By Eddie Pipkin

August 11, 2017

I have spent this week home alone.  Other family members have been travelling, and I have had the house to myself, which as a certified introvert, I really enjoy on occasion.  But it also gave me an unexpected perspective when a friend and I got into a conversation about loneliness.  Particularly about loneliness and the church.

There are many lonely people out there (and lonely in different ways).  There are singles who have always been singles.  There are single parents trying to do it all on their own.  There are older men and women who have lost longtime spouses.  There are young adults who don’t have a stable social circle.  There are people dealing with grief or depression or illness who feel isolated and cut off from the sea of humanity around them.  There are as many ways to feel lonely as there are individuals who are experiencing loneliness.

The church—the local congregation—is uniquely positioned to offer hope to lonely people.  Throughout history, people have found connection and community through worship, study, socializing, and service with their neighbors at the local parish or meeting house.  In the past couple of decades, a new issue has come into focus, as we are technologically more connected than ever through our devices, and yet, these instantaneous, ubiquitous connections can leave us feeling more isolated than ever.  We also have been reminded by science just how critical healthy social connections are (including in this article from Pyschology Today, “Lonely Ants Die Young”).  Even the government of the United Kingdom is working with churches to help solve the problem of loneliness among men.

My friend, a person of faith, knows that we are created for community—as Paul Tripp writes, “Our lives are designed to be community projects.”  She knows that church is the place to make authentic connections and grow relationships.  Yet, she related how lonely she often felt in the one place that should be a safe harbor.  And in this experience at least, she is not alone.

How intentional are we as congregational and ministry leaders in reaching out to those who are lonely?  Do we assume that those who feel isolated and unengaged will get connected on their own?  Or do we reach out in specific ways to bridge the gap between people who feel deeply connected and those who struggle to feel connected at all?

Here are some strategies to engage the lonely:

  • Talk about the issue of loneliness in honest ways.  We should be frank about the varieties of loneliness present in our congregations and talk about them on a regular basis.  We should let  people know that they’re not abnormal if they sometimes feel  disconnected from all the activities swirling around them, and that they  are certainly not alone in their experience.  Here’s a recent quote from  9Marks Journal:

Single people living in The Now know all too well Jesus cannot be the “plus one” to the office Christmas party. He can’t go pick up your prescription when you’re bedridden. And he won’t softly lean his head into your shoulder while watching a movie on the couch. Sometimes, acknowledging and empathizing with the pain an individual may be feeling is the best relational balm for sorrow, and often offers a foundation of trust for future pastoral interactions.

  • Give people a clear path in taking a step towards connection.  When people summon the courage to connect with others, we should give them clear and easy options for doing so.  There should be plenty of options for service, socializing, and study that feature different size groups and different settings.  There should be clear direction in church communications (on line, in print, in signage) about how to jump in.
  • Give people more one-to-one options.  If people want to get connected, we should give them options that are  more face-to-face than just signing up to take part in a large group.  For  instance, we can offer mentor opportunities, or more casually, just a  “connection friend” to help them navigate our community and find where  they fit.
  • Engage people in conversation. Don’t just make assumptions.  Don’t assume they’ll figure it out.  Don’t assume they must not be interested or they would have jumped in with both feet.  Don’t assume they understand the mechanisms of connection.  Identify people whose gifts are conversation, empathy, hospitality, and wisdom and have them actively engage others to be sure they are finding their niche.
  • Make sure everyone knows her or she can be a bridge.  A bridge to connection that is.  Don’t let your congregation members fall into that traditional thinking of “somebody on staff has this covered.”  Frequently remind folks of the power they have to connect with those around them, and give them good tools for helping the folks they do engage to get connected.
  • Be sure and involve single people in leadership roles.  Value single people by involving them in leadership.  Seek out their unique perspectives when making ministry decisions.
  • Be careful not to unintentionally marginalize people who are single.  Because many local congregations are built around families, we can be guilty of communicating in overt and subtle ways that marriage, parenthood, and a traditional family structure are the only acceptable norm.  This can be alienating for people who find themselves in other life situations.  But, as Kris Beckert of northern Viriginia’s Vine Church, writes,

[T]he Church has an opportunity to be a God-honoring, literal family for single adults. Instead of just pushing them off to join segregated groups, making them help in children’s ministry, and telling them what to do and what not to do, the Church can choose to do life together. We can embody a different community who speaks in a voice that is different than that which singles hear in secular and religious culture.

  • Focus on relationships rather than programming.  We tend to focus on programming in ministry.  What is our next event, our next class or program?  We build stuff to do and engage people in the doing.  That’s our standard model of incidental connection.  But what if we rethought in ways that emphasize relationships instead?
  • Embrace anti-clique strategies.  It is a natural human urge to buddy up with people who share your affinities.  When you have a group of friends (via Bible study, small group, or worship pew proximity), it is unnatural to want to break that group up.  Therefore, churches have cliques just like every other human institution, and even though we say everybody’s welcome to our little club, we unconsciously send lots of cues that freeze people out.  The only successful strategy against that tendency is to intentionally, consistently do things to encourage healthy breakups or reforming of such groups.  The first step is always being honest about calling our cliques, cliques.

What have your own ministry experiences been in dealing with loneliness (your own or those with whom you have worked)?  What are some inspiring strategies you have seen for integrating people who feel like outsiders?  At the EMC3 Coaching web site, our new Discipler resource is a great way for a small group to grow and explore discipleship together, as well as our Connect! materials, which are all about expanding community.  Check them out, and let us hear from you.  We love to hear how God is working in your neck of the woods.