Today’s post is written by David Kinnaman. David is the president of Barna and has authored numerous books, including unChristian, You Lost Me, Good Faith and Faith for Exiles. David co-hosts the ChurchPulse Weekly podcast with Carey Nieuwhof as they cover the weekly impact the crisis is having on leaders and churches. Subscribe for free here.
By David Kinnaman, President, Barna Group
This year has placed new strains on our everyday relationships—and it’s increasingly clear that people don’t always know where to turn for help.
Even before the pandemic, relationships faced trouble. Christians (and Americans as a whole) struggled with issues of mental health, marriage, and sexuality in their close relationships.
Now, with the Covid-19 pandemic further destabilizing our communities, relational help may seem even farther away than before. How can we support loved ones when we’re all tired of video calls – and how can we deal with members of our household who we’ve been stuck with for months?
Christians want the Church to show up for those struggling with mental and relational help. Not only that – the Church can help with these issues.
To respond to the needs of people today, you need to understand them.
That’s why Barna has been researching relational health problems among Americans, seeking for the perceptions about and key expressions of relational struggles. You can have a front row seat to what we’re learning in Barna’s digital summit on relationships.
Relationships were already under stress. Here are four ways the pandemic has intensified things:
1. Mental Health Has Reached Crisis Levels
Anxiety and depression aren’t new, but the reach of these interior-life challenges is even wider today than it was before the pandemic.
After all, hope for the future is plummeting and reasons for anxiety abound. How do you get out of bed when you’ve been laid off from your job? How do you shop for groceries when the store could be filled with infectious people – or when your worried relative doesn’t want you to go?
COVID and masks, race and justice, money and markets, educating our children from home, wildfires and hurricanes, politics, the reliability of the U.S. postal service, and more: 2020 has amped up the volume on all the things we humans worry about–and added new ones too.
Young adults have been hit especially hard when it comes to mental health. For Millennials and Gen Zers, their future has never looked dimmer. Job prospects and future financial stability for their generation have taken a beating. Our research shows that Christian young adults are the ones most likely to say they experience anxiety.
Individuals with anxiety and depression identify those issues as key pain points in their relationships; mental struggles radiate outward through relationships. Overall, 42% of adults say anxiety has a negative impact on their most important relationships and 39% say the same thing regarding depression.
And this is just the percent who see and acknowledge that their relationships are affected.
So even if one person is keeping their head above water, they may be in touch with – and suffering alongside – friends and relatives who are going through piercing pain. While it can be a privilege to support a loved one through mental illness, it’s also a challenging burden.
Christians are looking to the Church for support for their mental health, and for support in the relationships affected by it.
They’re interested in a holistic approach to mental health. In addition to professional counseling and medication, many Christians believe that the Church, and an individual’s walk with God, should play a crucial role. Examples:
- Practicing Christians are more likely than the general population to say that counseling and medicine should be a part of restoration or healing.
- More than half of practicing Christians say physical, mental, sexual and spiritual health increase together (54% always + often).
Encouragingly, many Christians have already had positive experiences with going to the Church for help with mental health. Now, the Church has the opportunity to step up even more.
I believe that one of the lasting positive outcomes of 2020 will be a greater attentiveness to mental health on the part of Christian leaders. The coming tsunami of mental health needs will require that we show up in new and better ways.
2. The Gnawing Problem Of Loneliness Is Growing
A related emotional challenge people face at unprecedented levels is loneliness. For more than a decade, our tracking data has shown a steady increase in the percent of people who say they are lonely. In a snapshot poll we took during the pandemic, we found that half of adults said they experience loneliness at least weekly. One third of adults (32%) say that loneliness affects their most important relationships.
And, seriously, think of that! People are so transparent today that they say tick the box for “lonely” in an anonymous social science poll! People want to be seen, heard, and known.
The “loneliness epidemic” has been creeping up in America, and it’s coming for the youngest generation. While feelings of loneliness persist across age groups, 18-22-year-olds were the loneliest cohort pre-pandemic. Two in every three Millennials were lonely at least weekly.
Loneliness is like the canary in the coal mine, being highly correlated with a raft of other emotional and relational problems, including porn use, unwanted singleness, marital problems, challenges with sexual intimacy, addiction, depression, and anxiety.
Loneliness defines our times–we are more connected but more disconnected than ever.
We weren’t made to be alone, but people are feeling isolated, lonely, stuck.
Here again, the Church can provide answers, solutions and a way of life that helps people reconnect with others and with God. Church leaders have a wonderful opportunity to be the glue that repairs deep isolation in people’s lives.
