Follow-up: Lonely in a (Church) Crowd Pt. 2

My post, Lonely in a (Church) Crowd, clearly  hit a nerve. There is no question that there is a problem with this issue in churches today. In this follow-up post, I wanted to address a few things based on messages and comments I have received.

My own experiences with this problem, as everyone’s experiences are, are made up of a unique history and set of circumstances.  I do bring to the subject matter, due to my age, more than a little experience. I have a lifetime of living this, including those experiences of my childhood in various churches, and also the added insights gained by talking with countless people through my 23 years in Christian radio.  I know that which I am addressing.

There are some things I am not saying in my comments about the subject. I received a message from a new church elder from a denomination I am personally familiar with. The message, in essence, put blame and responsibility on me, dismissed the importance of what I mentioned and then went a step farther to say that Tom and I should start a home church, so the imperfections of the average church wouldn’t make their way in. It was pure sarcasm, of course. Duly noted. (I would add that this man has no knowledge of my husband or me and our lives.)

So what wasn’t I saying in my first post? I wasn’t saying that churches must reach a state of perfection before they are good enough for me or others.  Hardly.  I do have a problem with a church where a pastor’s wife can walk up to tithing members of many years and ask them their names and  if they are visiting.   (True story from a family member.)  I do have a problem with churches where people shuffle in, week in and week out, nodding politely at people whose names they don’t even know, and that’s OK with them. For decades.

I do have a problem with pastors  (or elders) who can make trips for the sake of teaching those in other states or countries and yet seem unable to drive 2 minutes down the road to visit those with clear spiritual struggles, or just visit them at all.  There isn’t much glory in that kind of thing, visiting those who can’t do much for you. It is, however, where real ministry begins.

I have a problem with loveless places of worship and loveless faces, and women who can talk endlessly with their BFF’s, while all the stranger gets is the sight of their backs in the Narthex (lobby, or whatever you call it in your church.)

I also have a problem with elders like the one who wrote who dismiss, callously, the concerns of a Christian woman like me who writes of something that is a reality, a tragic reality, for many. What’s missing? Loving concern. It’s amazing how far that goes in staunching the bleeding in hearts, it’s amazing how that balm of kindness can heal wounds. Suggesting that it is a woman thing, with hysterical females sobbing into their hankies at not being liked, is exactly the spirit that drives many from the church entirely. And I have another bit of news:  The experiences I have written about are not just those of women, as evidenced by the comments on social media to this article and here at the blog. I spoke with someone last week who described the treatment her  husband receives from others in the church. They’ve been there for several years, but he’s quiet and humble. The kind nobody notices or bothers with.  No, it is not just women experiencing the problem in churches that are too busy with their church programs, activities, etc.  to notice their own right in front of them.

It’s a lack of love. That’s the real problem.  Not public relations or manipulation towards the end of membership growth, but love. That kind of love has to be placed in hearts by God, the one supposedly being worshiped in church each Sunday. If you can’t reflect that in the house of God of all places, something is terribly off.

Additionally, for those who recommend trying to find others in the same boat within a church, that’s one suggestion, and a good one. But realize that not everyone is equipped physically or emotionally or spiritually to continue to try in the face of ongoing failure to break in.  Some will just give up.

I always believed that “church” was supposed to mean more than an hour on Sunday morning, a brief crush in a crowded hallway and then the car. A family should mean more than that, or am I wrong? After the preaching of the Word, shouldn’t it mean relationships, shared burdens, shared rejoicing over things, a place to serve and a place to find help when you are in need?  If so, than why are so many not finding that?

Anyone can slide in and out of a pew or seat each week. Whether “church” in the fullest sense goes beyond that takes more than a lonely person wishing things were otherwise. I commend those with the tenacity to keep trying. Not everyone can do that. Do we care about those who can’t or even recognize them?

The elder who wrote to me insisted that “Word and Sacrament” were all that was needed. Stuff and mortify your hurt  and shut up. But Word and Sacrament are given in a context. When that context is unloving, uncaring, and it functions  like an assembly line in a factory, (here’s Communion, you’re good to go for another week) when Christ’s love for us is the whole point of the Sacred Meal, you create stumbling blocks spiritually. Rather than open hearts to God’s Word, you shut them down. The elder who wrote to me doesn’t have to like that fact, but it’s the truth.  And God help those in clerical clothes and professing Christian leaders who put stumbling blocks where there don’t have to be any.

A lack of love is the hallmark of our dark times. It’s no surprise that the church is this way as well, as it seems to take its clues from the culture, rather than from the Scriptures.  And yes, Orthodoxy is crucial, but putting that into practice in our lives is where ministry begins.

We can only try to run counter to that spirit in how we treat those we meet in a church and out of it, for those who have no church.  Program heavy institutions calling themselves “churches” can do what they want. The real ministry of the church – meaning the people –  is still one on one, person to person, in good times and bad. God seems to be using many of us outside the institutional church in various ways.  Small lights out there where there aren’t any. And it’s a shame that these things even have to be said. Consider it said.

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.