Feeling lonely in the church is likened to feeling lonely within a marriage. It’s the one place where people should be welcomed, known and loved. However, sin reaches even into the depths of the family of God here on earth, and produces isolating experiences. One thing that every church has in common is that there are always people who feel alone sitting in the pews. Truth be told, there are two sides to this story: those who are lonely and those who are comfortable.
A word for the comfortable people.
There are always the cool people in the church. They could be in leadership, they could be friends with the leadership or they could always somehow look like they just stepped out of the latest fall fashion magazine. Regardless, they probably love Jesus too. Or maybe they’re not “cool” so much as they are small group leaders who are truly gifted at loving people well. If this is you, there are some important things for you to remember.
Someone is always watching. That someone is Jesus (and the people around you). And Jesus didn’t have a certain type of person that he ministered to . . . besides sinners. He wasn’t called only to the rich or to the poor, only to the pretty or the ugly. He was called to us all because we are all rich yet poor and all pretty yet ugly. Don’t be bound by comfortable friendships or people who look just like you. “As iron sharpens iron, so one sharpens another.” This includes all kinds of iron.
Someone is always hurting. Each person you see on Sunday represents a story, a story of trials and hardships, of joy and beauty. Not surprisingly, showing the beautiful parts of our story is way easier than sharing the suffering. If you haven’t spoken to me throughout the week and on Sunday morning you ask me how I am doing, I am likely going to tell you, “I’m fine! Thanks!” Not because I don’t want you to know details of my life, but it’s like trying to go full speed before starting the car.
Someone always feels alone. You can’t include everyone in everything you do, but you must be aware of the people who are watching you (whether in person or on Instagram). God purposefully designed the church to be a place of life-giving, authentic relationships. That’s why there are literally 59 different commands in the Bible of how we should be treating “one another.” Obviously, in light of our selfish sin, this prescription for the church is ideal and not usually the reality.
Hear the gospel. Jesus did community (and all of life) perfectly and then died a gruesome death so that we could have the distinct privilege of being in the family of God. Because of the gospel, we can know that not everyone is as great as they seem (not even you). So we can live in the freedom of not having to perform for each other or look a certain way. We can’t be best friends with everyone, but we can, by the power and strength of Jesus, go beyond our comfort zone in community. We can do this because in the gospel, we are already family and therefore, have security in Christ.
A word for the lonely people.
On the flip side of this story, you may be the person or family that feels left out of life in the church. This can be lonely and isolating. This is where a chip on your shoulder (aka: sinful bitterness) can grow, sending you head long into self-pity while Satan rejoices. If this is you, there are some important things for you to remember.
Your loneliness is not someone else’s fault. Putting ourselves out there can be hard or even painful. We can be rejected and literally not included. But you must remember that stories of pain and trial are never only one-sided. You can never know what someone else–even those who make you feel excluded–may be going through. When you assume that others are purposefully not approaching you, you are judging their intention. We can’t know the motivations of others unless we ask. Making assumptions opens wide the door to sin–our sin, not theirs.
Your loneliness is your responsibility. If all the church should be seeking to pursue one another, and you are in fact a Christian, then this includes you. It doesn’t say to expect everyone else to do this for you. Regardless of personality or comfort level, every Christian is called to love and care for one another. Just because you are new to a church or currently hurting doesn’t mean you can’t approach someone else. It probably means that you should. That being said, beggars can’t be choosers. If it’s a matter simply of preference of people, then you should repent and love the people God has put in your path for fellowship.
Your loneliness is not out of God’s hands. He is gracious and kind to use our difficult circumstances to draw us near to Him. If you aren’t allowing your feelings of isolation to draw you towards God, then they are likely drawing you towards Satan. In fact, God allows our painful circumstances in order for us to know and love Him more. He doesn’t waste our pain; He leverages it to actually help us. Hallelujah! To know everyone in church--but not be one who knows God enough to draw near to Him--is to miss the point entirely. So let your loneliness draw you to Jesus, the person church is truly about.
Hear the gospel. When you aren’t invited to that cool party or that intimate gathering, you can rest knowing that you are invited to the greatest party in all of history. You are deeply loved by the only One who gives the invitations to the supper of the Lamb. You are so loved that He covered your personal, deepest, darkest and worst sin with His own blood. He’s done that for you–not because of your worthiness, but because of His incredible goodness and mercy. It’s done. The approval you have through Christ’s life given in your place dulls the longing for the approval of men. The comfort found in Christ soothes the ache for comforts from the people who may not be caring for you well right now. You may not have the acceptance and love of those around you, but if you are a Christian, you have the friendship of the one true King who died for you even when you didn’t deserve it. He waits with an inheritance for you in heaven because through Christ's blood, the Father has accepted you.
The church will be a messy place this side of heaven. Not because it’s out of control, but because when relationships are honest, vulnerable and facing the hard together, someone is bound to mess up. People want to do church where they aren’t scared of each other, where people aren’t afraid to cold-text someone for coffee, where people notice hard circumstances and actually follow up on their offers of help, where no one buys the “looking like you have it all together” picture of our lives. This is what church community is supposed to be. In short, it’s a place where someone like Jesus would be found. Let’s remember that he is among us, caring for the details of what goes on within his churches, and seek to honor his name there (Rev 2:2).
Rebekah Hannah is a biblical counselor at The Grace Center for Biblical Counseling in Jacksonville, Florida. She is married to Andrew and has three daughters.