I have been grappling with the issue of community for some time now, but was challenged recently by a response to an article on depression recently posted on this site. The lady who posted the comment expressed that although she had been involved in church life for many years she was in fact very lonely and had also experienced depressive episodes during her life. That really got me thinking. How can someone be a church attender, surrounded by many Christians, and yet still be lonely?
This area has troubled me for some time. In fact, I know many people who have in the past attended large churches and yet complained that there was no community, they felt lost in the crowd, a number in a gigantic system. Many of these people merely drifted from church to church looking for what I see as a missing ingredient in church life: community. A place where they can feel connected, cared for loved, valued, needed and befriended.
George Barna, the American church researcher, notes that unless people make at least three significant friendships during their initial months in a church they will leave. My own observations support this. I have seen many people leave churches for lack of real friendships.
My own experience in larger churches tends to support this also. I have had times where my family felt on the outer, not part of the social community, despite being surrounded by hundreds of fellow Christians. I have also noticed that meaningful relationships in churches are not as common as we would like to think. Most conversations during Ã¢â‚¬Å“fellowshipÃ¢â‚¬Â time are shallow and devoid of real dialogue or depth. Surface level comments over a quick cup of coffee before flying off for another week, prior to returning for the same serving seven days later.
I conducted a bit of an experiment some years back. My family and I were holidaying for three months, visiting different churches each week as we traveled. Interestingly, we found that most churches we visited, across a range of denominations, were unfriendly. In many instances unless we, as visitors, made an effort to talk with someone, no-one would bother engaging us in any way. Most times it was easier to leave than stay around and feel uncomfortable.
Yes, loneliness is a real issue even in the church, the community of God. Churches must acknowledge this and grapple with it because surely we should be able to provide people with community better than anyone or anywhere else.
It is certainly something I am thinking about in my efforts to establish a Christian community. I tend to talk more about community than church, in an effort to change perceptions and make community a priority. The road is long, I reckon people have forgotten what community means in this disjointed, independent day and age, but we must make every effort to regain a focus on building and maintaining a sense of community within our churches.