Lonely In a (Church) Crowd

If the world can be a lonely place, it can be at its loneliest in a church. Through the years I have had conversations more than once with those who, like me, have  experienced this first hand. With the advent of the evangelical ultra, super, gigachurch (that’s actually a term), the loneliness experienced only gets more pronounced. When church feels like an airport terminal, and everyone but you has somewhere to go, the feeling of being alone is intensified.

But big churches don’t have a corner on that. It can be that way in any church. Humans tend to flock to groups or cliques according to their pecking order in the social hierarchy. All sorts of unspoken social rubrics come into play, and for an outsider, for someone who doesn’t understand the rules, there isn’t much you can do to find a place to fit in. After a while, you become truly invisible, like the pews or the table with promotional brochures in the lobby.

I’ve written before about how the shiny people, as I call them, the “high capacity”, attractive and talented ones set the rules. As newcomers, they are actively pursued. Pastors love seeing this type come in the door. After giving up hope long ago about ever fitting in, I have watched these dynamics at work for years. At one church Tom and I visited several years ago, the Corvette-driving flashy man who was the pastor greeted us warmly at the door. I call these the “all teeth and hair types” who have enormous, attractive smiles and great hair (I laughed  out loud typing that, because there isn’t always the hair), but their eyes are roving around at the door after church, even as they shake your hand, looking for more exciting prospects to pursue. If you’re looking for exciting, Tom and I don’t cut it!

But it isn’t always the pastor’s fault. (Nothing wrong with Corvettes if your ministerial salary runs to that, I guess), because church is far more than the man in the pulpit. That’s what I wanted to write about today.

I found myself in a new church recently. It was a very small congregation, very small, as in about 30 people all told. After the service, I was about to leave when an older lady who had caught my eye during the handshake portion came up to me and invited me to come back to the fellowship hall for coffee. I was surprised. I’ll be honest, I was pleased at the invite.

I sat down at a table with about 7 others, all of them a good 20 years older than me. Quite frankly, I felt very much at home with them. I explained that I had hearing loss and might have to have something repeated (room noise makes it a lot worse), and they all laughed and said they did also. We sat and chatted for a while, the lady who invited me kindly included me in the conversation.

When I finally got up to leave, she asked me for my name and phone number which I gave her. It was something that is certainly a normal thing to do for any visitor, a formality  that usually happens when you fill out your name on a card. But it meant a great deal that she asked–that a human being asked.

“I hope we’ll see you again,” she said.

Why is this so difficult in churches? I have spent a lifetime in evangelical circles through the years, including my childhood, in churches of nearly every brand and description. The ones where the people themselves made an honest effort to be inclusive and interested in the stranger at their door can be counted on one hand. Everyone stays where it’s comfortable. Yes, they do.

We have no idea who is around us. Sometimes there is someone we cross paths with who is living in deep depression. They make a last trip to the surface, to use that analogy, before going under the final time.  (I could write a great deal on that topic having lost a friend to suicide.) That darkness can be so all encompassing that only a sudden encounter with the bright light of kindness can break in. Why would we not want that kindness to be extended in the house of God? Why should anyone leave a church feeling lonely?

I don’t care about how many theological symposiums, conferences, work-shops, missionary banquets, women’s retreats, men’s prayer breakfasts,  etc. etc. you want to hold in a given year. Who is lonely? Who cares that you came in the door? Who is actually coming to your church and why? If the pastor is too busy doing pastor things, surely someone in your church could be on the lookout. Right? It can sometimes be just one person who makes the difference.

That small church followed through with a phone call. The pastor wanted to know if he could do anything to help and just wanted to make contact. They have the treatment of a visitor right there. Whatever else the church might lack, it has that right.

I have a growing intolerance for churches, regardless of their doctrinal rectitude, who do not get this. I remember posting the sermon clip from Richard Owen Roberts a while back. “No man cares for my soul.” He tells of the loveless churches we have today, and how in Wheaton, Illinois, a simple invitation from his wife to an international student there at Wheaton College saved him from a planned suicide. A simple invitation to lunch and conversation.

If you don’t care for the humans you encounter in your church, why would you care about anybody outside of your church? And if you don’t care about them physically, why would you care about their souls? Answer: Most Christians don’t care about either. I know, because I have experienced it myself.

Nothing I’ve said here is unique or original, but it’s what’s on my heart and mind today. Don’t talk about the love of God in your church if you have no intention of showing it.

24 thoughts on “Lonely In a (Church) Crowd

  1. Ingrid says:

    For all the church shiny people, see the example of our Lord in Scripture.

