Community is a wonderful thing. The recent horrific events in the UK have demonstrated just how inexplicably important community is and how well people who may have very little in common choose to serve each other in times of crisis and need. Even without crisis, communities can provide joy, learning and a lifeline for those who choose to interact with them. It’s so great when people come together for entertainment, to promote a good cause or to create, discuss or exercise. People are able to “be themselves” and meet others who are like-minded or completely different who just happen to share one interest in common.
Where I live there are dance classes, dog walking groups, cinema clubs, singing groups, philosophy, pottery and poetry classes. I live in a big city so if you want to find a club or group for something, there will almost definitely be one. Failing that there is the internet, where on some forum there will be a Ukrainian, web savvy Grandma who shares your unconventional taste in Scottish pirate metal music.
I am part of a number of communities, from school Mums to Facebook forums. I am enormously grateful for them all.
But if community is so wonderful then why does the church need less of it? There is a very significant difference between community and family which becomes clear in their definitions:
- a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.
- the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common. “the sense of community that organized religion can provide”
- a group consisting of two parents and their children living together as a unit. “she moved in with her boyfriend’s family”
- all the descendants of a common ancestor. “the house has been owned by the same family for 300 years”
The word family is one of the most evocative words there is. It can bring feelings of sadness, joy, happiness, longing, disappointment, satisfaction, hurt and much more. For everyone, even siblings to the same parents, it is unique.
For me family is a very positive word. I’m from a family where Mum and Dad are still very happily married after 42 years. I’m married to a man who is the son of a Mum and Dad who were happily married until they were parted by death. We have 2 children ourselves and live together with my husband’s Dad. We are very much a family and very happy with our lot. My understanding of the value of family comes from a place of being a part of one which works. Of course we have our tension and rough edges but we are not dysfunctional or separated by disunity. We are for each other.
I am well aware of the pain and maybe jealousy some will read the last paragraph. So many of my very wonderful friends have a very different story. Parents separating, leaving, not understanding. Childhoods filled with rejection and in some cases abuse. People who feel alienated because they don’t fit the mould due to sexuality, choice of partner, singleness or geographical location. For some, the word family can make them feel incredibly lonely.
On the news recently it was reported that there are at least (maybe many more) 9 million lonely people in the UK. 9 Million? That’s nearly 15% of the UK. As a self confessed extrovert, I watched with tears running down my face. In a world which is apparently more socially connected than ever before, how did we get here? Research shows that lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2015). This BBC article gives a small insight into the epidemic that loneliness has become and how broadly spread over all sections of society it is.
If you are or have ever been involved in church you will no doubt have heard the term “church family” used a great deal. Family is exactly what the church should be. We are not just a community. We are children of the living God. We are heirs, sons and daughters. We are Brothers and Sisters and we should behave and love with a much deeper love than if we were linked with a common interest or characteristic.
There are lots of exceptional examples of family within the church, but I fear the reality is that our statistics of loneliness are not always very different to those in wider society. For many the frequent use of the word family within the church will further accentuate their feeling of isolation.
There are people who walk out of church each week with a crippling feeling of loneliness. Who feel invisible. Who watch other people walk out the door with their family and friends, laughing and smiling, whilst they hold back tears, about to get in the car and weep all the way home. There are people who have served on so many teams but have never been invited back to someone’s house for lunch. Who have joined a group that meets during the week but still feel isolated.
A blog post I wrote last year describes how overnight, my 1 year old was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I suddenly needed support and family around me more than ever before. The last “proper job” I had before this was the coordinator of pastoral care for my Church. Having been the one looking after the pastoral care for others I was now the one in need of it.
Looking back with the shoe on the other foot I cringe at some of the suggestions I made to people in need back then. In many ways I did a very good job. I worked hard and did my best to not only work on behalf of the church but to genuinely love people. But I guess I thought then that with enough structures and systems and meetings and community groups, we would have a fail safe plan to enable anyone who wanted to access pastoral care and the church family to be able to. Although it never felt this blatant, I would do what I could and if someone felt lonely then they were choosing not to tap into church life and there was little more I could do.
The problem is that it’s when you are at your greatest need of accessing community that you often are or feel least equipped to do so. What the last year has taught me is that the primary need for the sick, the lonely, the poor, the imprisoned and anyone in need is not a community group, not a strategy, not a system but love. The kind of undeserving love that should be found in a family. The kind of love that I explain about in my last blog post.
The very heart of who we are as a church and why we gather is not a common characteristic nor is it a shared interest. It is God. Our Father. Our ancestor. It is because of this that our relationships and our identity as a church do go and must go much deeper than any other community. Our goal must not be to create a community. Our goal must be to be and to increase our family. Our relationships must not be defined by where we belong but by who we belong to. We are Brothers and Sisters within a family that is underpinned by the greatest love of all.
So how do we close the gap on loneliness within the church and function more effectively as family, for everyone? I think the first thing is to understand that the church is like a wider, extended family. We come together for big celebrations; Christmas, Easter, every Sunday. But the wider family is full of smaller, closer families. This means we all have a responsibility to look out for each other, care for each other. To contribute, to be vulnerable, to love and encourage one another.
The book of Acts in the bible tells of a time when the church was growing at an astonishing rate. I am convinced that the way in which the church behaved as a family was an essential key in it’s success. I am unapologetic in my desire to see the church grow. At this time when immorality, evil and isolation are absolutely rife, I believe Jesus and the church are more desperately needed than ever before.
In Acts it says “They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.”
People met and worshiped God, then went home to carry on the celebration. Yes, lets meet as a wider family and learn and worship. But let’s not end it there. Let’s open our homes and extend our tables.
So often loneliness in the church is seen as a problem that needs to be directly addressed by the leaders of the church. In my experience, the problem of isolation and loneliness is too great a problem to be sorted by a few. As Christians we all have a responsibility to increase out families. Of course this needs to be modelled by leaders but only as much as the rest of us. It is something we must all seek to prioritise and do. To first love God, then love others.
Mother Theresa was a single, celibate woman who was and continues, even after her death to be the single greatest teacher and activist of family. She said “The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of family too small”. She also said “If you can’t feed a hundred people then just feed one”
Some people within the church build family exceptionally well. Many acts will be unseen or unheard. People opening their homes to friends and strangers for fun, food, help, to lend an ear or to give a bed to someone in need. Brutally honest conversations about joys and sorrows. Late night prayer requests. Meals that are delivered at times of sickness, grief or the birth of a new baby. Money given to help people struggling financially or purely to bless the socks off someone. This is family, and it should be available to all.
I have an overwhelming desire to see God’s family become more as it was intended to be and to grow bigger than I can imagine. My contribution may be small but I will try my best to be family to my church. So Brothers and Sisters, who’s with me?