Olivia Laing speaks of the deep pain of loneliness, a deep pain that a 2010 study points out has the power to shorten a person’s life and rob them of joy. This reality reminds us that over and over again we are told that we were made for community. We see it in the first moments of the creation of human beings when God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” (Gen 2:18 ESV) The New Testament is powerfully focused on community and how to live in it (use your gifts for the good of others [1 Corinthians 12], love others in it, [1 Corinthians 13], and points to the creation of a community that focuses on the right things and is constantly being renewed by new believers [Acts 2.42-47]). In all of this God reveals we were made for community.
We were made for community, but where does a person find this community? Where do people look for community? Laing in her article looks for community in a few places, but apparently she never looks for community in the church nor apparently does the church look for Laing and invite her into community.
Rodney Stark in one of this books on the early church points out that one of the ways the church grew was by being a place of community for the thousands of new people who moved into the cities. For these new city dwellers who were alone, unsure, and living in the midst of a very dangerous place the church was a place of refuge, community and hope. The church, however, did not wait for the lonely to come to them, they found ways to connect with the lonely.
In some ways our day mimics the days of the early church in that people are moving to the cities. Those who are moving there are young, unmarried, and often unconnected (see The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving). This group that is moving to the cities is the very definition of a group that the church is lousy at connecting with. But there is another piece to this, namely, the cities have often been left behind by the church. We have made our way to the suburbs and the church in the city has been left behind. We now face the need to establish churches in the city, churches that bring a full gospel that speaks of being connected to God and to the people of God.
One other surprise in this movement to the cities is that their is a movement of immigrants and the poor to the suburbs. They can no longer afford life in the city so they look to the suburbs for less expensive housing. The move to the suburbs, however, cuts them off from others in suburbs designed not for community but individualism.
All of this leaves us in pretty much the same place whether in the city, the suburbs or rural communities: how do we as churches and as a denomination become a place where the lonely are both welcomed and sought out? To do so reflects the heart of God, “Sing to God, sing praise to his name, extol him who rides on the clouds— his name is the LORD— and rejoice before him. A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing…” (Psa 68:4–6 NIV)
So how is your church connecting with the lonely? What do we need to do as a denomination, as classes, and as congregations to assure that those who are moving to the cities and those who are moving to the suburbs receive a welcome in their new community and into the community of faith?