Driving to Isolation

Why The Modern American Church Struggles to Answer the Loneliness Epidemic

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Author’s Note: Jeffries has been a practicing Christian for over twenty years. This piece is written from the perspective, and for the betterment, of those attending mainline American Protestant churches, which are typical in suburban environments. People with different denominational backgrounds may find the author’s experience does not reflect their own, and that’s okay.

Men without friends. Seniors aging alone. Parents raising children with little to no village.

It’s a first-world problem that’s been making consistent headlines for a few years. Americans of all ages are by-and-large lonely, without deep friendships, and have few people with which to share their best and worst moments. This loneliness is found across gender, racial, and generational lines. For me  as a Christian, my own demographic stands out in particular.

In the winter of 2020, a study by the Barna Group concluded that churchgoing Americans were as lonely as the nation at large, and they were slightly more lonely than Americans who didn’t attend church at all. Even as newer research shows that American Christians are now, post-pandemic, slightly less lonely than the rest of the country, pundits of the faith struggle to ascertain why. Many admit that confounding variables make it difficult to arrive at a conclusion, not the least of which is the decline in church attendance over the last several years. Not exactly great news for a tribe that claims to know the ultimate source of meaning and joy and longs to provide refuge to a weary world.

I’ve consumed dozens of sources over the last few months where pastors wrestle with not only why this is, but how to fix it. Explanations range from the proliferation of online services, to politics, to the simple human trick of refusing to be vulnerable or inconvenienced. Solutions offered include designing better churches that offer inviting, living room-like settings, providing snacks to encourage congregants to linger after Sunday sermons, or offering childcare for weeknight Bible studies and volunteer opportunities. 

Those are all great ideas. They also completely miss the bigger picture.

Every pastor interviewed said they would like to redesign their church to foster more comfortable conversation spaces. Not a single one said they would rethink where in their city they would build their church. They all said they should promote volunteer activities and special events to combat loneliness in their flock. No one said anything about how they could connect outside their building. 

Everyone said that it was vitally important to have a support network to carry us through critical times - major flashpoints like divorce, loss, or a medical diagnosis. No one noticed that loneliness creeps steadily into the quiet of daily life, where we wonder if anyone would care to hear the myriad of small moments that make up our day.

In all the searching I did across English-speaking Christendom for this piece, only one source offered what I feel is the most critical explanation for why not only Americans are lonely, but why The Church herself seems to be lonelier than most - and why the American church will always struggle to foster meaningful connections that combat the modern mist of loneliness and isolation.

The biggest enemy of connection, inside and outside the church, is not the Internet, or politics, or lack of opportunities to gather, give, and grow. That title belongs to one uniquely Western cultural force, one that we’re so accustomed to swimming in that we’ve forgotten we’re even in it: car-dependent sprawl.

For better or worse, our worlds were physically tighter a century ago. With rare exception, most of non-farming America lived within a 1-3 mile radius of their workplace, school, and anything they needed to buy. It was no paradise, and it certainly didn’t mean that everyone we encountered on the street was someone we trusted. But we were far more likely to at least be recognized in the crowd and encounter different community members in multiple arenas of our daily lives. We’d see coworkers at the market, our kids’ teachers on our bus to work, or run into fellow church-goers at a neighborhood event. Along the way we’d be rubbing shoulders with the rest of our community as we went about our business.

In much of today’s America, it's the norm to live in one neighborhood, drive to another to go to work, drive to another to go to school, another to go to church, another to shop, and another to spend time with family and friends. Like Euclidean zoning has done to our cities, a combination of wealth and policy have enabled us to compartmentalize our lives by type of activity. It’s a rare event when people suddenly pop up from disparate sectors of our world where we don’t expect them. The journey from A to B is also temperature controlled, personalized, and isolated from the environment it moves us through. 

Bodies of faith have, understandably, followed the same development pattern as the rest of post-war America. Neighborhood parishes nestled in among businesses, homes, and services have been largely supplanted by rolling campuses on acreage, nary a sidewalk to be seen. Rather than being part of the backdrop of “Monday through Saturday” life, most of us only see our church building when we arrive on Sunday morning. Rather than maximizing the church’s space to serve practical community needs, relatively few public activities happen there. 