    Jesus told the man who invited Him,
    “When you give a lunch or
    dinner, don’t invite your friends. They can invite you to their dinners.
    They can pay you
    back and you are even. When
    you give a dinner, invite poor people, lame people,
    blind people. God will bless
    you, because those people can’t pay you back. But
    God will pay you when the
    righteous people rise from the dead.”

    Jesus ~ Luke 14: 12-14

  2. Rachel says:

    SPOT ON! There has only been one, one church that I attended years ago that had a welcoming spirit. Where we currently attend, we’ve attended this church for four years, people will come up to my family and ask if it’s our first time there. Honestly hardly anyone knows our name. If you don’t fit into the status mold you’re overlooked completely. I know exactly how you feel Ingrid. I’ve struggled with fitting in my entire life, and yes indeed church can be one of the loneliest places.

  3. Ingrid says:

    Exactly. Your family can attend somewhere four years and they ask if you’re visitors. That is a church with seriously misplaced priorities. There really is no excuse for that, but it’s the reality in way too many. I’m sorry you have felt this loveless spirit also, Rachel. It’s heartbreaking. And it’s not lost on our children who eventually come to see the same thing.

  4. Lynn says:

    Hi Ingrid,
    ITA with you are saying. I find that in most churces it is like pulling impacted wisdom teeth just to get someone to say hello with a smile. Another thing I have noticed is that the women in the church (at least within the 20’s-40’s demographics) tend to size you up, comparing themselves to you as soon as you meet them. I have never felt more uncomfortable in a church then when I feel that I’m being eye-balled to death just for being me.
    I think it is great when a church reaches out to visitors, but only if is done with the right motive. Inviting someone for coffee, or a bite to eat is great when you doing so just because that person is a human being and you want to extend the love of Christ. I’m here for that type of interaction all day, every day. However in some churches that is nothing more than a fact finding mission to determine where they could potentially plug you into the church. Before you leave said meeting, they already want to have you signed up for a small group, committing to serve in a ministry or two, and hey there’s a women’s and/or singles retreat coming up that you should sign up for as well. One hasn’t even determined if that is going to be your new church home, and they’ve already got you locked and loaded so to speak. As someone who has gone through some pretty traumatic spiritual abuse, I won’t into any church committing myself right off the bat. I’ve never really done that before anyway, but even less now.
    Romans 12 tells us that our love should be geniune. It can be very lonely in a church when you feel like a lot of your interactions are fake or with hidden agendas.

  5. Ingrid says:

    Excellent points. Exactly right. Churches that have hidden agendas rather than real love are dangerous. Caution is in order. Emotional vulnerability makes easy prey. Before I married Tom, I was used by one church I was in the process of joining and was taking membership classes. I was working in radio at the time and was hosting and scheduling talk programs. Feeling wanted and needed and valued was new to me and this church went out of their way to make me feel so. I now identify much of what was going on by the pastor as flattery. After the church ended up collapsing years later, two separate members told me that the pastor in the inner ring (cult-like view of members and inner circle members, unbeknownst to me), had openly assigned members to me to take me out to lunch, etc. to gain access to the radio air time. It was a hyper-Calvinist personality cult. Being young, a single parent and lonely, I was vulnerable to this. Thankfully, the side of my brain which has always been somewhat suspicious (not enough, but some at least), caused me to back away before committing. Then I met Tom, and he very clearly saw it. So your words of caution are appropriate, not just because of hyper-Calvinist personality cults 😉 but for churches as a whole, many of which are driven by Peter Drucker church growth strategies rather than real Christian love and concern.

  6. Ron Whited says:

    As I’ve been working on a post on my own blog detailing our seemingly endless search for a church home,this post resonates with me more than you could know Ingrid. In a selfish way I feel like it was written just for our family,as it offers hope that it’s not just me that is struggling with this.

    After 40 years of being a Christian,37 of those years in ministry,I find I am ready to give up the search for a new church because what I am looking for doesn’t exist any longer. What is it I’m looking for? It’s simple; I’m looking for a church that teaches the entire word of God,truly loves one another,and is welcoming to the stranger who is weary.

    I am exhausted from the people who stare at you as though you just dropped in from another planet,yet won’t even offer to shake your hand after the service. I’m tired of pastors who don’t even care enough to enquier when after three visits to their church you tell them you have decided to keep searching and their only response is “that’s too bad”.

    I’m sick of shows,laser lights,fog machines,programs de jour,screaming guitars,coffee and soda consumed during “worship”,hipster pastors who couldn’t pray for two solid hours if their lives depended on it,and so much more. Can we not just have Jesus and be content? Why must we package our religion to be indistinguishable from the world?

