In 2016, long before the advent of COVID-19, The New York Times ran a piece by a Dr. Dhruv Khullar titled, “How Social Isolation Is Killing Us.”
“Social isolation,” Khullar wrote, “is a growing epidemic — one that’s increasingly recognized as having dire physical, mental and emotional consequences. Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20% to 40%.”
What effect will the social distancing measures ordered by state and federal leaders to combat the spread of COVID-19 have on this older and more pervasive social isolation epidemic? When it’s over, will people make an extra effort to connect with others following weeks of enforced social distancing? Or will these temporary measures have legs — will they continue on after the executive orders have expired?
Digital distractions have already replaced human interactions for many people in daily life. The coronavirus may exacerbate this new reality.
Experts say that about one in three people in the U.S. lives alone. Among those who are over 85, the number is more like one in two. Katie Hafner, reporting in The New York Times, writes that “studies ... show the prevalence of loneliness among people older than 60 ranging from 10 to 46%.” Khullar states that “A wave of new research suggests social separation is bad for us,” impacting sleep, altering immune systems and raising stress hormone levels.
When isolation becomes the norm, outsiders become a threat — and for many people, isolation is the norm. Perhaps this rise in individual isolation is affecting a rise in national isolationism, as demonstrated in the heated immigration debate, ironically being waged on the internet by people speaking out of isolation. Future historians may identify the growth of isolation and isolationism as a major story of the 21st century.
The church has an alternative story to tell or, rather, the church is an alternative story. Instead of isolation, it is a story of community. Instead of division, it is a story of reconciliation. Instead of alienation, it is a story of inclusion. Instead of top-down charity, it is a story of side-by-side friendship. It is the story of Jesus, incarnate for, and in, his church.
This alternative story is first of all the story of the community-loving God who, according to Christian understanding, exists forever in the loving, blissful community of the Trinity. This God didn’t create the universe to satisfy some unmet need but to share the unending joy of the Godhead. In carrying out his intent, God became human and did what God always does: shared his love with others.
The ultimate example of this love is the cross of Jesus. As St. John wrote, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son ...” Then God gave himself again: the other member of the joyful Trinity, known to us as the Spirit, came to live in people. Those people, now sharing one Spirit, were united into one people - the church.
In this divine comedy, that church, the church everyone knows - messy, incomplete and sometimes just silly — has become part of the alternative story. When the church most fully embodies its divine calling to be the dwelling place of the joyful God, it becomes a prominent and glorious character in God’s story of community, reconciliation, inclusion and friendship.
Though the church is brought into the story by the author, it must be intentional about its place in the story. It must reflect the joyful God by being a people of community and by taking actions that demonstrate this to be true. The church, for example, might organize dinners and connection times for all its people. It might choose to be a place where forgiveness and reconciliation take place; where the outsider becomes an insider; where social status is relentlessly deconstructed as a barrier to friendship.
In an age marked by social isolation, the church can and must provide a striking alternative: a people who share an identity as family, who spend time together, forgive each other, and like each other. It can be a growing family, welcoming others in and helping them to find their place with their loving Father and the rest of the family.
— Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Mich. His blog, “The Way Home,” is at shaynelooper.com.