Loneliness and the Church

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?

To the contrary! It turns out that being lonely has just the opposite effect...
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.

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.

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19 thoughts on “Loneliness and the Church”

  1. I couldn't disagree more with your opinion that church shouldn't be cast as relational. I think relational intimacy is a key to functioning properly as the Body of Christ. That is, we must know the other parts of the body, and they must know us, if we are to know when one part is weak and in need of repair. I don't think that carries the metaphor too far.

    By contrast, if we go with ethics on our mind, not relationships, church will never be anything other than the isolating, narcissistic Me Hour that it now is.

  2. Meltons,
    I might be overstating my case.

    To nuance a bit, I do think there is a kind of relational intimacy that is ethical, the practices of welcoming, making room, being available, helping, etc. The kind of relationality I am taking aim at is one that alleviates loneliness but is cliquish and doesn't demand anything from us, ethically speaking. It creates churches that are intimate and therapeutic, but are not change agents in the world.

  3. The Church IS a social organization, as it is "in this world". But, just how much of it is "spiritual" and what does THAT mean.
    Those that are supernaturalistic understand it to be the "place for the HOlY spirit"..and the view above of the Meltons.
    But, if one views it as a character building "club", one still doesn't have to go to church to "do good works". And friends, whether Christian or not, can hold one accountable.
    So, what is the Church and what "good is it"? I don't know and that is what I am asking myself.

  4. Do you support this view? It seems on the fringe of narcissistic nihilism to me.

    There are lots of lonely people everywhere - not just at church. "Getting into each others lives" may be about a moral end. But being a part of one another's lives has nothing whatsoever to do with a moral end. It simply has to do with "being" which is necessarily relational. We don't even really exist except within relationship.

    Becoming "better" is a matter of perception. Not of being.

  5. There has got to be some sort of balance. I want the church to be an agent of change in my life but I also want meaningful relationships. I'm not sure I can have one without the other, at least in the long term.

    Right now I'm at a church where, despite my best efforts, we (me and my family) are outside of the clique. This lack of meaningful relationships has absolutely affected the church's ability to speak into my life and I'm not sure I can stick with it for much longer.

  6. Well, I'm not a christian, but I'd have to take issue with what you are arguing, Richard. I mean, how can we love others without...well, loving others? How can we be loving and giving to others without others to love and give to? Of course that doesn't have to happen in Church--and to the extent that it only happens in church and only to satisfy our own need to be loved and cared for its not really other directed--but if its not going to happen in church I fail to see what good church is going to be.

    Look at charity itself? If charity means giving to my church soft ball team, the one my children are on, its not really charitable. Its more like a regular fee for participation and its as self interested as any other transactional payment. But if I volunteer at my church's softball sessions, and my children aren't participating, isn't that a real gift of my time and love to others?

    If the church offers no such place to people to connect and offer their love and time and attention its not going to be much of a church. Or even much of a community. I can't see how any kind of loving, giving, sociality arises in a context where the church isn't serving people's needs, and allowing them to serve others. Whether its a church or a library, this holds true.


  7. Well, I'm glad everyone feels comfortable disagreeing with me! Seriously, though, I appreciate the pushback.

    Let me add some more clarifications:

    One of the problems I see in the church today is that it has, essentially, evolved into a social club. Does anyone else see this? Or am I alone in this assessment? Regardless, my point isn't that this social focus is bad per se, just that this shouldn't be the telos of church (e.g., my contrasting of means and ends in the post). Jesus' mission on the earth wasn't to create a social institution that alleviates loneliness. The church has a job in the world. In the post I framed that job as moral/ethical. More specifically, the job of the church is justice and mercy.

    Now, of course, that mission is fulfilled through relationships. That is exactly what I said in the post.

    So, yes, love is a relational act. But a great deal of the relationality in the church isn't deep enough to qualify as love. The reason for this, I'm arguing, is that if the church makes the alliviation of lonliness the goal then we are left with a few problems.

    The main problem, which I highlighted in the post, is that once I'm no longer lonely I become exclusive and protective of my social niche. As I explained, I've seen small groups refuse to add new people because they liked the social vibe of their group and didn't want to lose that by extending hospitality to others. That is a social focus that is selfish. The ethical thing, the point I was making, was the willingness to move back into lonliness (e.g., cracking up my small group) so as to pull others in. Again, the issue here is what is the goal?

    Of course, I could be completely bonkers about all this. But I think the issues and tensions I'm talking about are real and are problems in many churches.

  8. Sure, Richard, that's undeniable. For one reason the modern american evangelical church doesn't grow organically out of a multi-plex/multi stranded, community but specifically seeks to recreate some aspects of a lost communal world artificially. Old ethnic churches grew out of, and were meant to imitate, the intensive social insurance forms of small, old world communities. The church was where you went to birth, get married, co-insure, educate, and die. It was a haven in a heartless world--a place where it wasn't a disgrace to be an Italian from some small village in calabria, or an Irish washerwoman, or a Polack, or whatever.

    But the modern american suburban community isn't ethnically and culturally bound and its not even physically bounded. People are living in bedroom communities, far from their places of work, from their families of origin, from their ethnic communities and historical traditions. The modern church offers an authentic response to this crisis--where to go to meet people, where to find like minded co-religionists, where to find babysitters, teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc.... in the absence of real ethnic or familial or cultural solidarity. And it does so by creating many small, accessible, points of entrance--"new parents" groups, scouting, whatever.

