He reached out to people, inviting them to embrace the good news of the kingdom.  He focused on His twelve disciples, and He paid special attention to the three — Peter, James, and John. Now there is medical support for why we need these three levels of connecting.
Reading Dr Murthy, it seems a no-brainer that a church can and should address these three types of loneliness. Corporate worship services, church camps, and church fellowship meals can help people know they are part of a larger community of people who share their values. Church small groups are meant to provide the context for friendship as we follow Jesus. And small spiritual friendship groups of two to four people can help address our need for in-depth relationships like the one David shared with Jonathan or like what happens in a good marriage.
The new insight I received from Murthy is that we need all three levels of connecting and that one level of connecting does not remove the need to connect at the other two levels. I have always been championing the need for small and intimate groups and bemoaning the fact that most churches seem too focused mainly on their large group meetings. Well, I stand corrected. There is the need to belong to a large group of likeminded people who share the same values. Large-group services address that need.
However, I would still argue that most of our churches continue to be weak in addressing the other two types of loneliness in Murthy’s categories, the relational and intimate loneliness. So, ok, I should stop knocking churches for their large-group meetings, but I will still maintain that good large-group meetings do not meet the need for heathy small groups and intimate groups. Mike Frost writes: (2)

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.”
And it hurts when all that friendliness leads only to friendlessness.
In the 1950s, sociologist David Riesman coined the term “the lonely crowd”, in part to describe collectives of people who live according to common traditions and conforming values, but who barely know or like each other. I fear the church is in danger of becoming just such a lonely crowd.

So, while I should stop seeing large-group meetings as unimportant, clearly they are not enough. They may provide some degree of excitement and engagement for a while, but in the long run people will begin to feel that something is missing, that other needs for connecting are not being met.
It is interesting that a lot of my teaching this year will focus on healthy small groups and spiritual friendship. Murthy’s book couldn’t have come at a better time.

(1) Vivek H. Murthy, [New York, NY: Harper Wave,2020]
(2) https://mikefrost.net/the-lonely-crowd-churches-dying-due-to-friendlessness/