What We Believe
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The Loneliness Epidemic by Susan Mettes

John M. Fikkert

The Loneliness Epidemic: Why So Many of Us Feel Alone—and How Leaders Can Respond, by Susan Mettes. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2021, xiv + 206 pages, $22.99.

Reflections and analyses abound on the effects of social isolation since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Spring of 2020. In those initial days, many churches canceled in-person services and shifted to livestream while members remained sequestered in their homes, from a few weeks to many months. This level of isolation led many, including Christian scholars and theologians, to reflect on loneliness and the effects of technology and other factors on current levels of social engagement. As the book’s title suggests, Susan Mettes’s research reveals an epidemic of loneliness, both in America and around the world.

The author studied loneliness via surveys completed in partnership with the Barna Group, a Christian research organization. The surveys received sufficient responses from a wide demographic so that a broad range of subjects and people could be studied. In general, the surveys sought to measure both the frequency and the intensity of loneliness. Of special interest, the survey data was gathered both before and during the beginning of the pandemic, allowing for the study of the pandemic’s effect on loneliness.

The true delight of the book is the level of nuance provided with the data. While anyone can take a statistic and spin it to mean whatever they desire, it takes more effort to untangle complex information and report it in a useful way. Mettes demonstrates her skill by explaining her data with sufficient detail, and she does so without a forced agenda throughout the book. Each chapter ends with an incisive summary of results. For instance, in the chapter on how age affects loneliness, Mettes contends against the common stereotype that older-aged people are the loneliest, as her research finds that younger-aged adults, especially millennials, report significantly higher levels of loneliness. The truth within the stereotype, however, is that factors that often coincide with aging, such as bereavement or developing a disability, do in fact result in higher levels of loneliness. She draws the conclusion from her data that the best way to address loneliness is not to focus on seniors but rather on those of all ages who are experiencing grief or managing disability.

Likewise, another commonly held belief is that single people are more lonely than those who are married. However, Mettes’s study results show that the quality of relationships in a person’s life is more impactful on one’s experience of loneliness and connection rather than the type of relationships one has (including marriage). She recommends both single and married persons work at developing meaningful relationships that cultivate a sense of belonging to a church and civic community.

Subsequent chapters look at the impact of social media, insecurity, churchgoing, and privacy on loneliness. With each facet discussed, her results reveal new ways to understand and consider loneliness and what to do about it.

Of particular interest to readers of Ordained Servant is that the book was written to church leaders. The author uses her research to describe not only problems but also potential solutions to loneliness, and she sees Christian leaders as key participants in combating the loneliness epidemic. One of her recommendations to church leaders is not to rely on programs and provision of resources but to focus instead on personal attention and ways to foster meaningful interaction with leaders and other church members. Another recommendation is to encourage and model hospitality within the church community. More than just nice-sounding ideas, these and other suggestions are worth taking seriously, because they are supported by her research and are consistent with biblical wisdom regarding those who struggle with loneliness.

The book should be read with appreciation for the scope of the author’s expertise. Mettes is a skilled Christian scholar in the field of behavioral science. At multiple points I found myself seeing potential biblical and theological connections to the data she was sharing: specific biblical accounts such as Adam’s singleness in the garden as well as larger themes such as communion with God, communion of the saints, and the benefits of corporate worship. These topics would provide a special revelation lens through which this valuable general revelation data might be viewed. To be fair, the book provides a helpful appendix in which she touches on multiple Scripture verses on loneliness, but a more integrated treatment of these themes would enhance the book’s usefulness to pastors and church leaders. I believe a good theological development on the problem of loneliness would show that the loneliness now found to be at epidemic levels in our age has always existed and is often addressed in Scripture, especially in the Psalms. As a result, I would love a companion volume of biblical and theological reflections on loneliness as they relate to the data shared in the book.

That said, the lack of theological integration by the author is not such a severe limitation that the book should be quickly dismissed. Christian leaders can gain much by learning from an expert in their own field. The advantage of a behavioral scientist walking through behavioral data is the level of nuance and insight that she can glean from it; such nuance might be easily missed by others who do not have the same facility with data and its analysis, much like an orthopedic surgeon can see more than others in an X-ray of a compound fracture.

I recommend this book as a lens to understand loneliness better, especially the loneliness prevalent among our younger people. If read with humility, it will help church leaders correct stereotypes they might carry regarding loneliness and enhance awareness and empathy for those in our churches who are isolated and alone.

John M. Fikkert is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is the director of Ministerial Care, and lives in Pella, Iowa. Ordained Servant Online, August-September 2022.

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Ordained Servant: August 2022

The Plague of Loneliness

Also in this issue

Connecting Some Dots on Disconnection

11 Passages to Read When You Feel Lonely

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Preface

Global Pillage: Stealing Our Data, Our Intelligence, and Our Souls: A Review Article

First Things in Acts and Paul: A Review Article

Dumb and Dangerous: A Review Article

The Deluge of Data

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