    I am weary of it all and have decided to stop the insanity of this madness. My heart is broken over this,and I have found no Balm in Gilead in the churches I have visited. I’m content for now to know that I and my family have Jesus,and that’s enough.

    Thank you so much for being obedient and writing this blog.

  7. ropheka says:

    This is bang on from my experience. Mom has been blessed that she has found a church that has Tuesday evening meetings and another Sunday service that is welcoming. It is the first time she has gone to church in about forty years.
    I help with Sunday service at a seniors home and like it so that is my church.

  8. healinginhim says:

    Thank you for this post, Ingrid. The post and comments resonate with me and although I’m weary from the battle I am also very encouraged by hearing from the remnant of Christians via the internet.

  9. Ingrid says:

    Ron and others, I have given up as well. It’s not what we want or what should be, it is just what it is today in our very sick culture. Our son goes to school at a well-known evangelical college. Chapel is hijacked frequently by SJW (social justice warrior) political, gender and race agendas. It’s not even a shadow of what it once was spiritually. The faculty, just like the secular colleges and universities, is held hostage to the screams of various special interests, rather than held captive to Christ and the Scriptures. Looking at this so called cream of the evangelical crop school, it is absolutely no wonder churches look like they do. This has been going on for decades and with the Millennial generation walking away entirely from church in a lot of cases (if they can’t change it, they’ll just leave it), the full bitter harvest of compromise and failure is coming in now. That leaves gutted non-churches behind, big box entertainment centers, fools in skinny jeans – the “Pastors” of Instagram -, or dried up little churches who retain some form of godliness amid the dust but have long ago lost the power, denominations in full revolt against the faith once delivered, signs and wonders heretical celebrity teachers, with people self-feeding from toxic evangelical publishing houses owned by secular conglomerates. (Oh look! There’s a movie out for The Shack. 13 different heresies, but hey, it’s sooooo good…)

    So in the midst of apocalypse, we who just wanted a simple church with a simple, kindly pastor and sincere elders who live their faith, parishioners who understand that faith translates into good works, starting with those around them, well, we have to make do. Times have changed forever. Older – middle aged and up – people are not going to find much. We are the wrong demographic, OK? We are to be shunted off into our segregated groups and patronized while the exciting, real “ministry” goes on on the stage, with the smoke machines belching, “praise and worship” teams writhing around or cooing into fuzzy mics, and Pastor Macho, fresh from his latest gym selfie, who will “share” a message about how to be a better you with a little Jesus drizzled on top.

    This is life in 2017 America. Home teaching and home faith is where genuine faith will have to be preserved. And maybe that’s the way it is anyway. A few hours a week, one hour a week, isn’t ultimately where young faith is formed. Kids know genuine from fake. Most of church is image, programs and crowd control, at least most of the time.

  10. Victoria says:

    I am encouraged by the comments above. I am assured by them that the Church family I experienced as a child was not a figment of imagination. As a widow for nearly 20 years now,(I was 43years old then and my only living child was 8) I have come to despair of being seen as any more than a “Charity Case ” by any congregation I tried to “fit in “to. Even though I was productive and gainfully employed, the “shiny people ” were dismissive of any notion that I was their equal in Christ. I currently work in Customer Service for a very large and quite secular entertainment corporation. Starved for true Christian fellowship, and desirous of being part of a Church, I shall, tomorrow, visit yet another local church in hope of finding a “home” .

  11. Carolyn says:

    Well, I guess my husband and I aren’t alone. We don’t fit in today’s church, at all, anywhere. We’ve tried (and tried), and have given up. What many have written here, we’ve experienced, and more.

    Genuine Christian love, we have only ever seen that from a select few of our sincere believing friends – but I will never minimize this blessing, for these precious souls are worth their weight in gold.

    Nonetheless, truly in the greater scheme of the “corporate” church, no one cares. It is a sad, but true fact. Unless you happen to be popular or in the “core”.

  12. libby says:

    I do understand what you are saying and I agree to an extent. We have moved many times and because of that, we have had to change churches many times. Having been in every size church now, I know it takes work to find your place. Large churches you can get lost in as well as small churches. What I have found true in every one is the more I put into finding friendships the more I got out of it. Each one was a different dynamic, some easier than others to join in. My question would be, what area of service and ministry are you gifted in? Most often finding your gifts and how they can be used in the church family God has you in has been the best source of connection. Many times the area of need you are desiring to be filled, my be just the reason God has chosen you to be a part of that church family. It may be He wants that need filled by someone who recognizes it as a need. If you feel that, I can be certain you are not the only one. I wonder if you could be the person to look for others who may be feeling the same and fill the need. We all do have a part to play in the body of Christ. Only you can be the part that God has called you to be. Serving has always been the way to be connecting and feeling ownership. You may not end up in the “in crowd” but you may end up with a genuine friend. So many people are longing for a genuine connection and honestly are too insecure to reach out, or too shy, busy, or even unsure how, to put in the work it takes for true connection.

