The Call to Connection

Earlier this month, the United States Surgeon General called for immediate action to address a public health epidemic. The problem Dr. Vivek Murthy named was not a new virus like COVID-19, nor was it a medical condition like cancer. It was a social condition with devastating consequences on the country’s mental, physical, and emotional life. The national emergency he named was loneliness.

Currently, one out of every two Americans is afflicted with it. And the health implications are sobering. Social disconnection raises the risk of heart disease and stroke by roughly 30%, and places one at a 50% greater risk for dementia. Its negative impact on the human body is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It puts one at greater risk for depression and suicide, and harms communities. A sense of isolation has been associated with reduced work productivity, poorer school performance, and diminished civic engagement.

Back in 2000, Robert Putnam published a book warning of such a crisis: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam argued that social interaction had declined significantly in the United States since the 1950s. He cited bowling as one example. While the number of people who bowl increased from the 1950s to the year 2000, the percentage of people who bowled in leagues decreased. People were doing the same thing but increasingly doing it in isolation from one another.

Then the pandemic came and supercharged this sense of disconnection. Months of home quarantine left us not simply bowling alone but doing nearly everything alone.

What is to be done about the crisis? How do you address a national epidemic of isolation? One obvious solution is to provide opportunities for meaningful social connection in the midst of a lonely nation. The surgeon general puts its proposed solution like this: “We must strengthen social infrastructure – the programs, policies, and structures that aid the development of healthy relationships that bring people together.”

As a pastor, I can’t help but say to myself that’s the church! Every week, at least one miraculous opportunity for social connection occurs in sanctuaries nationwide. People sit together in one physical space or join that space virtually through live streaming technology. They sing together. They eat together. They greet one another and share stories. And not only do they connect with others gathered alongside them in worship, but they are also reminded – through the words and rituals – that they are connected to the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all things. They hear of the rich communion they have with God the loving Parent through Jesus Christ the Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit. They recall the communion of saints and how they are part of a great cloud of witnesses that spreads across time. They know solidarity by joining with others in a commitment to service, justice, and prayer. And then they walk out the sanctuary doors to have coffee together while the children play on the lawn.

Every week, a time-tested means of addressing the loneliness crisis is right there for the taking. May people find at Knox – and in faith communities all over the world – at least one place to know they are not alone.

~Pastor Matt