Jennifer Barnett explains how prayer in community can serve as the antidote for those suffering from loneliness and mental health issues.
An epidemic of loneliness is growing that leads to a host of other mental health issues. I have seen this loneliness in thousands of prayer times as people long for God and for the fellowship with one another they were created for.
I wrote First Freedoms motivated by the urgency of the need to be connected to God, having seen for many years that wholehearted prayer is the antidote to loneliness and other issues that plague the human heart and mind.
The Rising Statistics of Loneliness
A recent study by Harvard University’s Making Caring Common project reported that “36% of respondents reported serious loneliness” in the four weeks prior to the survey.
The study also found:
“43% of young adults reported increases in loneliness since the outbreak of the pandemic.”
The rise in severe loneliness opens the door for a host of other problems such as anxiety, depression, isolation, and a growing list of mental health issues.
Within Freedom Prayer times, I’m seeing the same statistics rise among youth and children at an alarming rate.
Similarly, adults who were previously mentally healthy now find themselves with a persistent anxiety and an unpredictable panic.
We do not yet know the full statistics in regard to quarantined people who were unable to escape violence, abuse, addiction, neglect, and depression during the pandemic season.
The Church’s Response to Loneliness
As I read these sobering statistics, I am grieved to know these findings hold true for those both inside and outside the church.
I have seen it personally. And the church must course correct this issue.
For years I have heard seasoned believers speak of their hearts’ longings for true community but of their inability to find it inside the programs of the church. They had purposed not to leave the flock but were disillusioned with the status quo in church programs and discipleship.
The church should be the solution to this growing epidemic of loneliness.
And it should set the standard of community for a desperate world.
The aforementioned Harvard study offered action steps for change, such as a call to galvanize “building not just our physical but our social infrastructure.” They cited “high rates of loneliness” as a “societal failure,” and these action steps:
Demand that we as a society, at every level of government and in our communities, begin to reweave and reimagine our relationships. Our key institutions—including health care systems, workplaces, religious and secular community organizations, schools and colleges—can be far more intentional.
Since the genesis of the church, Christians have been given the mandate to demonstrate God’s glory in community, and that demonstration should be evident and transformative.
I agree with the Harvard study that we must work “to restore our commitment to each other and the common good.” But if we do this separate from a wholehearted relationship with God and one another, the end product will be a cheap imitation and severely lacking.
The study also states:
Loneliness is a bellwether not only of our country’s emotional and physical but moral health. In this age of hyper-individualism, the degree to which Americans have prioritized self-concerns and self-advancement and demoted concern for others in many communities has left many Americans stranded and disconnected.
I agree with this.
And I would add that many within the church are just as broken, just as divided, just as self-centered, and just as isolated as those outside of the church walls.
I talk weekly with pastors grappling with the reality that many congregants didn’t return to church after the mandates were lifted. Some of their consistent churchgoers are content to keep watching online without the desire for in-person community.
Isolation in the COVID pandemic was suffocating.
But the suffocation feels comfortable now, and the epidemic of loneliness and the resulting mental health effects continue to grow.
Those who return to church are doing so with a realization that they cannot deny the brokenness they could not escape while in quarantine. Issues that were previously squashed down due to busy schedules and distraction can no longer be ignored.
The church finds herself in great need of tools for healing and freedom.
We have only scratched the surface on the fallout from isolation and will continue to see the damage for years to come, both in individuals and in the community.
I champion the urgency of the study:
We need to return to an idea that was central to our founding and is at the heart of many great religious traditions: We have commitments to ourselves, but we also have vital commitments to each other, including to those who are vulnerable.
The church is at a precipice, and Christians are vulnerable.
But we must heal and be the beacons of hope that God made us to be. Just church programs and Bible knowledge won’t do this, but saints fellowshipping in prayer is the anchor that can meet the God-given longing for community.
The Church’s History of Fellowship and Prayer
The church has long held a history of an “other worldly” kind of community that is the antidote to the epidemic of loneliness.
Consider Scriptures such as:
- “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. … In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:19, 22, ESV).
- “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42, ESV).
- “Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22–24).
The gospel spread and the church flourished because of the application of these truths.
The early church understood community—they were pressed on all sides yet were “built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
And when his Spirit dwelled with them, lives were not only transformed but found a close community that invited others in.
Loneliness has a difficult time finding a home in a body of believers who is devoted to prayer without ceasing, sharing everything, breaking bread together, and bent on taking off the old self and putting on the new self “in true righteousness and holiness.” That is an active work, led by the Spirit and often best accomplished in community.
But our current American church is showing what is left after being “pressed” for a season, and the reality is not everything that was pressed out remains holy.
Many of our church programs and models lack structure to learn this fellowship of the saints that we all long for. We can walk in and out of church regularly without knowing God and one another.
