Church for a lonely city

On Sunday I spoke on the subject of church as family, and I argued that the church is God’s means for meeting one of humanity’s greatest needs – strong, deep relational connection. It is to be the place where, as Psalm 68:6 says, ‘God sets the lonely in families.’ This should be great news for our world right now, since we are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. 

Loneliness has disastrous effects on our mental, emotional and physical health. It is said to be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. A study in 2017 found that 45% of people in the UK feel lonely sometimes or often. That number rises to 55% in London, compared to 37% in Barcelona, 36% in Paris and only 10% in Lisbon. Hence my city has been awarded the prestigious title of the Loneliness Capital of Europe. Don’t see that one plastered on street signs and billboards do you?

All these stats predate COVID, and whilst I imagine many new connections have been made, as communities rallied round each other to help each other through lockdown, I’m sure people’s overall loneliness has only intensified. 

Last summer I read The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, which she wrote about her experience of moving to New York to be with a partner who then promptly left her, leaving her alone in a city where she knew nobody. The book is an exploration of the interplay between loneliness and creativity. It’s fascinating, honest and haunting. I particularly appreciated how she wrote about the unique form that loneliness takes in an urban context. She writes:

‘You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others.

Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability to find as much intimacy as is desired.’

The Lonely City, Olivia Laing, p3-4

This is a brilliant insight. Loneliness is not alleviated by mere physical proximity to people, but by genuine connection. It is the depth of our relationships, not the sheer number of them, that meets our greatest human need. Quality trumps quantity.

In fact, some of the loneliest times can actually be when you are surrounded by the largest number of people, but feel disconnected from them. Lonely in a crowd. Some of my loneliest experiences have been at large events where I’ve felt like I’m amongst thousands of people who are having a celebratory experience I’m unable to share. That is a particularly crushing kind of loneliness. It leaves you feeling that you can’t admit your loneliness, for fear of being misunderstood or further ostracised. You’re tempted to pretend and act like everyone else, all the while feeling increasingly like a fraud. It leaves you with a lingering sense of shame. You assume you’re the only one feeling this way, that there must be something wrong with you, and you never stop to wonder whether there might actually be something unhealthy or superficial about this crowd and this event…

This is a sobering thought for churches. If we are meant to be God’s means of relieving loneliness, then the greatest tragedy of all would be for us to create a culture that only perpetuates or exacerbates the loneliness people already feel. A lonely church will never be good news for a lonely city. If, as Olivia Laing says, there is a particular flavour to urban loneliness, there is also a particular flavour to ecclesial loneliness, and it is especially bitter.  

I recently saw people sharing this photo on social media.

art_inthecity from Montréal, CA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a statue beside Lake Geneva, entitled Melancholy, and it depicts the feeling of emptiness we experience through the grief of losing a loved one. A solitary figure with a gaping hole in his chest, through which you can see life going on as normal for everyone else who passes by. It’s a powerful picture of loneliness, and the fact that so many people have resonated with it, whether or not they have experienced bereavement, tells us just how deep a need we all have for relational connection. However loneliness has come about, whether by loss, lockdown, or any other factor, it leaves us dehumanised, diminished, and empty.

Olivia Laing writes:

‘Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorise. Like depression, a state with which is often intersects, it can run deep in the fabric of a person, as much a part of one’s being as laughing easily or having red hair. Then again, it can be transient, lapping in and out in reaction to external circumstance, like the loneliness that follows on the heels of a bereavement, break-up or change in social circles.’

The Lonely City, Olivia Laing, p3-4

“What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged. It hurts, in the way that feelings do, and it also has physical consequences that take place invisibly, inside the closed compartments of the body. It advances, is what I’m trying to say, cold as ice and clear as glass, enclosing and engulfing.”

The Lonely City, Olivia Laing, p11-12

Loneliness is like a ravenous hunger. The church should never be content to feast while others around us are starving for relational connection.

It is no coincidence that one of the central symbols of the church is a table, at which we eat a meal called Holy Communion. Where we eat bread and drink wine and remember what unites us and makes us brothers and sisters; the body and blood of Jesus, who reunited us with our Heavenly Father, and draw us into relationship as a family.

We should not be content to feast while others are going hungry. The message of the church should be, ‘come to the table’. Join the family. There is enough bread and wine to go round. There is room for everyone. And if it looks like there’s no room, we will pull up another chair and make room!

But as well as offering nourishment for a relationally-starved city, we must never be content to feast while others within our community are hungry and lonely. If the church focuses only on numbers of attendees but creates a loneliness culture that allows people to feel isolated whilst in a crowd, we are in danger of perpetuating the sin of the Corinthians; purporting to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, but really indulging in selfish feasts that nourish oneself whilst leaving other family members hungry (1 Corinthians 11:20-22).   

You know you’re in danger of creating a lonely church, where numbers matter to you more than names. Where ‘welcome’ is something done by a team in lanyards, rather than being a cultural value for which every member shares the responsibility. Where community is a regular buzzword, but few do the hard work of actually practicing it. Where community is only experienced by a few, who may typically commune in groups of people who look like them, are of the same life stage as them, and share passions that makes it easy and natural to hang out. Where worship only makes space for celebration, but none for lament. Where people are not encouraged to speak openly about their feelings without fear of shame. I say ‘encouraged’ rather than ‘allowed’ because it’s often the case that something can be technically allowed, but the unwritten assumption is that we’d still rather you didn’t! Honesty needs to be encouraged and fostered.

To put it another way, if Melancholy were seated on one of our pews, what scene would you glimpse through the cavity in his chest? Would it be a crowd of individual worshippers, blissfully – or wilfully – unaware of his presence and plight? That well-practiced posture, eyes closed and hands raised, can look worshipful, but if the eyes are closed in order to not observe the pain of another, and the hands raised so as not have to reach out and comfort them, then the posture is a clanging cymbal and an affront to the one we claim to worship.

I’m sure I fall short in countless ways that I’m not even aware of. I’m sure I’ve unintentionally made people feel overlooked or othered. But the challenge is to repent, reset the table, and invite others to join the feast,

As Maya Angelou wrote,

‘The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.’

I think the world is aching for that more than ever. And the church should be the answer.

Image Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash

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