Belonging: Aloneness

In the first session of this series I introduced you to Richard Kelly’s novel Crusaders and the characters of local vicar Simon Barlow and church planter John Gore.  One of their conversations goes like this:

Barlow: It’s not a class thing…that’s not the attraction.  It’s about friends telling friends there’s a place they can go and make new friends.

Gore: [P]eople on the estates…can lead quite isolated lives.  We have a chance to get them together in a group, however small.  Make them welcome.  Treat them well.

Joe Myers says that belonging happens when you identify with another entity.  Belonging need not be reciprocal: to whom we belong is within our control, but who belongs to us is not.  It is sad but true that there are many people who consider themselves to be part of the local church until they are confronted by someone who tells them otherwise.  There are hundreds of people who belong to our congregation who we have no idea of.  Either we have no knowledge of their existence, or we know who they are but we don’t know that they belong until they tell us, usually by getting the hospital or the funeral director to ring our minister.  Tribal loyalty takes place in public space; these people belong to the Uniting Church team in the same way that I belong to Geelong Cats: publically. I am nameless at Kardinia Park but I am not a stranger: I am a committed public belonger of the club.  When we think about it like that then all belonging is significant.

It is possible to communicate to people that they do not belong, to actually disinvite people from engaging with us.  One common example of this in the broader setting is the way in which, with the best of intentions, a worship leader may publically excuse visitors from putting money in the collection.  This might seem pastoral, but it can also convey the message that these people are isolated from the blessing in the tithe because they don’t belong here. They have been welcomed, but they don’t feel belonging.

In our generation there is a culture of aloneness; of people longing for community but afraid to get close, surrounded by friends but feeling ever more alone. You can see this in the great documentary series of Generation-X; eleven years of a show called Friends where six people fall in and out of relationships with each other and the people on their periphery.  We all want friends, but we don’t know how to be friendly because we have learned it can be dangerous to be too vulnerable.  According to John Burke this generation…craves [the] sense of community inside a spiritual family.  If they don’t experience hope for authentic relational support, [it doesn’t matter] how hip the service…the music, or…the vibe [:] they won’t stick.  The challenge for leaders is first to learn how to live in community with others, and then to provide ways to ensure that nobody stands alone.  As a local church, we need to form a strong community around ourselves into which we can welcome others.  As was said several sessions back, some people bring others to church, and some people are the church to which others are brought.

As participants in this culture we can help our leaders create healthy environments in which people naturally connect.  If we concentrate on building the environment instead of the result we might see healthy, spontaneous friendships emerge.  This is the way a slime mould works; as individual organisms when the physical conditions are harsh, and as a single organism when conditions are favourable.  With sufficiency in the environment each “it” becomes part of a larger “they”.  A Mexican Wave does not occur because of a coordinated plan, but because of a mass movement of individuals moving in time with their neighbours: as each person watches only the people around them they know when to move.   This is how swarms, schools, and flocks operate in the animal world.  In the light of each of these examples we can understand that spontaneous does not necessarily mean random.  It would seem that with a few environmental suggestions a sudden epidemic of cooperation may arise.  As a local church we need to help people to connect; not just look to entertain.

Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress.

Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to the author William Mahedy many young people are suffering from the same sort of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that American veterans came home with from the Vietnam War.  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder arises out of a stressful incident beyond the normal range of human experience and Mahedy thinks that for young people these incidents arise out of issues of feeling abandoned as children in the divorce of parents, or in sexual or psychological abuse along with overexposure to media violence and sexual exploitation. We are living beside a generation with widespread problems with stability, self-image, feelings of emptiness, depression, suicidal and self-destructive thinking, lack of hope, and a fear of the future.  To be effective in reaching this sort of world the whole Church must create a culture that will welcome a generation that feels alone.  The Baby Boomers valued anonymity above all else when coming to church, but the Generations which follow seek community.  It doesn’t matter how postmodernist we are, no one will return to a place where she feels ignored or disconnected, where she is an outsider.  This is especially true of spiritual seekers: no one wants to feel alone.   There is a difference between being alone and feeling alone.  Most people like space, some want more space than others do, but even when we are by ourselves we need to know that we belong.

Flickr friends

Flickr friends (Photo credit: Meer)

This generation longs for deep connection, yet often settles for shallow ways of relating: the one-night-stand means that I “belong”, even if only for fifteen minutes.  The generations reared amongst divorce and abuse want to belong, yet their history of neglect has programmed them into an aloneness that goes much deeper than simply being alone. This sort of aloneness comes from longing for people to see you and know you, yet still feeling isolated even with lots of friends around.  If local churches do not help connect people into the Community of Christ in meaningful ways then we have failed in the full ministry of reconciliation: of restoring authentic relationship.  According to Paul, local congregations are supposed to be the rebuilders of broken bridges.  II Corinthians 5:16-19, 6:11-13.  The irony of this generation is that although we long for people to reach out to us, we fear appearing needy.  We know we need help, but we find it difficult to trust people with our vulnerabilities because we have been hurt, neglected, and rejected before.   I am fragile.  I am china in a bull shop.

