How can churches best respond to loneliness?
From a research paper by Church Urban Fund
In July 2016, CUF published a briefing paper 'Connecting Communities: The impact of loneliness and the opportunities for churches to respond'.
Almost one in five people say that that they feel lonely often or always. The paper explores what loneliness is and the impact that it has on individuals, both young and old, and on society. It then goes on to provide a summary of the types of activities that have been proven to be most effective in reducing loneliness.
Churches are uniquely well placed to carry out these activities as a result of their local presence and their existing community life. They are able to welcome people of all ages and stages of life into the new friendships and activity groups that help to reduce loneliness.
They can also offer people opportunities to give, as well as to receive. By allowing people to take ownership of those groups, to volunteer and to give of themselves to others, churches can help to build people’s wellbeing, self-esteem and sense of purpose.
Numerous studies have been done to determine which types of interventions are most effective in reducing loneliness and they have found that some have more impact than others. In order to help churches further develop and refine their responses to loneliness, the report defines three key findings from those studies:
1. Group-based activities are better than one-to-one interventions
Belonging to multiple social groups can help to prevent loneliness developing in the first place and can also benefit those who are already experiencing chronic loneliness and its associated impacts such as anxiety and depression. Indeed, belonging to a range of groups ‘enhances our resilience, enabling us to cope more effectively with difficult life changes such as the death of a loved one, job loss or a move’.
One-to-one interventions, such as befriending services, can be valuable in situations where there are significant barriers to engaging more widely, for example when someone is unable to leave their home because of a disability or phobia. However, wherever possible, the ultimate goal of such befriending services should be to help people access the type of group activities that have been proven to reduce loneliness more effectively.
There is the risk that existing group activities will simply serve those who are already more socially connected. There are suggestions for overcoming this risk.
2. Activity groups based on mutual interest are more effective than groups that target lonely people
Research has found that groups based on mutual interest are more effective in reducing loneliness than groups where the primary offer is social contact. Interest-based groups could include any form of activity from sports to knitting, from gardening to baking, from music to art. The important thing is that an individual feels a part of the group: research shows that the more an individual identifies with the group, the stronger their sense of belonging and membership, and the more likely they are to experience significant physical and mental benefits as a result of that membership.
Before inviting people to join a particular group it can be beneficial to allow time for in-depth conversations that help to uncover an individual’s particular interests and needs.
3. Groups are most effective when they allow members to take responsibility for leadership
Research has shown that an important component of well-being is having a strong sense of purpose and that this often comes from being able to contribute and give to others. A systematic review carried out in 2012 found that volunteering can have a positive effect on people’s health, life satisfaction, self-esteem, ability to cope, depression and mortality. One study also found that church-related volunteering had a larger effect on depression than secular volunteering.
This research suggests that groups which offer people the opportunity to volunteer, to contribute to the running of the group and to help others will be more effective in reducing loneliness and in increasing wellbeing compared to groups where members passively receive help from others.
Find out more from the Church Urban Fund website here.
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