  13. Nancy Whiting says:

    Spot-on. I could write all about my experience, but suffice it to say it took me over a year of weekly attendance at church, a women’s retreat, weekly sewing group, and all the pot lucks and other events they held for that year before people felt like they could open up and accept me. I told the Pastor, the Associate Pastor, both their wives, and several of the women at the sewing group that it was like trying to break through an invisible force field to be part of that church family. I’ve never had to work so hard to get people to talk to me! I was told by a few ladies to “Keep trying. Don’t give up.” It shouldn’t be that much work to be part of a church family.

    I have literally forced myself on them, made them accept me and I have admonished them all about how closed they are, and that I’m only there because I’m tenacious. I have asked them to stop and look around, see who is visiting, see who comes and goes and reach out more. A couple of gals said it’s because they open-up to people who come for a while and then leave them, so they’re a little more wary of that. That’s too bad for their feelings, but they are shutting people out.

    I have to say that I have continued with that church and I’m now part of the family, fully integrated and accepted. Yeah, but it still rings with me how hard it was for that to happen, and it did only because I kept showing up and picking at them so they couldn’t ignore or avoid me any longer. I have made it my mission to see who is new, who is quiet, who I can reach out to so that others don’t feel like I felt for over a year. I also keep at my church family to WAKE UP and do a better job of making people feel welcome, this church will shrivel and die. This is slowly beginning to happen. One step at a time, one visitor at a time.

    Church. Family. The Body of Christ. This is not about our “feelings.” This is about training in righteousness, equipping the saints to preach the gospel to those who are perishing and bring them to church to be equipped to live their lives in faith in Christ and to share the gospel and bring people to church to be equipped. . . Time is short, and we can’t waste time being afraid to reach out to people because we’ve been disappointed in the past or hurt when someone left the church. Even if Jesus tarries, time is still short for every one of us.

    Anyway, that’s my experience. Your blog post really resonates with me.

  14. Carolyn says:

    I also want to add this thought: that putting effort into fellowship and extending yourself into service/ministry does not guarantee finding a place where you are truly welcome in church. Some of the most painful experiences we’ve had were when we’ve tried to be connected and involved. Gifts we had, we were told were “wrong” or “not wanted”. Ministries where there actually was the love of Christ and freedom in the Spirit – the kind where you can actually use your gifts in the exact manner God gave them to you, and serve with joy – often end up being uprooted and/or changed. Believers that you serve selflessly for any length of time can end up turning around and disposing of you as refuse. One’s pursuit of others often is not reciprocated. And when one fatigues of all of this and withdraws, you’re met with sermons that say “if you’re not using your gifts in the local church, you’re sinning”. We think to ourselves, is this a joke? Honestly, it gets old. I don’t think the “shiny” people, as Ingrid calls them, understand these dynamics, because they don’t affect them.

    Anyhow, if one does try to complain about being treated this way, you’re either rebuked for your “attitudinal” sin, or the excuse is given that there is “no perfect church” and/or “we’re all sinners”. Frankly we feel these responses are often used as a cop out of why the hurtful behavior by some against others is justified.

  15. Lynn says:

    @ Nancy. ITA. My only question is why those relationships ended just because those persons left that particular church? In my opinion if you are building, or have built geniune, authentic, solid relationships, those relations should remain intact whether the person leaves or stays. UNLESS that person leaves in a very disruptive, vindictive way. Did they call or email the person to see how they were doing? Not just to find out why they haven’t been at church, but to show that you notice when they are not there, and you care. I remember a long time ago I had emailed one young lady I hadn’t seen in at church for a while. I don’t recall the entire conversation, but I do remember that she thanked me for contacting her and mentioned that not even her Sunday school pastor that she knew very well had done so.

    I feel like the average believer gets way too much in their feelings regarding people leaving a church. I have heard soo many stories IRL and via the web about all these church “friends” vanishing into thin air when they left a church. It don’t seem like the person you mentioned had been at your church for very long, but I have heard of stories where folks have been in churches for 10, 15, 20 years, and the moment they decide to leave, all those “relationships” go the way of the dinosaur. This goes back to my original post that begs the question of what are our agendas when we go to church? Are we reaching out to people with good intentions? In general, people can spot fake or insincerity a mile away. I also don’t think it is a good idea to be vulnerable with people we’ve just met, straight out the gate. We are called to guard our hearts, and are to use wisdom and discernment in all of our dealing. Obviously not closing ourselves off, but not putting it all out there either.

