GERALD COWAN’S PERSONAL PERIODICALS
Number 605 • January 15, 2021
UNCOMFORTABLE PROBLEMS THE CHURCH NEEDS TO TALK ABOUT, 2 — LONELINESS
A visitor or member may walk into a church assembly alone and leave alone, without any real contact and nothing that could be called fellowship. Loneliness is not a one-sided problem, it is multifaceted and requires a balanced approach if any solution for it is to be found. Sometimes when one walks into a church assembly or meeting he feels the need to “put on a different face,” an “I belong here too” face, in order to appear to be or pretend to be something expected by others but which requires covering up or pretending not to be the person he really consciously is, an outsider, a misfit. One may really want to fit in, may feel the need to fit in and may try to appear to fit by joining in, mouthing the same words and doing the same as others do in worship but feeling like a pretender, a hypocrite. He knows that the God he cannot see is present and can look into him in ways no one else can, listening to his thoughts and reading even the intentions of his heart and mind, knowing he is pretending, ashamed and afraid to be known, afraid he will be found out exposed and rejected as a misfit. The same “put on a Christian face” happens at other times too. He visits or is visited by other Christians, he encounters the preacher or an elder or any member of the church on the street or in the market and must quickly deny himself and put on the mask of community, identity, or fellowship. He cannot allow himself to be seen without his “Christian face” firmly in place. He covers his imperfections, he hides his questions, doubts and uncertainties, insecurities and fears. He feels like a daffodil among orchids, fearing though not wanting exposure, rejection, and removal. In the midst of a crowd of others he feels alone.
Of course there’s another possibility that also makes him feel out of place: he may feel superior – a rare exotic orchid among daffodils – glorifying those lowly and mundane others and raising their collective value by condescending to be identified with them. But he “knows” he is different; though he is present with them he feels aloof and alone.
If he has not yet done what this church teaches as requirements for salvation and membership he may dread being asked to explain why, or explain what he hopes to gain by further delay. He may have tried to answer before and has often heard his reasons and excuses rebutted. He expects to be asked again but does not want to be asked because he doesn’t want to answer. If he has done what is required initially – he is a “baptized believer” so to speak – but is not living up to all that is asked and required of members, he may expect to be asked why, but does not want to answer that either. So he avoids confrontation, either in private or in any assembly, even in a “Sunday school” or other study class. He may avoid any contact where he will be asked questions he does not want to answer – he separates himself and isolates himself to protect himself. He is not alone but he feels alone, and he is lonely. He suffers the loneliness of not being accepted and not being able to accept others. How can he be helped?
Week after week, many of us walk into a church, sit by people we have known for years and yet would never dream of sharing our innermost struggles with them. While a large part of this is our pride, another factor is a Church that seems unwilling to talk about certain uncomfortable issues, choosing rather to ignore them, try to cover them up, or simply reject people who bring them up.
Even elders, deacons, and preachers, especially preachers, can suffer the loneliness of being categorized without really being accepted as “like the rest of us.” They are held to a higher level than others spiritually, morally, and socially but perceived as more nearly self-sufficient and less needy than “ordinary members.” Who can understand the loneliness of the “leader,” the one from whom others seek guidance and example but who is assumed not to need the same from others? The ‘Moses’ in the church needs Aaron and Hur to hold up his hands. The burden of expectation and responsibility to and for the whole congregation can be overwhelming, unbearable, disabling and crippling.
Do not be satisfied with superficial judgments based upon appearances and assumptions. Do not assume that physical presence and apparent participation indicate real fellowship. Make a real effort to know and understand each other. The effective cure for loneliness is fellowship – togetherness, mutuality, feeling together and not just acting or sharing at some level. Have a “get acquainted party.” Play “guess who.” Encourage all members and attenders to be present and participate.
I have said before that greeting others and responding to greetings from others, sharing information with and about each other is certainly fellowship. This kind of interactive communication, this willingness to know and be known, to share needs, to rejoice with the rejoicing and weep with the weeping is essential for a true fellowship of togetherness and sharing. Those who get no such attention from others may feel excluded, unappreciated – can we say unloved? Those who do not give such attention to others may be labeled as cold, unwelcoming – can we say unloving? Where is the fellowship in such attitudes?
Communication is a necessary part of fellowship – probably an evidence of concerned and shared love too. We have many ways to communicate. In the recent past postal notes and letters and telephone calls were common. With the advent of internet and electronic mail communication became much easier. Now with the ubiquitous “smart phone” (in my estimation too smart and too untrustworthy and too ready to remember and relay to others what is communicated through it) and the kudzu of social media nobody needs to be or feel disconnected. Even being on a robotic call list allows one to feel he is somewhat “in the loop” and able to share at some level.
Gathering and assembling in one place for activities – including worship, instruction, admonition, edification, and encouragement – is fellowship. Wilfully absenting oneself from scheduled and announced meetings amounts to a refusal of togetherness, of giving and receiving “fellowship.” One who chooses to be absent should not complain about being ignored or “left out.” Oh yes, I will concede that one should notice the absence and try to find out the reason for it. The needy may want attention but be shy and reticent about asking for it. Those who do not want fellowship should be admonished against isolating themselves from others, depriving themselves and others of love and fellowship that can be and ought to be shared. We could go further on the subject: “thank you” notes, “get well” or “thinking about you and missing you” notes or calls invariably mean more to the receiver than to the giver, but they indicate to the receiver that he or she has “fellows and fellowship” in the lord’s church. Such fellowship is an indication that the golden chain of love that binds us to and with each other and Christ is not only present but is strong. That bond may prevent some from leaving and, when known and advertised as it will be by those who receive it, it will be a strong attraction to others who are looking for love and fellowship and who are becoming aware that you – not only the church but especially you who are members of it are ready and willing to share and show it.
There are droves of lonely people in the church, and that includes preachers, elders, and all who are tasked with shepherding and caring for others. The isolation comes from a lack of identification and identification – “I’m not a preacher. I wouldn’t know to talk to a preacher. Same with elders. We don’t have anything in common, so I’m afraid to approach them.” But we need to get to know each other, be known by each other. And that comes through open communication. When we can be vulnerable and honest with one another, we understand each other in a profound way. One who wants to have friends must show himself to be friendly (Proverbs 18:24). Don’t avoid contact and then blame others for not being friendly. A visitor complained to another: “I went to that church but nobody even spoke to me.” “Well,” said the other, “How many of them did you speak to?” If you act like you want to be left alone, don’t be surprised if most people leave you alone. No one should ever have to leave an assembly without his or her presence being noted – without having been spoken to. An acknowledgment that you were there, that your presence was noticed and appreciated may remove the fear of being alone among strangers – it will certainly increase the possibility of a return visit, just a number among the numbered. “I was a stranger but you took me in. You made me feel there could be a place for me among you. I will come again.”