Out of Isolation and Into Community: The Church’s Solution for Loneliness
In 1939, doctors and nurses across Germany were required to report data on patients with disabilities. Among other things, the Reich assessed how often these patients received visits and by whom. Over the next few years, 300,000 people with disabilities disappeared. The first victims of the Holocaust were the loneliest of the people with disabilities. They were selected to be the testing ground for the systematic killing that would ensue in the concentration camps. These people were deemed as dispensable. People who wouldn’t be missed. People who were lonely. Loneliness kills.
And loneliness is still killing people. Today, our world is experiencing a crisis of loneliness, deaths of despair, and disintegrating social capital like never before. Loneliness affects 3 out of 4 people; 1 in 5 people report being often or sometimes lonely. The effects of loneliness have been equated to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. It has been linked to heart disease, depression, and dementia.
Loneliness is especially ravaging the disability community, where 85% of people with disabilities report being lonely, and 1 in 8 of them spend less than 30 minutes a day with other people. Suicide attempts are four times more common among people with disabilities compared to the general population.
A world no longer designed for me
Ten years ago, I was admitted to an ICU with a rare allergic reaction that nearly took my life. When I stepped out of the hospital, I entered a world that was no longer designed for me. I entered a world that prized individualism above all else, and where independence was an expected norm. To be 21 and unable to drive, unable to recognize faces, and unable to find items I needed at the grocery store was so counter to the trajectory I had been on that it nearly broke me. Today, I still struggle to acknowledge my needed dependence on others in my individualistic society. But the hardest change for me was the social implication of having a disability: the inconvenience I now posed to friends, the inability to transport myself to a meet-up, the helplessness I felt from not being able to recognize classmates or know who was talking to me. It can be lonely to live with a disability.
But the encouraging thing about all this is that the antidote to this pandemic of loneliness in general, and the loneliness of people with disabilities in particular, is remarkably simple. Here is the good news: You and I already have the answer to the loneliness epidemic. God has designed the church to be the remedy to the isolation and separation that is proliferating in our generation and He has made you and I the solution to loneliness. You are the answer to the loneliness of those with disability.
You don’t just have the answer because of your smile or handshake. You have the answer because you serve a God who models perfect community; you follow a Jesus who, in His life and ministry, intentionally sought out the lonely. He came near to people isolated by disability — people who were blind, those with leprosy, and people who were paralyzed. He touched their skin, their eyes, their legs. He became incarnate and in so doing injected His presence into their isolation. This Jesus also endured abandonment by all of His friends and even by his Father so that we could experience the deepest of intimacies with Him.
In 2019, I experienced my own bout of loneliness — feeling abandoned and unable to exercise the independence of hopping in a car to go to a meeting at my church. But what saved me was not a program or a mobility tool or a plan; it was Sarah, who picked me up on her way to church. It was Jason, who met me at the door and told me that the arrangement of chairs had changed. It was Adam and Julie, who came to find me and invite me to sit with them. The answer to loneliness is not programs; it’s people. You are the answer to loneliness.
Loneliness is at odds with God’s design
The real problem with loneliness is something deeper than its potential to cause an early-onset of life-ending conditions. Christian ethicist Samuel Wells summed it up like this:
“Our culture’s operational assumption has long been that the central problem of human existence is mortality. From the moment we come into the world, our fundamental crisis is that we are going to die. […] What if it turned out that the fundamental human problem was not mortality after all? What if it turned out that all along the fundamental human problem was isolation?” (Rethinking Service).
The problem with loneliness is not just that it kills. Loneliness is fundamentally at odds with God’s design for man and woman. We are not made to be alone, now, or in eternity. The efforts of prolonging life are just that — prolonging life. But efforts of building community and embracing one another bring the richness and quality to life that makes it worth living and foreshadows the healing communion we will have in eternity with God and others.
The invitation from the church
The gospel we have received proclaims to us that God has restored us to relationship with Himself and put us in relationship with others for eternity. God is doing away with isolation. In the meantime, the church is to be inviting others out of isolation and into the loving community of Christ and His church. One of my favorite biblical images is the banquet parable of Luke 14. The implication of this text is that we should be inviting all to Jesus and especially those least likely to receive an invitation — “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13, ESV). Yet for 900 million people in the world, we’re missing the calling. There are approximately 900 million people with disabilities in the world who are unreached by the gospel and who do not enjoy the fellowship of the church.
Many Christians and churches are overwhelmed by the prospect of caring for people with disabilities. But you don’t need to be a specialist to tackle perhaps the most pervasive issue facing the disabled: loneliness. You just have to be present. Flesh and blood.
Just 18 kilometers from the original headquarters of the program that decimated people with disabilities in 1939, a man named Otto Weidt owned a small broom-making workshop. In his shop, he employed dozens of people who were blind or deaf. While the Reich systematically killed 300,000 people with disabilities, Otto fought to save the lives of his employees and friends. The solution for these men and women was not a program or innovation. It was the fellowship of a friend. Again, as Samuel Wells puts it:
“If the fundamental human problem is isolation, then the solutions we are looking for do not lie in the laboratory or the hospital or the frontiers of human knowledge or experience. Instead, the solutions lie in things we already have — most of all, in one another” (Rethinking Service).
Loneliness kills. But the gospel saves. It rips us out of our isolation from God, restores us to Him, and places us into a family of the fellow redeemed. We will never be alone. And God wants to use us to make that true for millions of others too. So throw a banquet. Invite people to Jesus. Be a friend. Because the gospel has defeated loneliness now and forever.
This post was written by Amberle Brown, co-founder of The Banquet Network. You can find the original post on Key Ministry’s blog from Dec. 19, 2019.
Start or strengthen a special needs ministry in your church. Register for the upcoming Special Needs Conference on April 2 at Cresthill Church (CC) in Bowie, sponsored by the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, The Gathering Place, and The Banquet Network. Click the link below to learn more!
Feature photo: Adobe Images