There’s certainly an amount of grace warranted in this. When somewhere around 60% of Americans live in a suburban area, what else would we expect but for our churches to look like the people who attend them and the places they inhabit? That’s how I grew up, and until seven years ago, I didn’t think much of it. As a wayward teen with conflict at home, my church was my refuge, even as an introvert. But as a stay-at-home mother with a good husband, a safe home, and a congregation I loved, I found myself the loneliest I’d ever been in my life. It wasn’t until I started digging into the housing crisis in my increasingly unaffordable town, and I realized my most reliable community was a Facebook group, did it become clear that I had to shrink my world in order to feel known and find my village.

Pouring coffee with other volunteers or teaching Sunday school for an hour helps turn churchgoing consumers into contributing kingdom-builders. But it’s not as much help for the daily commute home when we find ourselves wondering whether anyone would miss us if we didn’t come to work. People who show up for others in the deep, dark spaces in life are nothing short of heroes to those they come alongside. It's also a lot harder to show up when you’re separated by physical miles or the cost of putting gas in the tank. One pastor I read, commenting on loneliness, asked his readers: “Who do you trust with your garage code?” Respectfully, I think a better question is: “How many of your congregants do you run into at the grocery store?”

For as long as the mainline Protestant church continues to fall in step with the anti-community forces of sprawl and car culture, we will struggle to “do life together,” as echo so many of our mission statements. We’ll struggle to be a place void of meaningful class differences (Galatians 3:28) if the only way to enjoy the company of a faith community is to arrive by private machine. We’ll have a harder time feeding the hungry (James 1:27) if they have to cross town on foot from the social services office or their apartment. Yet, as I list the ways I wish my Church was different, Boenhoffer tells me that loving my dream for the church rather than the church I have in front of me is a prideful and dangerous game. So where do we go from here? How do we, as the Church, realistically bridge the physical gaps between what the body offers its members and where those members live?

I think it starts with how we view growth. It’s common that when a body of faith has outgrown its location, the church seeks to build a single larger campus with its own private building and staff, first concerning itself with traffic and parking. Honestly, I think fewer churches should abandon smaller, centrally located buildings for far-flung campuses in a sea of pavement. We can be that shining city on a hill but actively seek to be part of the backdrop of Monday through Saturday. What if, when we needed some elbow room, we instead found a strategic place (or two) where the message could be livestreamed to a group? If the point of in-person services is to connect the members of the body in liturgy, it would better serve those purposes to use a community hall, a high school auditorium, or even someone’s living room, rather than ask the whole congregation to drive outside town just to be in one place together. It’s more important for fellow believers to have regular connections outside the church building than it is for the flock to be gathered under one roof once a week.

On the same note, it would be wise for newly planted churches to take stock of who lives in their immediate neighborhood when considering the time and day of their programs. If the neighbors are predominantly low-wage service workers, why offer another 10am Sunday sermon when restaurant and hotel employees are usually working? If another church nearby offers a daytime gathering for mothers of young children, why not meet the needs of the moms who work during the day, and offer yours on a weeknight or a Saturday? Take note of who sits at your table, but also who doesn’t.

The best news in all this: the existing footprints of suburban churches can be put to practical use. In a culture that has seen the rise of hostile architecture and the erosion of no- or low-cost third spaces, the Church has a unique opportunity to invite passersby to safely linger in the shadow of the steeple or provide space for community needs that would otherwise go unmet. It can be as simple as placing comfortable benches outside that can be seen and accessed by the public, and a sign that welcomes people to sit and rest. Put up wifi and you’ll soon need several more benches. A more ambitious idea would be to contact the local health department and see if there are any pop-up services your building can provide. Does your city need a warming shelter for the unhoused? A place to give flu shots? Maybe the USDA needs a drop spot in your neighborhood. With a building that’s empty most of the week, there are bound to be a few spaces that can pull double duty as the hands and feet of Jesus. Isn’t that the whole point of this thing we call “church,” anyway?

If the American church is to be more than a social club, it must provide countercultural and practical answers to pervasive problems. I’ve watched as my faith family wrestles with how the church doesn’t look much different from the world around us lately, especially since the 2016 election. As the faithful reflect inward and look upward, and we hear calls from the pulpit to speak and love differently, I can’t help but wonder if much of that not only begins, but creates lasting change, when we build differently, too.

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Krista Jeffries is a Partner Writer for Resident Urbanist. Originally from Virginia Beach, she is a married mother of three currently living on California’s Central Coast. Her many adventures have taken her to healthcare, public art, housing advocacy, and four countries on three continents. She currently serves on the board of the local Housing Authority and is one of the founding members of SLO County YIMBY. She has previously written for the San Luis Obispo Tribune and New Times San Luis Obispo. You can follow her on the website formerly known as Twitter.

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