For years, sociologists and psychologists have highlighted what they term an “epidemic of loneliness” in our society. Loneliness in this sense is often described as a lack of vertical and horizontal connections (spiritual and social) that leave people without a sense of identity, meaning, and purpose. This correlates with polling that has shown declining interest in the transcendent, personal God of the Bible as well as dramatic declines in friendship. In turn, we see this loneliness at the heart of most cases of depression—which then exacerbates the problem by isolating the depressed from their peers.
And all of this can be found in the church. We should expect this in part—the church is still populated by broken people and is still influenced by the surrounding culture. At the same time, it is positioned by virtue of the grace of God to meet those two great needs: spiritual and social connection. Why then is it so often missing the mark?
Now I know criticizing the church—especially its lack of community—is common to the point of cliché and incredibly irritating to those who have heard it repeated ad nauseum. We need to set aside our defensiveness, however, and examine the critique on its merits. Are we doing enough to nurture the bonds of Christian fellowship within our churches?
In my experience, orthodox churches tend to draw people in with quality preaching and hold on to them based on the quality of the congregational life. In other words, if the preaching is solid but people are still migrating out for reasons other than theology or geographic relocation, then your church probably has a congregational life problem. Here are a few easy diagnostic questions to test out the solidity of the bonds of fellowship within your church:
- Do people want to spend time with each other after the church service or do they speed away?
- Do they only gather for formal events, or do they also informally gather to enjoy each other?
- Do they know anything about each other besides name and place of work?
- Do they only offer prayer requests for others, or for their own spiritual growth as well?
- Does church discipline seem more common than ordinary shepherd care of the sheep?
Another way to assess the congregational life of the church is through exit interviews. What reasons do people give for leaving your church? Sometimes people leave because of unbelief and ongoing patterns of sin, or because of theological disagreements. Superficial explanations—such as distance or service times—are often smoke screens for deeper issues. People will regularly drive great distances or make less-than-ideal service times if they feel like their Christian family is on the other end of that commute. If these kinds of superficial explanations come up often in exit interviews, it’s time to probe a little deeper into the congregational life of the church.
Here are some ways to investigate:
- Are the elders of the church shepherding the flock?
We cannot expect fellowship in our churches without shepherding from the elders. Not only should elders be modeling love with their relationship to one another and their families, but they should be proactively caring for and counseling the sheep. This could be in the form of an occasional phone call, text, or email—but it should ideally come before the sheep are in need of correction. This is also how the under-shepherds comes to better know and love Christ’s sheep (John 10).
- Is the pastor preaching to me or to the back wall?
If the elders, including the pastor, are shepherding the sheep, then then pastor will continue to do so from the pulpit. He ought to have a keen awareness of what is happening in the hearts and homes of God’s people. A pastor who doesn’t counsel the sheep during the week will be reduced to abstractions in his preaching on Sunday, offering simple exegesis without exposition. An orthodox sermon is not necessarily a faithful one, and if the pastor is not shepherding the sheep with the ministry of the Word, then the people cannot be expected to reinforce it with one another.
As an aside, faithful preaching in today’s culture should directly acknowledge and address the epidemic of loneliness. Pastors often resort to a particular list when addressing needs in the church—pride, lust, greed, etc.—but rarely address loneliness. If God’s people struggle mightily with loneliness— and they do—then what greater resource to address this problem than the cross of Christ which binds men to God and to their fellow men?
- Has the church been instructed on the importance of Christian fellowship?
The most important element in Christian worship is the ministry of the Word and sacraments. If Christ is not faithfully proclaimed from the pulpit, then the foundation is missing. Deep bonds of fellowship are rooted in the foundation of true Christian worship. They gain their vitality from the Christ who is proclaimed, and hearts are not only drawn deep into the love of Christ but into the love of one another. This vision must be constantly set before the church. As the Word dwells richly in you, you should richly love one another. Find opportunities to serve and spur one another on toward love and good works.
- Are committees used to mimic true community?
In some churches, a robust network of committees are constructed in such a way as to resemble true community. “Look at the roster—virtually all of our church volunteers!” This is like churches who boast of their membership rolls because they never erase anyone. Committees can be helpful, but they can also stifle organic growth and fellowship in the church. They should be used to provide some structure and to catalyze the work of the broader body (i.e., the work of outreach should never be relegated to the “Evangelism Committee”).
- Are there small groups to aid organic relationships within the church?
Large churches often use small groups to cultivate community amongst the broader crowd within the pews. Such groups are just as vital within smaller churches. They form that pivotal place in the life of the church where the public means of grace become the private means of grace. Here, hospitality is practiced, gifts are used for the edification of the body, and believers are able to see and tend to each other’s wounds with greater care.
As an additional—albeit controversial—note, small groups need not always be book or Bible studies. Yes, God’s Word is always the driver of true Christian fellowship, but we’ve often translated this reality into didactic, agenda-driven affairs that often run roughshod over the very wounds that need dressing from God’s Word. Again, structure is important, but not at the expense of open-ended conversations that provide space for struggles to be acknowledged and grace to be offered. There is a trickle-down effect to the ministry of the Word, starting from the pulpit, that draws conversations in these contexts back into the Word from which they came.
I have seen churches make real, tangible gains in the realm of Christian community when they have honestly faced their deficiencies. Sessions that struggle as shepherds read good books on how to better tend the flock. They practice regular hospitality as an example for the rest of the flock. Church members offer real prayer requests concerning their own hearts and remind the rest of the flock that Christ is a good shepherd and delights to care for us.
And so, to bring this back around to the original critique, the quest for Christian community begins with you, with me, with us. Critiques of ‘the church’ must be directed first at our own hearts. If we feel the critiques apply more broadly, then we must seek to be part of the remedy by God’s grace—lest our criticism devolve into complaining. If you are an elder in the church, assess your shepherd-care of the sheep and prayerfully set one small goal for furthering your faithfulness. If you are a member of the church and grow tired of superficial relationships, practice hospitality and deepen a relationship with just one or two fellow believers.
The surrounding culture cries out for such a community. Christ Himself cried out for such a community (John 14-17). And God means for us to have such a community as a foretaste of the day when our communion with Him and with each other is perfected in glory (Rev. 19).