If we are going to reach the loneliest generation, it's not going to be through worship styles or coffee shops. It's going to be through community, Embree observes.
Generation Z is the loneliest generation currently alive around the globe, according to a survey conducted by Cigna, a global health service company.
This came as a surprise to many people who naturally assumed that the oldest generation would be the ones who experienced the greatest loneliness, not young vibrant 18- to 22-year-olds who boast huge followings on social media and are seemingly always surrounded by people.
And that's not all. They join nearly half of all of U.S. adults in saying that they are lonely. Here are four other key findings reported by Cigna:
- Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent).
- Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43 percent) and that they are isolated from others (43 percent).
- One in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people (20 percent) or feel like there are people they can talk to (18 percent).
- Only around half of Americans (53 percent) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.
Pew Research released its Religious Landscape Survey in 2015, revealing that the largest drop in church membership and attendance was in Protestant Christian churches and the greatest gain (in other words, where those people went) was in the category of unaffiliated or "nones," not associating with a religion or religious community.
I cannot help but see the similarities of these two surveys.
If you look up the definition for "unaffiliated," you'll read things like "not associated with another or others" and "not connected" and "not a part of." Other words for those things are "lonely" or "alone."
If we look at the multiple studies that have been done on why there's been a decline in the church attendance of 18- to 29-year-olds, they put it this way: "We don't belong."
There's a sense that there simply is not a place for them anymore.
They had a place as kids in the children's department and they had a place as youth in the youth department.
Yet, as high-school graduates, they are met with a way of worship with which they are unfamiliar, a group of people they have little to no relationship with, and a myriad of other opportunities outside the church building walls that are screaming, "You belong here!"
They are unaffiliated, lonely.
It's not that suddenly 18- to 29-year-olds don't associate with religion. In fact, 44 percent of the Muslims surveyed by Pew were millennials.
It's not that 18- to 29-year-olds don't believe in God. Of all the survey respondents who identified as unaffiliated or "religious nones," only 3.1 percent identified themselves as atheists.
It's that they do not have a sense of belonging. They don't feel a part of the community. They feel alone.
And I think we, the church, must take some of the blame for that.
Over time, we've created a place where we inhibit relationships and stifle community by segregating generations and dividing up spaces based on age.
We make it difficult to forge a deep sense of community by limiting our interactions, making the church fit within certain hours and places instead of recognizing the church is a people not a place.
We label certain things as "worship" and make attendance at those events indicative of what a "Christian" is, instead of recognizing that all of life is worship and inviting people to worship is inviting them into our lives.
We've created a lonely place, especially for those who "graduate" from our specialized children's and youth programs into our larger corporate gatherings where they've never had a meaningful conversation, built a single intergenerational relationship or experienced a heartfelt interaction with other older members of the congregation.
It's never been their church. It's been their parents' church and their grandparents' church. "Big" church, adult church, but not their church. And they feel unaffiliated, lonely.
If we are going to reach the loneliest generation, it's not going to be through worship styles or coffee shops. It's going to be through community.
It's going to be through an intentional movement toward intergenerational relationships forged through time spent together, not just inside the walls of a church building, but time spent in life being the church.
It's going to have to be "on purpose," not simply by accident or by chance. We will need to create and cultivate the space necessary for these types of connections to be made.
We will need to recognize that community is more than just people being in the same space or building together.
It is a place where people feel understood and not isolated, a place where they can feel close to people because there are people for them to talk to, a place where "meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, happen on a daily basis."
The loneliest generation needs the church to be the church.
Christina Embree is a church planter with Plowshares Brethren in Christ in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a graduate of Wesley Seminary with a Master of Arts degree in ministry focusing on family, youth and children's ministry. A longer version of this article first appeared on her website, Refocus Ministry, and is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @EmbreeChristina.