Church is for the Lonely

Have you ever noticed how often secular advice on, for example, wellbeing coheres with what the church would say?

It veers wildly away at points as well, but I don’t feel like we do a lot of noticing of when it’s the same. Not to pat ourselves on the back though—I see a bit of this every now and again—as though agreeing with the prevailing winds proves that we’re the bastion of truth. It doesn’t, and acting like it does is silly. Rather, I think it’s worth a chuckle, we were always there first, and people thinking they’ve discovered great truths when they’ve unearthed a corner of the great tradition is endearing. Truth is still truth, though.

For example, Psychology Today, a reputable outfit, recently posted this on Instagram. They outline six ways to cope with loneliness. Much needed after the last couple of pandemic years no doubt, and loneliness is increasingly acknowledged as bad for our health.

The points themselves are intriguing, five of them are things we could conceivably say as Christians. We would use different language and approach them from a different set of values and foundations, so it may not be helpful to overstate the similarity, but we could nod along and broadly agree that these could be pointers towards truly flourishing.

The remaining piece of advice though is the one that gets me: go to church. Ok, they’re broad and vague and suggest any religion as though it might do, but this isn’t a dressed-up vagueness where we jump up and down shouting “look at us! The church can do that!” This is a clear direction to seek ‘spiritual community’.

Which is fascinating. It can be tempting to think that modern psychology validates what Christians have always known: church is good for you. To some extent this is true as well, we are discovering that church is good for you, but we aren’t validated by those discoveries, we should expect them. If the Bible is the richest source that there could possibly be because it is the very words of God, we would expect nothing less.

But let’s not miss the joke, if people actually take their advice seriously then it’s possible that a  bunch of lonely people turn up on our church doorsteps looking for friendship. Then the punchline—they receive instead friendship with God.

Of course, let’s not miss the challenge either, would we actually be equipped in the sorts of communities we have to offer the friendship this hypothetical person is seeking while they also get to meet the Lord Almighty? We may be, but since plenty of people in our churches are lonely too, I wonder if we would.

We should see loneliness in our churches as a cancer. The people of God are supposed to be the sort of collective community that feels like a found family unexpected, a source of joy. We often are this, but rarely manage it for everyone. Perhaps that’s an impossible goal, but we should still aim for it.

Hospitality—a Christian command, a requirement for leadership, what we have experienced at the hands of God and simply who we are—demands that we see those we don’t manage it for as a failure on all of our behalf. It should wound our hearts, whether we lead these churches or not, and move what is in our power to add people to authentic community life.

Which requires much of us, more than simply hosting them, a permission to know and an invitation to be known, and an induction in how to load the dishwasher. I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the difference in people’s reactions when you stop hosting them, valuable though this can be, and start treating them like part of your household—which includes cleaning up together after we’ve eaten. Most people are delighted to be included enough that you ask them to help out, even if you might not do that the first time they’re in your home.

An Honest Inventory

To return to the beginning, we’re meant to be better at this than those who espouse the same things in secular arenas. We are the very people of God, we know the Lord who has the words of life (John 6), we have been welcomed to the Lord’s Table and are then the best-placed to share that welcome with others.

In an honest inventory, are we?

I suspect, if we’re honest, we would say “yes and no”. Anyone who glibly says “yes” needs a dose of reality, and needs to spend more time talking to people in their church. Anyone who darkly says “no,” I get it, I really do. Your pain is not everyone’s experience, but it is real.

We need friendship but are culturally inept at it. We need a lot of grace for each other as we learn how to step forwards to become better friends, and we need an awareness that we aren’t there yet.

We need community but are not as good at it as our rhetoric, especially not for those on the margins—but saying that I would note that the margins don’t always lie where we think they do, and they cut across people in ways that we would probably call ‘intersectional’ these days. In other words, sometimes people in the centre of things, or who look like they are at the centre of things to you, might feel like they’re on their margins due to features of their lives that mean they have not readily found community. Those features might well be invisible.

Which is to say, we might not know who is desperately seeking community in our churches and not finding it. How do we find out? We ask people. We believe what they tell us, even if we think they’re not doing themselves any favours, choosing to think the best: we simply don’t know all of their story. We gently encourage them to take up what’s available, but we listen when they tell us what we need.

Some of us manage all of that and then fall at the final hurdle. Don’t ask if you aren’t willing to do something. We may have to give them what they need, and it might well cost us.

In the long view, at the end of days, it will have been worth it.

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

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