Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
Last week, I raised the question of what features of the world and its various contexts in the 21st century might constitute new areas of mission, in the same way that features of the world 50, 100, or 150 years ago led to areas of mission work that we now consider central: education, poverty relief, healthcare, etc.
This week, I suggest the first new area of mission work: loneliness.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote a book entitled Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! The subtitle and the plot point which it references have stuck with me. In Vonnegut's imagined future, the problem of loneliness in the USA has gotten so bad that the government intervenes by assigning people new middle names that create new families and new kin groups to solve the problem of loneliness.
Even Vonnegut regarded this book as one of his lesser works, but I think the recognition that modern, Western society is incredibly isolating and that this problem might require a solution beyond just telling individuals to try harder to make friends is nevertheless insightful.
Nearly half of all Americans report feeling lonely, a figured that has steadily increased since the 1980s. One survey of the challenges facing the communities around twelve UMC churches in New Jersey found loneliness made the top three on every list. Some experts are asking whether loneliness might constitute a health epidemic. Great Britain has appointed a Minister for Loneliness.
It seems that loneliness is indeed a problem for many in the modern West and an increasing problem at that. Vonnegut doesn't think religion could solve the problem of loneliness, but as Christians, we should be more optimistic about the power of our faith.
Moreover, there are good theological reasons why the problem of loneliness would make sense as a mission area for the church. Not all worldly problems need become areas of mission work, but since the Christian faith is inherently about community and connection with God and one another, loneliness is a problem that Christians should care about and should have some resources to address.
Most Christian churches probably think of themselves as good at community. Yet really, they're good at community for those who are already part of the church. Thinking of loneliness and its solutions of relationship and community as mission areas helps shift the conversation about community from being an internally-focused one to an externally-focused one.
Of course, for Christians, the ultimate form of community is Christian community, so invitation to become part of Christian community through evangelism is one way to address the problem of loneliness. That requires, of course, that our churches actually function as places of community and relationship development so that when we invite others in, we are indeed inviting them into a web of relationships that will actually reduce their loneliness.
Moreover, in our evangelism and invitation to Christian community, we should keep in mind that although Protestants often think of conversion as beginning with believing, which is followed by Christian living and the incorporation into Christian community, there is good evidence that conversion in contemporary America oftentimes follows the opposite trajectory of belong, behave, believe (or belong, believe, become). In other words, it starts with community that includes those not already Christians.
Whether or not connecting with the lonely results in them becoming part of our congregations, there is merit to focusing on loneliness as a mission area. Methodists don't just feed or educate or heal only those who are or become Methodist. We recognize these areas of mission express our convictions about who God is and who God calls us to be. They may result in conversions, or they may not, but either way, God still calls us to do them. Reducing loneliness can be seen in the same way.
Thus, as churches in the US and elsewhere in the modern West consider how they may be in mission to the areas around them, one question they could ask themselves is, "How can we create community and relationships with and among those around us, especially the most lonely?" Churches should push themselves to thinking about how their answers to these questions can go beyond just inviting people to worship and instead seek innovative ways of fostering connection for the lonely within their local areas.
The range of possibilities for this type of mission is wide - from climbing gyms at church to cafes for the elderly to kayaking. Churches with legacy buildings that are larger than current congregational needs can turn these buildings into mission assets by using them as a convening space for community. Indeed, there are many ways the church can help people be lonesome no more.