3. Relationships Are Straining Under New Pressures
Beyond inner-life, relationships are under pressure, too.
Let’s start with marriage. One-quarter of practicing Christians say that marital problems negatively impact their lives. Marital issues, like mental health problems, don’t happen in a vacuum; they’re closely linked with complaints of loneliness, anxiety, depression, and issues of sexual intimacy.
Now that our worlds have shrunk to the size of a household, married couples are navigating a whole new set of challenges. Practical, everyday problems are exacerbated: layoffs shifting the balance of money in the household, arguments over the home office, house chores piling up.
And for marriages with children, the pandemic compounds those stresses. Christians already reported parenting issues as a challenge for their relationships, and there are a host of new questions and confusions. Play dates? Childcare? School? Technology? Suddenly, parents have to deal with legal, social, digital and epidemiological concerns just to get their kids out of their hair.
Where couples might frequently spend time with friends, mentors, and pastors to process these issues, meeting in person has become difficult and potentially dangerous. And in an era of Zoom-everything, another online meeting can seem like too much.
Ministry to marriages is a natural part of church life for most pastors. What’s not easy is the new shape of ministry to married adults or, for that matter, to other household types, such as single men and women.
The healthy rhythms of unmarried adults are also being redefined in 2020.
Singles, who are far more likely to report feeling alone or dissatisfied with their relationships, are especially impacted by loneliness. And Christian singles, surrounded by married Christian couples and families–around whom most pastors focus–often don’t know how to respond to or embrace singleness in their lives.
Then lockdowns and social distancing appeared. Ways of meeting with people – whether that’s getting to know new friends or staying in touch with old ones – had to pivot online, often leaving us all with whiplash or disappearing altogether.
The singles in your community are probably aching more than usual at these losses, especially those living alone. When everyone’s confined to their household, what does it look like when your household is just you?
The good news is that Christian singles feel more supported than do non-Christian singles. But not all Christian singles hear about how to handle their singleness at church, and pastors report feeling unprepared to discuss singleness.
4. Addictions Have Deepened
Addictions of all kinds threaten the foundations of personal and relational happiness. Those who report struggling with addictions are also highly likely to admit loneliness, anxiety, and depression and with lower relationship satisfaction. Among Christians, pornography and sexual addiction are particularly linked to reports of damaged relationships.
Like other issues, addictions afflict not just the individual, but the family, the church, and the community.
Now, the pandemic has compromised valuable systems of support and accountability. With organizations like AA and informal small groups unable to meet in person, individuals struggling with addiction have fewer people to turn to.
Even those who may not have previously struggled with addictive behavior might find themselves turning to new – and unhealthy – sources of comfort. When remote life has turned time topsy-turvy, isolation has set in or moderation becomes difficult, the appeal of drugs, alcohol, porn (and a host of other milder forms of escape) may help numb the pain and fill the hours.
Fortunately, Christians tend to have positive experiences if their church or pastor addresses sensitive issues like addiction. However, there are still plenty of Christians who fear stigma if they raise these kinds of struggles.
As this crazy year has peeled back the layers of the emotional and relational onion, the Church can provide support to people who are spiraling in addictive patterns.
5. Additional Trend: Church Leaders Aren’t Immune
Here’s one final thought for you: our research shows that pastors, church leaders and other Christian professionals aren’t isolated from the previous four trends. They never were, but they certainly are not impervious in 2020.
Pastors aren’t neutral observers, safe behind the stained glass windows. They are often in the same predicament: dealing with mental health issues, struggling with anxiety and depression, isolated and lonely, strained in their marriages and relationships, and flirting with dangerous addictions.
None of this is meant to be hyper-critical of pastors. I’ve been inspired in fresh ways this year to hear your innovative ideas and see your hope on display.
Still, we should face reality squarely. I’ve never seen data like this in my 25 years of research. The resilience of pastors is being tested like no other time in our lives. These four trends are deeply affecting your people. And, if we are being truly honest, they are affecting us as well.
As Henry Nouwen says we are wounded healers. But to live fully into that calling, we’ve got to be honest with ourselves and with those around us.
That’s why we do the research. We want to help you face these facts with honesty, courage and hope.
We believe that now, more than ever, helping to serve the relational health and flourishing of your people–and ourselves as leaders–will provide a testament to the power of the Church and to the grace found in Jesus.
Want to dive deeper into these topics? Register today for Barna’s free webcast, Restoring Relationships: a Barna Digital Summit on Relationships, Strong Connections and Mental Health.
Which Of These Trends Are You Seeing?
Which of these trends are you seeing in your church?
Leave a comment below!