The church & the search for happiness in an ocean of loneliness

It is a well-documented fact that Christianity in the West has been on a decades long march from the centre to the fringes of society. What’s now apparent (and is something of a surprise to some people) is that this retreat has not been entirely beneficial. The retreat of the church has left some significant voids which societies are struggling to fill.

Loneliness is toxic to the human body, Yale University’s most popular course ever is on happiness (suggesting our brightest young people don’t know what happiness is) and articles written about an epidemic of unhappiness all point to the problem.

Millions of people are unhappy and lonely. That’s a huge problem. Humans are social animals and without social interaction we become depressed, vulnerable, suicidal and open to exploitation. It’s not a pretty picture.

It’s also a huge problem for governments because that leads to an increase of mental health problems, loss of productivity, fragmenting families and more. All of these have high social and financial costs. And as populations age the situation is only likely to worsen.

Which is why figuring out how to end loneliness and the ingredients of happiness in life is so important. Here’s a short article with an infographic on happiness.

If you pay attention to their solutions on happiness you’ll notice the following: donating to charity, volunteering & helping others, deep relationships, gratitude, opportunity for new relationships, having meaning and purpose, encouragement to live out your values, support in changing your bad habits to good ones and more. The church was (and in many places still is) the place where these functions of life were met.

So the tide of faith flowed out, people stopped going to churches and governments were generally OK with this. Lots of people thought this was a good thing. A few decades later they realise that millions of people are feeling stranded on a beach, lonely, thirsty for relationship and meaning.

So then what happens? Well, we see books like Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists and initiatives like The Sunday Assembly.

I’ve never been to a Sunday Assembly but I’m generally positive about them. Why do I quite like what The Sunday Assembly are saying? Because it’s offering me much of what I love about the church – friendships, helping people, wonder, gratitude. These agnostics and atheists are being very up front. They realised their lives were missing something and saw that the church had a lot going for it and are quite openly stealing the bits they like. They’re being true to their convictions and see the solutions as achievable without any recourse to a deity.

My guess is that the human propensity to be independent, selfish, greedy, controlling, lazy or malicious will infect those noble attempts as much as it has the church.

The church could and should make more of the fact that it is a place that has many of the elements needed for human flourishing – community, generosity, purpose, gratitude and so on but also again content for the truth.

Yet as David Robertson says in his post The Cure for Loneliness

There was and is a desperate need for real friendship – not manipulative or exploitative – but real. Strength is gained from human relationships but the greatest relationship and friendship of all is found in Christ. He is the one who provides meaning. Ultimately of course only Christ can be the perfect friend. He says to his disciples – ‘I have called you friends.’ It’s a most moving and beautiful picture. He is our friend. He is our reason for working. He is our ‘ raison d’etre’ (reason for being). He is our real minister for loneliness.

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