Churches are seen as playing an important role in helping people deal with the epidemic of loneliness that is sweeping through modern America — but not as key players on other pressing issues.
That’s according to a researchers at the Barna Group, an organization that monitors cultural and religious trends.
One troubling finding, Barna found, is that the research found most urban dwellers consider the church as simply “a piece of the puzzle” in dealing with issues like homelessness, poverty, healthcare and racism.
“Indeed, respondents expect a lot from other institutions that they feel should do the heavy lifting of addressing local issues,” Barna wrote in a recent article. “They name city council members, the mayor, community residents and community groups as entities that should do the bulk of the work.”
Barna said the survey of 2,000 people living in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Portland, Phoenix, Chicago, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Houston, found that most think ordinary citizens and families should be more responsible than religious leaders and churches when it comes to dealing with community concerns.
“Across the board, Christian churches and religious organizations are not the first groups that city dwellers think of as well suited to address a range of issues,” Barna reported. “While churched adults are slightly more inclined to feel churches and religious organizations could create meaningful change or tackle key concerns, they still favor the experience and leadership of other political or civil bodies.”
But, when it comes to the matter of loneliness, people think churches are well positioned to address the problem of loneliness.
“This finding is notable, both for highlighting the top issue locals entrust to churches and as a sign of common ground in perceptions among the churched and unchurched,” Barna said.
Antidotes to loneliness
Rhys Stenner, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in metro Atlanta, said the church’s primary purpose will always be to share the gospel.
“This is by no means a retreat from the public sphere,” he said. “We are training our people every week in serving the community whether at the state or courthouse, business, school, hospital or home.”
However, Stenner said he’s pleased people recognize the importance of the church in dealing with loneliness.
“Fellowship, discipleship and small groups are some of the best antidotes to loneliness, though not the only reasons we invest this way,” he said. “I can think of no better plan of action than to reach Georgia for Christ”
Southern Baptist historian Charles Jones said the church has historically played crucial roles in local, state, national and global issues.
“The Sunday school movement was begun to teach children to read and write before the establishment of public schools,” he said. “The abolitionist movement was fueled by religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening, before it became a political issue. The temperance movement began in churches long before prohibition was legislated. In African American society, churches became the center to promote education and civil rights for those who were otherwise disenfranchised.”
Filling the void
Jones said government has assumed responsibilities in a variety of areas that previously had been entrusted to the church.
“As the role of the government increased, the perceived role of the church in society has decreased,” Jones said. “Today, if loneliness, which cannot be legislated or regulated, is a concern, then churches need to embrace the opportunity to meet that void in larger society as a means to share gospel with the larger community.”