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Q and A: NYC Pastor Sam Kim Discusses Loneliness Epidemic among Young Adults

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Editor’s note: This Q and A was reprinted with permission from Christian Union: The Magazine. For more information about Christian Union, visit www.christianunion.org. 

Dr. Sam Kim is a scholar at the Yale-Hasting Center, where he explores the crisis of professional burnout in academic medicine and health care. He is a recipient of the Lifelong Learning Fellowship at Yale Divinity School and Yale Medicine and worked as a research fellow in global health and social medicine at the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Sam Kim

The co-founder of 180 Church in New York City, which started with students from Columbia University, Kim earned a doctorate in ethical leadership at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is a regular contributor to Christianity Today Exchange and the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.

You have previously written about a loneliness epidemic in society. Please elaborate on this in regards to today’s young adults.

A significant pattern related to the Cigna study of loneliness and social isolation is that Generation Z (ages 18-22) is now the loneliest generation in history. Although Gen Z is perhaps the generation that is most technologically connected, they scored the highest on the UCLA loneliness scale, an instrument that measures and assesses subjective feelings of loneliness by using a twenty-item questionnaire.

This is a significant discovery, for it reveals that social interactions online cannot fill the need for face-to-face interactions as a generation or as a society.

For college students, the start of a new semester is a time of great anticipation and joy, but a 2018 study, led by researchers at the Developmental Risk and Cultural Resilience Laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (Harvard Medical School), revealed that the college years are also a time of increased risk of stressful incidents and chronic mental health challenges, including risk of suicide.

How is the Coronavirus pandemic affecting this loneliness epidemic?

It is hard to really know without parsing data, but my guess, anecdotally, is COVID-19 has exasperated it. As mentioned before, social interactions online (including platforms like Zoom) cannot fill the need for face-to-face interactions.

What are the health risks among young people associated with loneliness?

Dr. Douglas Nemecek, chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna, suggests that “loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.” As mentioned above, chronic loneliness, if untreated, can also lead to acute mental health struggles and suicide ideation.

What are the Gospel opportunities?

As loneliness reaches epidemic levels, the church has an incredible evangelistic opportunity, not only to mitigate the health risks involved, but to help lonesome hearts. Close to half the respondents from the Cigna study said they did not have a single meaningful in-person social connection, such as daily conversations with friends, or quality time with family. What an incredible opportunity on college campuses!

The harvest is plentiful, but workers who understand the heart of the culture are few. The body of Christ does not need more innovative or cool missiological schemes, but a return to simplicity. The culture today is saturated with sophisticated marketing strategies from Facebook and Google and other tech giants, and it’s starved of authenticity and hospitality. Campus ministries should not be distracted by popular trends, but should focus instead on creating meaningful social interactions with those of its neighbors, friends, and family who need the Lord.

This is why the single greatest gift we still can give others outside of eternity is our time. Thus, intentionally taking time to drink a cup of coffee or share a hot meal with a friend is still the most effective Gospel witness today, as it was in the times of Jesus. It may not seem that much at first glance, but if we consistently practice a Gospel-centered hospitality, we’ll see one day from the other side of heaven that we have touched and changed eternity, much to our surprise and delight.

You have written about the need for connection. What kind of research could help explain this need?

First, a theological perspective. The psalmist writes in Psalm 42:7 that “deep calls unto deep.” Many confuse this deep longing with a form of chronic anxiety, or something that has gone wrong, when it is in fact a holy haunting for the presence of God. Deep calling unto deep is nothing other than the voice of God echoing from eternity.

Second, from a quantitative analysis perspective, quantum physics posits that at a level invisible to the human eye, everything and everybody is interconnected with one another and to all living organisms.

As a pastor who co-founded 180 Church in a Columbia University dorm, what have you learned about reaching and discipling young people?

Reaching and discipling millennials and Gen-Zers is a difficult missional task. The tragic story of the infamous rich young ruler found in the tenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel is a prophetic reminder to a generation in profound cultural captivity. The narrative teaches us that the ultimate test of our discipleship is not sacrifice, but obedience.

The narrative in Mark makes it clear that the young rich ruler was not a pagan investment banker using Tinder on the weekends. He was committed to his faith and was serious about inheriting eternal life. He had valued God’s law since he was a boy. We only begin to see the fatal cracks in his discipleship when Jesus challenges the hold his wealth actually has on him.

The sin of omission overtakes the Great Commission if the sovereignty of the individual is not fully surrendered to the sovereignty of Christ. Jesus said to make disciples, not crowds. The current crisis we have in the church is that we have great crowds, but few disciples.

What are some things the church, in general, does wrong when it comes to the next generation?

A major default judgment the church has about the next generation is that they are aloof and sometimes referred to as the “whatever generation.” The truth of the matter is, they care so much about what others think that they often struggle with a debilitating fear. The Apostle John knew that the only antidote to liberating a generation from fear was unconditional love (1 John 4:18).

Despite the challenges that Generation Z may face, what gives you hope?

Although there are multiple factors influencing this pervasive narrative in the hearts and souls of Gen Z, I believe the advent of social media could be the most critical. Jim Collins posits, in his book Good to Great, that although technology cannot create growth, it can accelerate it. Social media has crushing expectations. Every loss and win are compounded with greater anxiety and paranoia. And when you continue to compare other people’s fastidiously curated highlights to your own bloopers, despair is inevitable.

This gives me hope, because there has never been a generation more starved for love than today’s. Many hide in social isolation, not because they don’t have a decent life, but because they believe their lives are not good enough. It seems ironic for a generation that is supposedly “adulting” to be struggling with perfectionism, but when your life is under constant watch, this is almost inescapable. Perfectionism is just chronic insecurity in disguise. If we truly want to win the hearts of the next generation with the gospel, we must help reclaim their identity as the beloved, because only perfect love can cast out fear.

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