Even before the pandemic, loneliness has been an issue in America. Barna data on relationships as well as research among younger generations both in the U.S. and globally have highlighted how people have begun to feel isolated and disconnected.
Susan Mettes—behavioral scientist and researcher—partnered with Barna to learn about the causes of loneliness and how Christian communities can better minister to people experiencing loneliness. Today’s article shares data from Mettes’ new book, The Loneliness Epidemic (now available for purchase), exploring rates of loneliness both across the nation and within the Church.
Three in 10 Americans Report Feeling Lonely At Least Once Each Day
How do researchers define loneliness? Mettes offers this explanation when sharing findings from The Loneliness Epidemic: “In [this] academic research, loneliness is the distress someone feels when their social connections don’t meet their need for emotional intimacy.” She continues, “It’s lack. It’s disappointment. It’s something we are conscious of, even when we don’t call it loneliness. Loneliness is a thirst that drives us to seek companionship—or, perhaps better, fellowship. Without fellowship, we go on needing others and seeking relief for that need.”
In The Loneliness Epidemic, Mettes compares data from winter 2020 (February to March) and spring 2020 (April to May), highlighting that, even before the pandemic, one-third of U.S. adults were reporting feeling lonely for at least some of each day. Zooming out a bit more, over half experienced loneliness at least once a week. The numbers don’t shift much between the winter and spring responses—overall, three in 10 Americans say they feel lonely at least once each day.
Loneliness doesn’t arrive alone; feelings of loneliness are often accompanied by varying levels of pain. For those U.S. adults who had experienced loneliness at least once with the past week, two in five (45% in winter 2020, 42% in spring 2020) said these feelings of loneliness ranged anywhere from intense to unbearable.
“These numbers give us a snapshot of loneliness. What they don’t reveal is for whom loneliness is a long-term, chronic condition. The chronic version of loneliness is more damaging,” notes Mettes, referring to the data above. “Those whose loneliness is constant and chronic have likely experienced how loneliness can chip away at health and quality of life.”
One in Five Practicing Christians Feels Lonely Each Day
Is the rate of loneliness in the Church lower than that of the greater population? The data don’t reveal striking differences. U.S. churchgoers report similar levels of loneliness as do their non-churchgoing peers, with both groups closely aligned with the average.
Looking at committed faith practice, practicing Christians—those who identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month—do show a slight decrease in how often they feel lonely, when compared to churched adults and the general population. However, a notable one in five (20%) still feels lonely at least once each day, with 10 percent being lonely all the time.
When it comes to painful feelings associated with loneliness, churchgoers who have experienced loneliness at least once in the past week experience more severe feelings of loneliness than their non-churchgoing peers. Nearly half of these churchgoing adults (48%) say their feelings of loneliness range from intense to unbearable, while only 39 percent on non-churchgoing adults say the same.
Compared to churched and unchurched adults, practicing Christians report less painful feelings associated with loneliness. Still, over one in three (35%)—not much less than unchurched adults (39%)—say their feelings of loneliness range from intense to unbearable.
What’s more, Christians have historically been less open to discussing issues such as loneliness within a church context. The data bears this out noting a full quarter of practicing Christians (25%) says loneliness is “always” bad—a higher percentage than both non-practicing Christians (18%) and non-Christians (19%) who say the same.
“There is a real danger of letting positive psychology hijack the Church’s real purpose,” says Mettes. “It is because of what the Christian faith teaches that Christians do so many things that are good for loneliness (i.e. group singing, community service, meeting in person). But confronting loneliness isn’t an ultimate goal. In the taxonomy of church priorities, it is a subcategory of loving your neighbor.”
Mettes concludes, “If we aim only to reduce loneliness, we will miss. Instead, we should consider an investment of attention, naming and talking about loneliness as we aim at godliness, neighbor love, hospitality and peace.”
Additional reading and resources:
- Purchase a copy of The Loneliness Epidemic, Mettes’ book on why so many people feel alone right now, to discover more data about loneliness as well as insights into how church leaders can respond to this crisis.
- Read Mettes’ blog post to learn which groups are most likely to be experiencing loneliness, and how pastors and local churches can help them navigate and overcome this challenge.
- Check out our reporting on relationships (Restoring Relationships), Gen Z (Gen Z Vol. 2) and young adults (The Connected Generation) to explore how loneliness and isolation is impacting younger generation both in America and globally.
- Learn how to create a flourishing church community in an increasingly digital and lonely world by reading part one of Ben Windle's Digital Church in a Lonely World, available free for a limited time on Barna Access.
About the Research
Winter 2020 data: Barna Group conducted this online survey among 1,003 U.S. adults from February 18 to March 2, 2020. The quota sampled is representative by age, gender, race / ethnicity, education and region.
Spring 2020 data: Barna Group conducted this online survey among 1,000 U.S. adults from April 28 to May 5, 2020. The quota sampled is representative by age, gender, race / ethnicity, education and region.
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2021