'I feel lonely'

According to the Mental Health Foundation, more than a third of people between the ages of 18 and 34 struggle with feelings of isolation. This, in turn, can have a damaging effect on their health, both mentally and physically.

With loneliness on the increase, how can church leaders foster a community that doesn’t leave anyone feeling excluded and forgotten? The following article offers some advice for alleviate loneliness among the church congregation.

Help to ease loneliness in your church

By Catherine Francis

‘God sets the lonely in families…’ Psalm 68 v 6

Loneliness is a major social problem in modern society. Longer life expectancy, often leaving people living alone for decades after the loss of a spouse, contributes to over a million older people in the UK struggling daily with painful loneliness. But it’s not just a problem of old age – research by the Mental Health Foundation found that more than a third of people aged between 18 and 34 struggle with feeling isolated.

Loneliness has been linked to a range of serious health conditions, including depression, high blood pressure and dementia. It also makes people more likely to smoke and drink to excess, and to neglect healthy eating and exercising, with the obvious implications for their health.

So why is loneliness on the rise? The reasons are complex. People are increasingly likely to relocate for work or education, leaving behind family and friends, and breaking up social networks. Commuting and longer working hours mean people are less likely to know their neighbours and be involved in their local communities. High use of social media is also linked to greater levels of reported loneliness. And with singleness and divorce on the increase, more of us are finding ourselves living alone.

Churches are in a unique position to offer a healthy community that can help to alleviate loneliness. Sadly, that isn’t the experience for a lot of single people in the church. Many report feeling isolated and ignored in their churches, and some have given up on church altogether.

The largest ever survey of single Christians, undertaken by Christian Connection, gathered the experiences of nearly 3,000 single churchgoers. Researcher David Pullinger reports:

'Singles often feel isolated and lonely in their churches. They feel invisible and they think about leaving. Couples and families tend to socialise together, and single people often aren’t invited – until they get a partner, when the invitations miraculously start coming in. Even worse, invitations can instantly dry up if someone becomes widowed or divorced.'

If you want to grow a church that embraces everyone and ‘sets the lonely in families’, how can you go about it? We asked single people what would help to foster a culture that doesn’t leave singles (and others) feeling excluded and forgotten…  

‘Treat people as individuals, not defined by their relationship status’

The language used in churches is often based on the assumption that everyone is married with children, and ministries tend to focus on marriage, toddlers, kids’ group and youth clubs. This naturally leads single adults to feel invisible. Considering the fact that one in three Christians is single (according to the Evangelical Alliance), an exclusive focus on family life will leave churches increasingly out of touch with their own members. Treat people as individuals, regardless of their marital status, and bear single people in mind when planning prayers, sermons and ministries.

‘Run social events that aren’t just for families’

A church should be more than services and teaching – it should be a healthy, interacting community. Building relationships requires relaxed time spent chatting and sharing, and that takes more than a half-hour coffee time after a service. Church social events are a great way to build relationships that extend beyond the church building. Traditional activities, such as toddler groups and women’s coffee mornings, typically exclude working singles. Consider running more inclusive events, such as church lunches, cheese and wine evenings, walks and picnics. Some churches do a monthly Sunday lunch hosted across several members’ homes, with a lucky dip that decides who dines where.

‘Help remove the stigma of loneliness’

Many of us struggle with loneliness, and it doesn’t just affect singles – people in couples and families can also feel very alone for different reasons. However, there’s still a certain shame in admitting to being lonely. Acknowledging publicly that many of us struggle with feelings of isolation will help people admit their feelings and reach out.

‘Encourage families to include us’

When people plan get-togethers, they tend to stick to their own friendship groups, and people in a similar situation to themselves – so couples socialise with other couples, and families with other families. Actively encourage your congregation to be mindful of others when planning a dinner party or day out. Point out the value of a range of different relationships, and how an invitation to Sunday lunch could lead to a great new friendship. Encourage families to include singles when planning Christmas, holidays and other events.

‘Highlight alternative living arrangements’

In a culture where ‘having your own place’ is often seen as a measure of adulthood, many people find it actually leaves them profoundly lonely. However, with the cost of accommodation increasing all the time, house sharing is becoming a sensible option, and is a positive choice for many people. Take opportunities to point out the value of flat or house sharing. Encourage church members to open their homes to a lodger. Have a noticeboard for people looking for and offering accommodation, or for people who want to link up with others for a flat share.

‘Don’t tell us God should be enough’

While a close relationship with God goes some way to alleviating the pain of loneliness, humans are created to be in relationships, and our faith simply doesn’t make up for long evenings with no conversation, and painful longings for a flesh-and-blood companion. Dismissing someone’s feelings by telling them God should be enough will only makes them feel more inadequate, isolated and unimportant.

‘Consider running a church holiday’

Planning holidays can be particularly difficult for singles. Unless they have friends in a similar position, they may have the choice of going away on their own, or not at all. Some churches have an annual church holiday. This can be at a conference centre, holiday park or budget hotel, during an off-peak season to keep costs low. For many church members – not just singles – this is an annual treat to look forward to, and a chance to build deeper relationships.

‘Lead by example’

It makes a big difference to lonely parishioners when their church leaders notice and welcome them into their homes and families. An invitation to Sunday lunch or a pastoral visit will be greatly appreciated – and will hopefully encourage other church members to follow your lead, remember people on their own and practise hospitality.

Related information

For further information to help you and your church member understand and deal with loneliness, visit here