Can you be (really) lonely in a church? Absolutely, but … with this necessary disclaimer: that such loneliness depends on the authenticity, or lack of authenticity, of the given-church, not to mention its size.

Actually, we live in a culture of lonely people. The social networks are quite deceptive. It is one thing to project an image of oneself on Facebook, and to Twitter inane chat with others, while being hauntingly lonely and desperate for some experience of true intimacy that is beyond one’s imagination, but for which one longs. One can participate in a church in which everyone seems to agree on the words and rituals and social engagements, and yet have not a clue who these people are, how they think, what are their joys or failings, … and certainly not aware of the doubts and failures that are the lot of all of us, children of grace that we are. We see others but do we really know them? It’s easy to hide from one another in church. There are layer upon layer of personas/images, which we project in order to be acceptable to each other. We put on our Sunday-religious persona, and sing familiar hymns together, and listen to the same sermon, and exchange pleasantries with each other over coffee.

All the while we are still strangers.

A generation ago there were best-selling books that unmasked this reality of loneliness. One was Philip Slater’s The Pursuit of Loneliness, in which he sociologically and culturally spoke of how we keep moving further and further away from intimacy in every way, like: flight to the suburbs, finding places to hide, and the like. He spoke of the growing isolationism of the individuals. Then David Riesman wrote The Lonely Crowd, which produced the whole discussion of how that when we do not have an inner-core of true identity, or inner-directedness, then we look to others to direct us and so become other-directed, all the while becoming lonelier and lonelier, though being in the midst of the crowd.

A recent discussion on Mars Hill Audio was about W. H. Auden’s classic poem: “The Age of Anxiety” in which four guys in a bar begin to discuss what the meaning of life is all about. Listening to that interview, I reflected that I have been hanging around churches most of my life and have seldom heard anyone having a robust discussion on the ultimate meaning of my/our existence. Am I an oddity? Or do we avoid profound questions in the church, so that the local pub may be a better locus for provocative conversation about the issue that really form one’s life?

Yet, when I read the New Testament, I find that the clue to the communal life of Christ’s church is the term: one another (Greek: allelon). We are called upon to love one another as Christ loves us, i.e. servant, unsparing, self-denying love. We are to confess our sins to one another (intellectual, moral, ethical, sexual, economic, social, and whatever else causes us to fall short of God’s glory). We are to teach and admonish one another. Wow! You can’t do that in an impersonal crowd. We are to bear one another’s burdens, and to be subject to one another, and provide for each other’s needs. We are to be tenderhearted, forgiving one another as Christ forgave us. And so it goes. Where would such a church come into being?

But such is all too rare in all too many churches. So four guys in a bar may be a good place to start a church!

(To be continued.)

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge