Recently, my wife and I got hooked on a TV show. Each week we’d wait in anticipation for the latest episode. The show was Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds The basic premise? Take a class of cheeky, energetic, curious four-year-olds (some of whom lacked a filter) and have them spend a significant amount of time with the elderly residents of an aged-care facility.
On the surface it was cute, wholesome reality television, with plenty of laughs and a few tears (just for my wife, of course?).
But, as the show’s script kept reminding us, the importance of this “experiment” went deeper than just entertainment. The producers claimed that 40 percent of elderly people in care facilities don’t receive any visitors. Up to 80 percent of the elderly participants featured tested high on the scale for geriatric depression, loneliness, and limited mobility. During the course of the show, we witnessed the older people coming out of their comfort zones, trying new things, and forming lasting friendships with the little people. Regular interaction with the young folk created measurable improvements for the residents in both their mental health and their mood as well as in their fitness levels. There were demonstrable benefits for the kids as well—they improved their confidence, social skills, and vocabularies.
It seems that intergenerational mingling is beneficial in a number of ways. Yet, in our Western context, where it’s quite common to move to another city or state for work—disconnecting from extended family and friends—many of us lack meaningful relationships and intergenerational ties outside our immediate family.
The stark reality is that it isn’t just elderly people who are suffering from isolation and loneliness these days. Add mental health concerns into the mix, and many of us are suffering from disconnection and disillusionment. In fact, MDLinx, an online resource for physicians, reports that loneliness has doubled in recent decades. Now 47 percent of adult Americans—that’s nearly half!—suffer from loneliness. Experts aren’t exaggerating when they call it an epidemic.
How did it come to this? Shifting cultural values, personal entertainment systems—all end up meaning less need for social interaction. High-density living in our cities and disconnection from meaningful relationships have left us feeling hopeless. The relationships we do have often don’t meet our expectations or are fleeting and shallow.
Loneliness causes our brains to seek out rewards where they can be found. And often those places are negative. Not everyone deals with the loneliness in the same way. We use coping mechanisms and crutches—opioid addiction, alcoholism, shopping, gambling, sex . . . you name it.
The most at-risk groups are young adults and elderly people, socially excluded groups, and those in transitional life phases, such as moving interstate or experiencing a marital breakdown.
On the flip side, strong social connection produces positive chemicals in the brain that help with emotional balance and self-control.
“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety,” says Jennifer Nicolaisen, who founded SeekHealing, a pioneering rehabilitation program that focuses on community and connection “The opposite of addiction is genuine, meaningful interactions, and authentic connections and experiences with ourselves, with each other, and with the world around us.”
Nicolaisen went through opioid addiction herself before starting the program, and she swears to its effectiveness.
“We have this great untapped resource available to us in each other as a community to provide really supportive healing work,” says Nicolaisen. “It’s not the same as therapy, but it can be supportive in a way that’s as powerful, if not more so.”
She goes on to say that rituals are a fundamental human thing, bringing people together.
an ancient solution
As this new area of research becomes more widely known, you might be reminded of established communities that have served society for two millennia. Maybe one solution to our emptiness epidemic is an old institution—the church. Now before you roll your eyes or look away, hear me out. For many people, more expensive or intentional intervention might be necessary, but church is a free and local option for the average Jane or Joe searching for meaningful connections.
But first we need to address some of the baggage and misconceptions that the word church has gathered in this day and age. The church is not a building, although it has come to hold that meaning as well.
Church, as it was understood by the early Christians and the biblical authors, is a group of people devoted to the teachings and person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, church cannot be experienced in isolation. Rather, it can be a haven of connection for those who are isolated. Christ-followers are called to be the church. People, not bricks and mortar—but blood and bone.
The Bible uses a number of different metaphors to paint the picture of church. One is a body, where individual believers are the parts, or “members,” of the body who work together to function as a whole. Another metaphor for the church is “the bride of Christ.” This metaphor suggests intimate relationships that are loving and caring. Being the church encourages inclusion, gives function and purpose to our lives. Faith in God, as part of regular church attendance, shifts the focus off ourselves and helps us focus on areas where we can serve others.
There was a time in my life not so long ago when I discovered firsthand the benefits of connection and support that being a part of the church can provide. I was battling to hold everything together. The weight of juggling competing responsibilities at work and home, while trying to support my wife, who was struggling with her own mental health, meant that I was feeling fairly isolated and alone. The pressure of a sudden increase in responsibility at my job that was driven by deadlines, plus part-time study at the master’s level and unmet expectations in my marriage, left me feeling desolate.
Enter my church. Through this difficult season of my life, I had at least two church experiences each week that kept me connected, grounded, and encouraged. I attended my local church for weekend services (even though some days it was really hard attending alone, without my wife). And midweek I would meet with a small group of men from my church for a meal. This was a group with whom I could share everything I was going through without judgment or solutions—just a listening ear and shared prayer! I’m afraid sometimes I was just venting and sharing my frustrations and my pain, which may not seem very productive, but it was lifesaving to have that church—that close community of believers—in my life.
The early Christian church, mentioned in the New Testament book of Acts, was just families and groups of people meeting in each other’s homes. There weren’t big bands, fancy audiovisual productions, or slick rhetorical presentations; just eating together and fellowship. Fellowship is a key to church community, and it’s one of those Christian words that, to me, just means hanging out, getting to know each other, and sharing life with one another.
church without God
Having faith in a Higher Power helps too. Some have tried to find the benefits of community without the need for God. In reading about recent experiments with nonreligious or even atheist “churches,” it seems that in just a few years many are struggling to stay sustainable. These projects include all the elements you might think a successful church requires: music, creativity, community, inspiration, accountability, and service. They tend to work for a time, but eventually, everyone drifts apart, and the experiment fails. Church takes a large commitment and investment of time and energy. This means that, for a secular group, external motivation is often lacking and wanes after a honeymoon period. Indeed, it seems that a connection with Jesus as the Head of the church (Colossians 1:18) is needed to bring purpose and a push for very separate and distinct individuals to stay together in community.
a place to belong
Yes, churches can be places that are critical and judgmental; there are bad and broken people in true churches. So if you start attending a church that’s toxic, look around some more. Jesus gave us the key to identifying His true church: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
Perhaps, if you’ve been feeling isolated and lonely or are just looking for the positive benefits that a loving, intergenerational community might bring, you should try your local church. You might be surprised by the results.
Jarrod Stackelroth is the editor of Adventist Record, the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s newsmagazine in Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific region. He lives in Sydney with his wife, who is expecting their first child.