Recently, my wife and I got hooked on a TV show. We’d wait in anticipation for the latest episode each week. 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 who 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 . . . is it misty in here?).
But, as the show’s script kept reminding us, the importance of this “experiment” went deeper than just entertainment. The producers claimed that 40 per cent of elderly people in care don’t receive any visitors. Up to 80 per cent 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 aged-care residents, both in their mental health and mood, as well as 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’s not 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, one in four people in Australia report feeling lonely each week. In New Zealand, the number of people aged 15-plus who said they feel lonely most or all of the time jumped from 139,000 to 237,000 in just two years. It’s no wonder experts are warning of a loneliness epidemic.
How did it come to this? Shifting cultural values, personal entertainment systems 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, casual sex . . .
The most at-risk groups are young adults, elderly people, socially excluded groups and those in transitional life phases, such as moving interstate or experiencing marital breakdown.
On the flipside, 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, each other and the world around us.”
Nicolaisen went through opioid addiction herself before starting the program and 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 millennia. Maybe one solution to our emptiness epidemic is an oldie but a goodie: 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 Joe or Jane searching for meaningful connections.
But first we need to address some of the baggage and misconceptions 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 understood by early Christians and the biblical authors, is a group of people devoted to the teachings and person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, church cannot truly be experienced in isolation, but can be a haven of connection for the isolated. Christ-followers are called to be the church. People. Not bricks and mortar, but hearts and hands.
The Bible uses a number of different metaphors to paint the picture of church. A body, where individual believers, the parts or “members” of the body, work together to function as a whole. Or the bride of Christ, intimating relationship and love.
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 too long ago, when I discovered firsthand the benefits of connection and support that being 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 jump in responsibility at my deadline-driven job, part-time Masters study 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 mid-week 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 judgement or solutions, just a listening ear and shared prayer. I’m afraid sometimes it was just venting—sharing my frustrations and pain—and, it may have seemed, not 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 audio-visual productions or slick rhetorical presentations; just eating together and fellowship. Fellowship is a key to church community and is 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 reference to God. In reading about recent experiments with non-religious or even atheist “churches”, it seems that, just a few years on, many are struggling to stay sustainable. These projects include all the elements you might think a successful church requires: music, creativity, community, inspiration, accountability, 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 Head of the church (see 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 judgemental; there are bad and broken people in churches. So don’t attend or commit to a toxic church. 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.
What the Bible says about the church
The life of the early church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42–47).
The church is like a body: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body. . . . If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:12,26,27).
The church is like a temple: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? . . . God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16, 17).
“ . . . [Y]ou also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house. . . . you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:5, 9).
The church is like a bride: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25–27).
The mission of the church: Jesus said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19,20).
Jarrod Stackelroth is editor of Adventist Record, the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s internal newsmagazine in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific region. He lives in Sydney with his wife and new baby.