Four truths to combat loneliness at church

  • Tara Sing
  • 16 January 2017

She sat near the back. “Stay and have a cup of tea, and continue in fellowship”, the service leader encouraged. She looked left hopefully, but the family there were already chatting with people in the next row. She turned right, but that young guy had already scurried off. She looked around the room, heart sinking. Everyone is already in a conversation. Everyone is already in a group. Everyone—except me.

I have spoken to people in multiple churches and contexts who feel they don’t fit in and are disconnected.1 Often this is the result of some kind of change. People may have recently changed churches, and are trying to settle into an unfamiliar gathering. Or perhaps their regular Bible study group has reshuffled, their ministry teams are restructuring, or they’ve farewelled close friends from their fellowship. For others, loneliness motivates them to seek out a new church, looking for people who will love and include them.

Sometimes loneliness has nothing to do with change. Even though I’ve been at my church for over ten years, there are still times when I don’t feel ‘in’. I’ve been told I can’t possibly feel like this, because I am outgoing and always with people, but there are days I think: “I’m always initiating, but never invited”; “I’m home alone and they’re all out together”; “I wish someone had asked me to join in”.

Whatever the reason, the grief of loneliness is real. We all long to belong.

Here are four truths that I remind myself of when I’m feeling lost:

  1. Love your neighbour

“Be loved by your neighbour” is not a quote from Jesus. I’m not told to worry about feeling included, but to get on with including others. I’m not told to feel loved, but to get busy loving others. When I feel on the outskirts or scared, I must be brave and look for ways to serve others. I must act in love, regardless of my feelings.

If I know what it is to feel timid, this should motivate me to have compassion and care for others in the same situation. Even an awkward interaction is more loving than no conversation at all. It’s not about whether I have friends, but about who I am being a friend to. And hopefully, on the days when life is hard and it takes all my energy to just show up, there will be someone brave at church who cares for me.

  1. Check the facts

Emotions can easily take over our ability to think rationally. When I start feeling unsettled, I try not to rely on vibes and gut feelings, instead challenging my thoughts with hard data. Keeping a diary of times I’ve been loved and cared for has really helped me. I regularly ask myself questions like:

  • Who spoke to me at church?
  • Who has asked me about my life recently?
  • Are there people who invite me to do things with them?
  • Am I taking opportunities to connect with people when I have them (going out for lunch after church, attending church events, belonging to a growth group, arriving early and leaving late so I can speak to others, etc.)?

The most important facts I need to remember come from the Bible. Regardless of how I feel at church, I am adopted, chosen, redeemed and hand-picked by God to belong to his family (Eph 1). I am washed clean from every sin by the blood of Jesus (1 John 1). No matter how included or excluded I feel, nothing can separate me from God’s love (Rom 8), because Christ purchased me (1 Cor 6) and I belong to him (Col 1). No truth is greater than these.

  1. It’s hard work

Ephesians says “bear with one another in love”—because there are times we seriously need to! I am in a family of saved sinners. There will be times when I am left out or hurt by others at church, so I need to prepare myself to forgive and show grace in the same way Christ does. I will also hurt others—when I do I need to be humble and seek forgiveness.

Just as Jesus lavishes his grace on us, I need to show grace to all. I need to be patient and gentle, to assume the best of others. It’s hard work, especially when I’m hurting. But I have Christ, who forgives me and enables me to forgive others, who is gracious to me and helps me show grace to others, and who loves me and gives me strength to love others.

  1. You are not alone

Everyone feels lonely—even the person I assume doesn’t. There is no such thing as an ‘in crowd’, because no-one realizes they’re in it.

I’m sure you can relate to how I felt at Bible college: I often felt intimidated during morning tea and lunch, for no logical reason. There were so many wonderful students, so many friendly and lovely people who genuinely cared and wanted to include me. But knowing this didn’t stop me from wondering whether I would interrupt a conversation or meeting at lunch if I approached the wrong table. And even by the end of my time there, I still couldn’t tell which groups at morning tea were approachable and which were about to pray!

Even when surrounded by amazing people (I seriously love my college year group), it’s possible to feel insecure. The people we assume are fine and have it all together socially sometimes don’t agree. Everyone feels lonely or disconnected or insecure occasionally. It’s not just me. It’s not just you. It’s all of us.

Know that you’re not alone in your loneliness, and let others know too. Let’s remind each other of these truths and encourage one another to love and serve as we wait for Christ to return.

1. In 2013 I interviewed many Christians on their experiences of being welcomed at churches for a Southern Cross article titled ‘The welcome mat’.