We long for those who are already engaged in community to draw us in, but when they do we tend to forget how isolated we felt at the beginning and we neglect to engage the newcomers who followed us to the edges of community but were not brought in.  One way to make visitors and new people feel welcome is not to make them stand up and identify themselves, which can be daunting, but to stand up and identify ourselves.  We give the new person permission to approach us: if you are new here let me tell you we have coffee in the hall behind this building, turn left outside the door.  You are welcome to come with me and talk with me because I would like to talk to you.  Often that permission is all some people need.

Another principle of connection is to get people involved early: however, it must be recognised that not everyone feels ready to dive into spiritual community, and often simpler, low-commitment connection fosters the trust needed to move forward.  We must not exclude newcomers from joining our teams, but we must remain careful not to demand it from them either.  The goal is to raise people through teams to be team leaders, but then beyond that to leadership which is not just leading a task but spiritually developing the people who serve on the team.  Therefore, there is a word of caution: we should encourage non-Christians to serve as ministers in our church by meeting a need no one is meeting, but we cannot allow them to become until they submit to Christ’s lordship.  Let them serve, and belong before they believe.  Nevertheless, expect that they will believe before they lead.

John Burke tells the story of a group who served together for seven years on the vegetable-chopping task of their food service ministry.  They met to complete the task, but they also met together to pray with each other.  This team became a group of friends who cared for each other and interacted in each other’s lives in prayer and follow-up conversations alongside having fun on the job and out on social dates.  I have always enjoyed the fellowship of the ministry kitchen; the team I worked with at my church in England, Because We Can was becoming such a team toward the end of my time there.  I did not have the social skills to lead it, but I had the vision and the passion and when I stepped aside the community blossomed.  People want to get involved and connect: often jumping into a small group discussion feels too intimidating, but serving and feeling useful can be a great first step of connection with surprising spiritual results.  At Bible Study I would rather help with the dishes and have a 1:1 or 1:1:1 discussion around the sink, than sit and chat over a cuppa in the lounge-room.  Being in the kitchen is one of the places in which I find my belonging.  We should encourage seekers to plug in to community and serve in ways that don’t require spiritual maturity.  Like the famous Hillsong Church London truck, you don’t have to be a Christian to serve but your doubts about Jesus and his church probably won’t survive for long when you’re on team with down-to-earth servant Christians.  If we allow people to belong in this way it can help them to sort through their questions within an authentic community, and encourage them toward a genuine, applied faith.  People long to connect with those to whom they can relate: as I have said before, seekers are looking for people to be like.  Community plays a vital role in encouraging development.

The responsibility of Christians to be active in alleviating social concerns is clearly expressed in scripture in the narrative of Hebrew history.  As C.S. Lewis said, pain is God’s megaphone to a deaf world.  Perhaps because of their empathy with others who have been broken by the contemporary world, Generations X, Y and Z care deeply about the needs of the poor, forgotten and marginalised.  A local church that does not engage in acts of compassion could not possibly represent God to postmodern people.  Indeed even for me, I wouldn’t have left Hillsong Church London to return Port Lincoln if it weren’t for the Uniting Church’s particular work with the Orphans and Vulnerable Children’s ministry in Zambia.   Compassion is an easy way for people to connect with others as they serve together. You don’t have to be a Christian to serve others in need, but by serving alongside Christians, new people in church see a supernatural love and motivation that attracts them to Christ and his community.

For those who have suffered, especially at the hands of “Christians” it is important for them to know that Jesus has always been present in their trouble, but that he can be shut out by the actions of others.  People can decide things about Jesus that have a negative effect on their lives, but that does not mean that God was not present or that God was unaware or is uninterested.  God will not override the freewill of abusive parents to intervene and protect children, because to do so would be a dishonouring of God’s charge to them to raise their children.  However, we remember that God is aware and present; God is always watching, and often weeping.

One of the reasons why sin has such an appeal to our generation is that we don’t know how to enjoy life together as God intended.   The best deterrent to sin is joy, the sense that life with God is so good that I don’t want to do anything to screw it up.  When behave out of a sense that life is good in God’s stream we won’t want to change it.  A key task of God’s family is encouraging each other in enjoying life as God intended.  When we experience more and more enjoyment of life together the last thing we want is to turn away from the source of this new life.  God is a God of immense joy: God’s spirit gives joy and a life overflowing with blessing when God fully has God’s way with us.

If people feel at ease with each other from the outset, opening up to each other in an environment of fun and safety, then connections can be formed that will allow people to develop trusting friendships that will last for years.  There is plenty of time to read the Bible and pray together in a group, but we only get one chance to make a first impression and lay the foundation for creating a sense of family.  If family cannot be created then the group will never become the place of healing and life-giving community that God intends.  The early Church was a group that did life together in food, recreation, and service.

John Burke tells of a man he calls Jim, a man who had travelled with Christian ministries around the globe and had been involved speaking and teaching, a man who Burke describes as feeling isolated and alone, constantly pitching Christian faith like a travelling salesperson. Sadly, Jim was unable to talk openly about personal demons [and] he crashed emotionally.  I can relate to this, yet I know that this must not be.  Unfortunately, it will be the case for many of us unless the Church is able to find and demonstrate ways to be vulnerable in community, a community that believes what it says and acts what it believes about a God of abundant grace and sacrificial love.

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