We can give “right” answers in Sunday school but not be right internally.
We can sit Sunday after Sunday in a pew but not know the one who offers restoration. And that must change.
Prayer as the Antidote to Loneliness
Another study, “A Randomized Trial of the Effect of Prayer on Depression and Anxiety,” found:
At the completion of the trial, participants receiving the prayer intervention showed significant improvement of depression and anxiety, as well as increases of daily spiritual experiences and optimism compared [with those in the control group].
What does this reveal?
Even the medical field recognizes the healing effects of prayer.
As the community of God, we are told we can “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5, ESV). But while that sounds good, many followers of Jesus simply do not know how to do this.
They have not been gently discipled into this response in prayer, much less into understanding what the voice of God sounds like in contrast to those self-defeating thoughts. Many seasoned believers with whom I have prayed struggled to know the difference between God’s voice and their own despairing thoughts.
I wrote First Freedoms, in part, to help people learn the difference.
The Longing Heart and God’s Response
God implanted within us a longing in our hearts for right relationship with him that only he can fill.
Then he draws near and invites us to do the same in return because of the finished work of Jesus.
But we often find our relationship with God distorted and look to other people and other things to fill the longing in our hearts.
Psalm 73:28 declares, “But as for me, the nearness of God is good for me; I have made the Lord God my refuge, so that I may tell of all Your works” (NASB). The nearness of God is our good; it is our safe refuge. Yet we tend to stay at a distance from him.
We quickly discover that when “pressed” we cannot find refuge in his nearness. We struggle to find him at all.
I have seen countless Christians do all of the “right” things yet not find right relationship.
A right relationship with God requires intimacy and abiding, which must not only be foundational in healthy disciple making but taught and cultivated.
Sadly, many Christians do not know how to step into his nearness. His nearness is where the longing of the human heart is met with his presence in prayer.
Isolation ceases, and communion is found.
Consider Scriptures such as:
- “Let us draw near with a sincere heart and with the full of assurance that faith brings” (Heb. 10:22, NIV).
- “Return to me, and I will return to you” (Mal. 3:7, NIV).
- “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth” (Ps. 145:18, NKJV).
- “Blessed is the one you choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts” (Ps. 65:4, ESV).
- “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8, NKJV).
- “Abide in Me, and I in you” (John 15:4, NKJV).
- “If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20, NKJV).
- “And my Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him” (John 14:23, NKJV).
The antidote to loneliness is fellowshipping with God in prayer.
It is in close proximity and in intimate relationship. Apart from him we can do nothing; we cannot find peace or joy.
So we must be connected and find the tools to keep that connection. We must draw near to realize our full potential as sons and daughters of God and to find the solution to loneliness and despair.
It is not lonely near to God.
Finding Freedom in Fellowship
God designed us not only to long for close relationship with him but close relationship with one another. We were made for community and need fellowship with one another to thrive.
Consider passages such as:
- “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7, ESV).
- “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thess. 5:11, ESV).
- “Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:25, ESV).
- “That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21, ESV).
- “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2, ESV).
- “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24, ESV).
God’s Word makes it evident that his heart from the beginning was on the fellowship of his saints. We long to know God and know others, and his design elevates the fruits of true fellowship.
When Christians sit in a room and allow God to search their hearts and remove anything that blocks abiding with him, that is fellowship.
When those same people intercede with a person who is grieving, angry, confused, and deeply longing to know God more, that is fellowship.
When those same people share transparently about sin and wounding, that is fellowship. And when those same people wait on the Lord and find him, a fellowship forges that cannot be found anywhere else.
A fellowship of the saints that touches glory as they encounter the Lord together. Hearts are unified and brokenness becomes restored.
This fellowship is essential if Christians are to be beacons of hope to a very lonely world.
A Biblical Solution to Loneliness
Loneliness is on the rise and with it a host of mental health issues. The church must take a look inward and heal so that it can be the shining example of true community that God designed. If the church will walk in tools of freedom, the invitation to the outside world will be an easy one to accept.
But the church needs tools and intentional space to discover the fellowship found in prayer, both with God and one another. We cannot offer restoration to a lost world without acquiring it in our churches first.
A relationship with God is meant to be the antidote to so many problems, and it is the answer to our hearts’ longing to know and be known. It is our mandate to look this way, and Scripture propels us toward it. We have to respond and make it right.
If you don’t know where to begin, take your next step toward fellowship with God by going through my book First Freedoms.
It’s designed for individuals, and it also contains group discussion questions for those who wish to work through the material in a group context. I wrote the book to equip the church and help it become the standard of fellowship that Christians long for.
Fellowship has to be modeled in the church and modeled well. Let First Freedoms help you take your next step to fellowship with God and one another.
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