  16. Lynn says:

    “Believers that you serve selflessly for any length of time can end up turning around and disposing of you as refuse.”

    I and a couple other people had this happen in a ministry we had been serving in for sometime. The overseer of the ministry was a paid position of the church, so when the old manager resigned and a new came on, I guess he felt he only wanted his friends on to serve (he was also younger). Instead of just being open and honest, he simply just stopped adding us to the schedule. Now we both had been serving for at least two years, so we knew that they NEEDED people to work every Sunday. We had no idea what was going on at first, but after a while it became obvious what he had done. So that’s how we were disposed of, but the church complains when people don’t serve. Nice.

  17. Christy Weum says:

    I am just curious, has anyone found a church they can say displays this true love of the brethren? What does that look like in a practical way, and how do the elders/leaders do both the faithful teaching and the care of the flock, and care for their own families? I ask in sincerity.

  18. Ingrid says:

    On my Facebook post of this article, several in the comments said they had found and were grateful for their own churches. It isn’t highly technical. What does and should it look like? According to those who are thankful for good churches, they mention a caring, attentive pastor and board of men with integrity who visit families and have an interest in members. They mention things done for them in crisis, hospital visits (one friend of mine said that their caring pastor is the number one reason they didn’t retire in Florida as planned. They found a church with a caring pastor who showed up when her husband had a heart attack. It was worth more than retirement in a good climate to have that. It’s worth more than gold.) The atmosphere in a church, just like the atmosphere on the job or in any organization, flows from the top. When you have kindly, mature Christian elders and teaching elder/pastor, the members are given an example of what love looks like in action. It spreads. A cold, prideful, distant leadership produces the same kind of parishioners. Also, in the giant-sized “churches” of today, with pastoral staff numbering in the dozens and dozens, finding the right one even in crisis can be a challenge. “Press 1 if you’ve had a death in the family, press 2 if you are depressed and need counsel, press 3 if you want to sign up for the Church Youth Rave..” The old Cheers TV show that revolved around a bar had the theme song that went, “You want to go where everybody knows your name.” Yes, and that’s also true for churches. Sadly, you are more likely to find friendly faces at the local coffee shop or pub than some of these gargantuan, gigachurches, and again, in some of the smaller ones also. It takes a concern for others, and it isn’t rocket science.

  19. healinginhim says:

    “…. you are more likely to find friendly faces at the local coffee shop …”
    Happened this morning. I was early for my shift so stopped at a shop ( I hardly ever do this ).
    The owner made a point of coming and talking with me since it wasn’t too busy. Discovered she knew all about broken marriages, toxic relationships, etc. We talked as if we had known each other for quite some time. She wasn’t this hardened woman that was demanding to be heard … No, just a woman who had raised a family to the best of her ability and moving on. Working hard and at the same time I’ve witnessed her reach out and bless others with “freebies.” It’s not about her; it’s about others.
    I thanked the Lord for this encounter and prayed for this woman and her demanding job which can quite often include some very rude, obnoxious folk.

  20. Gena McCown says:

    I wanted to comment on the warmly welcomed high capacity people in the church you mentioned, as they are often lonely too. High capacity is often welcomed b/c they are effective volunteers. People want their help because they know they are high capacity…. but no one is inviting them out for coffee or over for dinner.

    I’m a high capacity person, and I can count the number of dinner reservations or coffee dates on one hand from over the last 18 years of church membership.

  21. Ingrid says:

    Gena, thank you for sharing your perspective – a different angle – but illustrating the fact that people in churches are used/neglected at either end of the spectrum. When even the ones making church programs happen, keeping things running, are lonely, something has to be seriously amiss. Somewhere in our obsession with business, people are getting lost. And people are why Jesus came. He showed his love for men and women, again and again, we see in the Gospels. He took time to sit down with Mary, the sister of Martha, and answer her questions, something unheard of in that day. He came to their home. He took time at the well with the Samaritan woman, he touched the blind man’s eyes and healed them, he stopped by the pallet of the crippled man that nobody would help at the Pool of Siloam. He built no mansions on earth, he had no PR campaign, he was homeless and had no pillow to lay his head. Yet today’s shepherds are too busy for any who are hurting or who have exceptional circumstances, who are alone. They – the pastors – believe themselves to be better than Jesus Christ. More important. And a congregation’s priorities flow from the example at the top. A theological conference called and wants their august presence. No time. No time. No time for little people. No time for people, really. I’m sorry you’ve experienced this loneliness as well. God has seen your labors, even if nobody else has.

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