Lonely people, empty pews

There’s an ‘epidemic of isolation.’ Why doesn’t churchgoing look like a cure?

The Beatles noticed it long ago: ­People are lonely, and churches are empty. In “Eleanor Rigby,” Father McKenzie writes a sermon that no one will hear. He buries the lonely Eleanor, whose funeral no one attends.

The song’s question still resonates: Where do all the lonely people belong?

A churchgoer might answer: In church! This solves two problems: The lonely find companionship; empty pews get filled.

But it isn’t happening. There’s an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation,” according to the U.S. surgeon general. People are spending less time with each other in person. This isn’t good for our physical or mental health.

But religious congregations, which claim to offer a welcoming community for anyone, are shrinking.

It’s discouraging, especially when those who spurn the church’s invitation include some who used to be a part of it.

The Great Resignation may be persisting longer in the church than in the job market.

Meghan Larissa Good, lead pastor at Trinity Mennonite Church in Glendale, Ariz., knows the unease of ministry today. Writing for Mennonite Church USA’s Menno Snapshots blog, she describes how the cultural shifts accelerated by the pandemic impacted her congregation.

With attendance sporadic and “well-loved faces hav[ing] drifted away entirely,” a “heaviness and sense of confusion” settled in.

“Where did everyone go?” she asks. “Why did faith itself suddenly feel so much harder?”

The lingering crisis led Trinity to a renewal of purpose and excitement.

“We clarified our call within this new cultural and religious landscape to embody and proclaim a hope-filled, Jesus-centered faith,” Good says.

This is the kind of clarity that all of us can seek during the penitence-­focused season of Lent.

Do we harbor resentment toward those who’ve drifted away — because it feels like they’ve rejected us or because lower attendance makes the congregation seem less successful?

If so, then we need to consider the possibility that these “formers” aren’t saying no to faith but only to Sunday church. Occupying a pew is not a measure of faithfulness.

Nor is churchgoing necessarily a cure for loneliness. One can be lonely in a crowd.

Do others perceive us to be as welcoming and nonjudgmental as we think we are? We might gain clarity if we tactfully asked a few “formers” why they’ve chosen to do something else with their Sunday mornings — or have found a church that’s a better fit.

Just as Lenten penitence leads to Easter joy, our soul-searching should guide us toward renewed hope and purpose.

It should clarify our unique reasons to exist — why we don’t just join up with the church down the road (because their sanctuary probably isn’t full either).

For Trinity, Good says, clarity is “rediscovering a Jesus-shaped way of life” in relationship with “a God who looks like Jesus.”

She thinks Anabaptists might take the idea of a Jesus-looking God for granted and thus not realize its impact.

“For many Christians,” she says, “this discovery marks a breakthrough in faith that is so radical that it feels akin to a conversion. It is the beginning of healing their relationship with God. It is the unveiling of a vastly bigger, world-redeeming salvation story. It is an invitation to radically reimagine many aspects of life — the character of love, the shape of true power, the practice of conflict, the role of community.”

Is the idea of a Jesus-looking God as novel as Good believes? Anglican bishop N.T. Wright, one of the world’s top Bible scholars, suggests that it is.

In Surprised by Hope (HarperOne, 2008), Wright says “most Western Christians” miss the point of the Gospels. The Gospel accounts do not merely “give backup information about Jesus” while the main point of Christianity — how to get to heaven — is found in the writings of Paul. Rather, Jesus himself is the main point.

When Jesus spoke of God’s kingdom, Wright says, he was not talking about a heaven but “something that was happening in and on this earth, through his work, then through his death and resurrection, and then through the Spirit-led work to which [his followers] would be called.”

During a time of realignment and redefinition of Christian practices and institutions, how will we clarify our purpose and respond to the Spirit’s call to offer a haven for the lonely or the disaffected?

Good believes the Spirit is stirring a movement of people “hungry for a place to live out a vibrant, Jesus-­centered life with others.” What will they find if they walk through the doors of your church?

Paul Schrag

Paul Schrag is editor of Anabaptist World. He lives in Newton, Kan., attends First Mennonite Church of Newton and is Read More

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

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