Over at The Happiness Project blog Gretchen Rubin posts Some Counter-Intuitive Facts about Loneliness.
Here's Rubin's take home point:
Without thinking it through, I’d assumed that being lonely would make people warmer, more eager for connection, and more accepting of differences in others. If you’re lonely, you’re going to be open to making friends and therefore more easy-going, right?Loneliness is often the product of failing to break into already formed social groups at work, church or school. When we fail to penetrate these groups we often become bitter and resentful. And, in many cases, for good reason. Cliques are awful.
To the contrary! It turns out that being lonely has just the opposite effect...
We often think that churches are good places for people to make connections. But there are lots of lonely people at church. Pre-existing groups of friendship are hard to break into. Once people find a niche of community at church they stop looking around to welcome newcomers into their circle. Very often you find small groups at church fearful of adding new people because they worry that the comfortable vibe might change and that something will be lost (e.g., intimacy, rapport).
Thinking out loud about this, I also wonder if we are not making the problem worse by framing church life in social terms. Many people seem to think that deep friendship is the sine qua non of the church. I can't tell you how many times I've sat through sermons where the church has been called to "get into each others lives."
There is nothing wrong with this. But we are confusing means and ends. "Getting into each others lives" is not an end as it is so often framed. It's a means toward an end. What end? A moral end, to be a better person today than you were yesterday.
In short, we need to think of churches as moral rather than social communities. When I go to church I need to have ethics on the brain and not intimacy. This, I think, is a huge problem with many churches. People go to church to have their relational needs met. They don't go to get morally challenged or changed. Thus, if I have a good social time at church then church is great and fulfilling. Conversely, if church is a lonely affair I stop going and think it sucks.
The goal of church, to my mind, is to be better, not to be known. Of course, in the effort to become better I become known. I'll need to confess and ask forgiveness. I'll need to give an honest moral accounting of myself. And so on. These things promote community and camaraderie and even friendship.
Again, don't get me wrong. Relationships are important. Feeling known and connected is important. But if these things become the focal point then church is just a club and people will start evaluating it like a club. Worse, once you get "inside" the club there is little incentive to let new people into your church, clique or circle of friends. Once you find your "group" you relax. You are no longer lonely! You've finished the race. Won the price. And fought the good fight. Well done good and faithful servant!
And best of luck to those people left on the outside.