This week, we're talking about an epidemic of loneliness in our churches, and as we saw yesterday, one of our gut reactions to hearing about this problem is to blame those who are lonely. If they would just plug into more of our church offerings, or even get out of their comfort zone and sit in a different pew with another family, for crying out loud, then they wouldn't feel so lonely. Most of us think that if there are hundreds of persons in our church and one of them is lonely, then it's the lonely person's fault for not choosing better for herself.
(Truth: in a church of hundreds, there are at least dozens who are lonely, if not more. We are not talking here about solitary individuals, but about a real epidemic spreading in our midst.)
If you're lonely, sit with someone new. Show up to our special prayer service or worship event or community outreach or sports program or...you can name your favorite church program here.
But here's what we need to understand: loneliness is a soul condition that is not addressed by proximity. That is, you do not get yourself out of a soul-deep loneliness just by being physically close to others or even engaged in the same work/activity.
Loneliness is about connectedness, true connectedness. It's about not having someone with whom you are engaged relationally face-to-face, soul-to-soul. And if what you're needing is that face-to-face, then it doesn't do any good to be told to come and stand and face in the same direction as everyone else. It is absolutely possible to be lonely while you're literally surrounded by others.
In fact, that is the most soul-crushing kind of loneliness.
This is the kind of loneliness that is so straining in marriages that are not going well. The husband and wife spend so much of their time physically present with one another, but relationally distant, and all of a sudden, one or the other or both start to feel lonely, even though they are often together. This shatters the heart, which wounds the soul, and it isn't long before the covenant is dissolved in front of their very eyes. Because both were together, but so far apart that they couldn't stand it any longer. They simply grew too lonely.
And this is what's happening in our churches. Persons are engaged in our churches, active and constantly present, and yet, they don't have that soul connection with other believers that would keep them from feeling alone. They may be side-by-side, but they don't feel like they're "together." They may know names and make small talk, but they don't have a real connection to others in the church. They sit in our pews every Sunday feeling like islands or maybe like lepers.
No wonder they keep leaving our churches. (We'll talk about this on Friday.)
So what's going on? How does a body called to togetherness, to love, and to one another have such an epidemic of loneliness in its masses?
I think there are a couple of answers to this - one comes from inside the church and one comes from outside the church. We'll talk about both over the next two days. Stay tuned.