With loneliness at an all-time high in America, Aaron Graham, pastor of The District Church in Washington, D.C., shared a sermon on how Christians sometimes associate lonely feelings with condemnation. However, he said, everyone is lonely at times.
In his Aug. 14 sermon, the 36-year-old pastor cited statistics from a 2021 Harvard Graduate School of Education preliminary study that states that 61% of young adult Americans report feeling “serious loneliness” consistently.
Graham stressed that “loneliness is not a sin" but a “global epidemic” in America. But how someone chooses to react to lonely feelings matters, he said.
“You can’t control what feelings come to you, but you can control how you respond to them,” said Graham.
Christians need to understand the myths surrounding loneliness, the pastor said, to learn how to properly address such feelings.
“One myth is that ‘older people are the loneliest.’ The truth is that [loneliness] cuts across every generation. And research shows that it affects 18 to 24-year-olds the most,” Graham said.
Another myth, Graham said, is that people who are in romantic relationships are not lonely. He shared that although he has been “happily married for 19 years,” he often experiences feelings of loneliness in his union.
Graham founded The District Church out of his home in 2010 with a small audience. Since then, it's grown in number and now meets in an auditorium at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus in D.C.
The pastor shared how, when he first founded The District Church, he went through a particularly lonely season in his marriage. At the time, he and his wife, Amy, had been married for seven years, and she was pregnant with their second child.
“We had spent the last three years working professional lives going in separate directions. No date nights, no regular getaways, working from home most evenings. And because we had been married many years and because we loved God and we were so committed to the institution of marriage, we just felt like, ‘We’re good. Things are good,’” Graham recounted.
“But, if I was honest, we felt lonely in our marriage, or I felt lonely. And I didn’t have the emotional maturity or the words or time to understand what I was feeling.”
Over time, Graham said he realized that the season of loneliness had nothing to do with Amy but everything to do with how he is wired by God.
“It was actually related to my own personality. To my needs and expectations. … And rather than allowing my loneliness to create resentment … I began to work through those feelings,” Graham said.
“I learned that when I was feeling lonely, it was an opportunity for me to probe deep about what was really going on in my heart. Often, it was just a need to talk with Amy, just to process my day, just to process the loneliness of leadership. … Our personalities were different and we rested in different ways.”
Graham said he learned to work with Amy as he grew to understand her introverted personality. In contrast, the pastor said he's more extroverted and finds energy from spending time with other people.
The pastor said that oftentimes, people tend to falsely believe they're "lonely [only] because of their [own] personality or lack of social skills.”
“The truth is plenty of very outgoing extroverts are lonely. Loneliness isn’t about how many friends you have or don’t have. It’s not about solitude, being alone or being socially isolated,” Graham said.
The pastor defined loneliness as "the distress you feel when your social connections don’t meet your need for emotional intimacy.”
“[Loneliness] is the gap between the level of connectedness you want and what you already have or what you feel that you have. It’s that gap in expectation of what you expect from someone or really anyone,” he said.
Social isolation is different from loneliness in that “it’s the number of human contact” that someone has, he added.
“Just because you are socially isolated doesn’t mean you are lonely. Some of you loved COVID. You’ve loved the lockdowns. You’ve loved working from home and worshiping from home. … You can have a few friends and not be lonely,” Graham said.
“And then there are others who can be totally outgoing and extroverted in the midst of a crowd and still be lonely.”
Graham said he chose to share a sermon on loneliness because of his firsthand experience with feeling lonely due to his extroverted personality.
“Loneliness is something I can relate to. … I’m just a highly relational person, a people-person. I’ve always been that way. I’ve always desired a high level of connection; starting with my parents and then with my brother and with Amy and with my friends,” he said.
Graham also reflected on the loneliness many pastors and leaders feel, honing in on what he called "decision fatigue."
“In times of crisis, such as during COVID, so many of us leaders experienced decision fatigue where you’re having to make so many decisions every day because normal operations have been thrown out the window. And that can feel lonely.”
Graham said some, like him, may experience loneliness due to their faith.
“The reality is I have several friends who I was really close to at one point, who are either no longer following Jesus or not following Jesus with the same passion or the same level of intensity and surrender as before,” Graham said.
“And so what we had in common before, we no longer have in common. … It feels like most of our relationships are in the rearview mirror. And that feels lonely, especially when your desire and expectation is to be lifelong friends with some of these folks,” he continued.
But it isn’t just leaders who experience lonely feelings, Graham said, adding: “Loneliness is what it means to be human. To be lonely is to be human."
“It doesn’t mean that you need to feel lonely all the time. … But, a part of your emotional and spiritual maturity is learning how to navigate your feelings," he concluded.