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Loneliness, mental health & family breakdown – the issues all churches face

May 31 2017

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Recently the Church of England and the Church Urban Fund published the results of a survey of church leaders which explored the scale and nature of social engagement by Anglican churches in England. The findings of the Church in Action report (see https://www.cuf.org.uk/church-in-action-2015) are both encouraging and challenging.

68% of church leaders considered that their church had a strong sense of belonging to, and they felt they were actively involved in strengthening their local community. The findings mirror Livability’s experience of working with churches across the country, and the countless stories we hear of the Church’s positive impact.

The report lists the social issues that churches are grappling with in their communities and this makes for thought-provoking reading. Of the fifteen key issues identified, the top three were isolation/loneliness, mental health problems and family breakdown. And this was consistent across all communities and other measures such as poverty or deprivation. The churches’ responses were positive – most were involved in supporting people with these issues.

The findings are very much in line with other surveys, which show that loneliness is as damaging to health as obesity or smoking 30 cigarettes a day. With nearly eight million people living alone in Britain, it is a problem that is not going away. One in four people experience a mental health problem each year, with one in six suffering anxiety and depression. Nearly one third of sick notes are issued by Britain’s GPs for mental health issues. And with an estimated 42% of marriages ending in divorce, it’s not surprising that family breakup figured strongly in the report as an area of concern.

It seems that our society is groaning under the weight of emotional and relational challenges. But as so often in life, challenges are also opportunities. Churches are uniquely placed to offer hope and healing to those in their neighbourhood. The Christian think-tank Theos last year published a review of many studies investigating the link between faith and wellbeing. It showed that people for whom faith mattered strongly and who participated regularly in church life were linked with a wide range of wellbeing indicators (including physical and mental health and general happiness) compared to those for whom faith was more a belief-system or simply a label. The conclusion? Church is good for you – and for people around you!

Those of us who are part of church can often feel intimidated by society’s dominant narrative that “religion is harmful or irrelevant” and that our contribution makes no difference. In fact the opposite is true – unsung heroes are impacting local communities every day. Increasingly the primary needs around us are emotional and relational and there’s no doubt that the church possesses all the potential to bring about transformation in terms of message, personnel and motivation. But how do we do it?

Livability’s Community Engagement Team is here to support the daily work churches are involved in, so we’re heartened by these recent findings and are keen to help you do more! Amongst the initiatives we have developed to help churches deepen their engagement with their communities is The Happiness Course (https://www.livability.org.uk/training/the-happiness-course/). Following two days of training churches and community leaders can deliver a four week course specifically designed to focus on wellbeing and build community. People who would never normally darken the door of a church building meet informally and discover ways in which they can explore wellbeing and success, and connect with others. Founded on reliable scientific research as well as sound biblical principles, the sessions encourage participants to share their hopes and fears. As a strong rapport develops many people find themselves making personal discoveries as well as building lasting relational links with others. Over 300 church members have now been trained to lead the course and the stories coming back to us of changed lives are inspiring. You can read one such story on our blog here: https://www.livability.org.uk/sharing-the-happiness-one-mans-rehab-story-and-how-happiness-helped/.

Could something like the Happiness Course work for you? What more could you be doing to tackle loneliness, mental health problems and family breakdown in your locality? Can you re-imagine your local community and see what transformation looks like? How can we share the community we already enjoy in our churches and both reach out and draw others in? Livability exists to support and enable that process and we see a mutual benefit when our residential projects link with their local church communities.
Our calling is indeed for transformation, let’s be part of the wave of churches rising to the challenge.

Andy Parnham trained and worked as a doctor for many years and is now working as Livability’s Wellbeing Advisor, running Happiness Course training sessions and other wellbeing events.

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