    That's what people want when they go church shopping--they are looking for the same haimische quality and protection and security they look for in a gated community. Its not really spiritual christianity anymore than a gated community can be a way station on a pilgrimage road for a wandering pilgrim.


  9. You seem dissatisfied with the expression of faith at your church - that your fellow congregants are pleased enough to attend church and leave it at that.

    I think the church has to be both community and action (mercy and justice). I think you rightly portray that the primary failing of the protestant church is the lack of any other expression of faith OTHER than church involved/related activity.

    The church cannot do its job in the world if the church won't leave the comfort and safety of the church building. I agree with that. No, you are not alone in that assessment.


  10. I think it's helpful to draw a distinction between 'friendship' and 'relationship'. The breakdown of society has meant that in Western culture we think that the only way to relate to someone is to be friends with them.

    Therefore we go to church and we 'make friends' in order to 'be intimate' and 'get into other people's lives'. Trouble is it's not possible to sustain that many (intimate) friendships and we end up in cliques.

    In fact we can build up, encourage, support, forgive and influence each other (i.e. relate to each other) to become more like Jesus each day without living in a big friendship club. I don't need to be friends with someone to pray for them, give them a prophecy I feel God is saying, or encourage them for their contribution to the body of Christ.

  11. Hi Dr. Beck- I saw the nice mention of my blog, The Happiness Project, here. I very much appreciate you shining a spotlight on my work! Thanks and best wishes, Gretchen Rubin

  12. I can identify with the problem you are raising, Richard and in linking to your post have created a similiar thread of comments/disagreements!

    I think Jonathan's commnets are very helpful in clarifying the point.

    Thanks for the blog.

  13. Jonathan, you wrote: "I don't need to be friends with someone to pray for them, give them a prophecy I feel God is saying, or encourage them for their contribution to the body of Christ."


    The way you've cast your responsibilities - prayer, prophecy, encouragement - is a one-way street, a one-way conferring of spiritual "blessings." But if many modern authors are correct in referring to the gospel as intrinsically incarnational, then one-way conferring of blessings or gifts is at least a stunted way of living out the gospel, if not an outright denial of its essence. Many wiser authors than qb have emphasized mutuality as a sine qua non of an incarnational gospel. Which brings us, perhaps, to Eugene Peterson's insight in _The Jesus Way_: the WAY in which Jesus went about his ministry cannot and must not be divorced from the ministry itself. In a very real sense, Peterson says, the means ARE the ends. And that's where qb would quibble a bit with Dr. Beck's central piont.

    That's not to say we're not evolving a bunch of superficial, merely therapeutic communities, however. I think Dr. Beck is right to cast this whole thing as a matter of balance rather than a matter of exclusive emphasis.


  14. qb,
    Of course the examples I gave about should not and cannot be one way, but I don't think that changes the point that churches can encourage a culture where people relate to each other well in a community without being friends.

  15. The sad thing is becoming a better person with higher standards or ethics was never the goal. Christ called us to love others. It won't matter how ethical or moral you can be if you aren't focused on the only thing that matters in life: people.

  16. I disagree with so much of what your saying. The point is not to become a better person or to be more ethical. It is to become closer and more connected with God. We are relational.

    I can agree many church goers gauge how great a church is by the social experience but at the same time we cannot blanket all or even a majority of churches that way.

    We learn and discuss best when we can be open and intimate with people in a group. Without relational intimacy at church we will NEVER be able to really challenge or keep accountability to each other.

    The second greatest commandment of Love you neighbor as yourself should ring true here. Loving someone, even a stranger, is a relational action.

  17. Great article. In part, church is a moral community. There is something that you've left out however. We live in a society (North America) where people are starved for relationships. Often, they come from difficult family situations and just want others to love them. There is NOTHING wrong with this. Other cultures are better when it comes to this sort of thing. Individualism is a terrible thing, yet I see no other way to live since everyone is just out for themselves

  18. An interesting thing is happening to men: loneliness, depression, anger, no father, no friends, no emotional outlets. When it all gets too much, after they've been hit too many times, some men lash out violently. At this point, we put them away in a place where there will be hurt even more.

    Churches facilitate fellowship for women but not men. The relational, talkative, extroverted environments of many churches are tailor-made for women. This is really disgusting.

  19. Interesting points - however, take this (real) example. Our church has men's fellowship meetings - usually revolving around a trip to the Indian restaurant (food I'm not particularly keen on) or meeting up to watch Football/Rugby (neither sport interests me in the slightest).

    So what about those men who don't fit the stereotypical norms? My loneliness is compounded by two things: our mens group doing things that don't attract me as a man at all, and I am hard of hearing, making group conversation difficult and exhausting.

    I'm not picking on you, but it seems where churches DO facilitate fellowship for men, it's often (from other groups I know of in other churches) based on the typical beer & sport aspect.

    Also it's interesting you mentioned extroverted environments - I am an introvert, I'd love deep discussion, but cannot get past the small talk - even to the point of being accused of being 'too theological' or 'use your heart instead of your head'.

    Ultimately, it's sad that the church itself (through no fault of it's own in many cases) is driving me away.

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