In mid 2014 the Office for National Statistics released some research that indicated that Britain is the loneliest country in Europe. We’re less likely to know our neighbours and less likely to have strong friendships than people in other nations in the EU. Consequently, many people have no-one that they can rely on in a crisis.
The impact that loneliness can have on mental health is serious. A study by the University of Chicago suggests that it is twice as harmful for the elderly as obesity and almost as great a cause of premature death as poverty.
It would be a mistake however to think that loneliness only affects the elderly. In 2010 the Mental Health Foundation discovered that loneliness was of far greater concern to 18-34 year olds than over 55’s.
If you are analysing the figures you might be thinking the obvious solution is to be aged 35-54 as that age group is clearly the most connected! I suppose that is one way to look at it! However, the hard fact remains that we live in a society that has more means of communication than any in history and yet less of a sense of community.
Sadly, people can be lonely in church as well. They can feel disconnected and isolated. There can be all sorts of reasons for that and there is no quick fix cure for the problem. Loneliness is a challenge for the church as well. And a church that is serious about reaching a society in which, according to research, loneliness has reached epidemic proportions, will be forced to think about how it connects people, how it builds a real sense of community. Otherwise we are just reflecting what is going on in the world instead of transforming relationships within the life of the kingdom.
I would suggest that part of the response of the church is not simply in developing new strategies for connecting people, though some sort of strategic thinking is required. It really goes much deeper than that. The solution lies in rediscovering the true nature of the church, the church as Jesus intended it to be.
So what sort of church did Jesus – and does Jesus – want to build?
Clearly there are many answers to that question. Just as a building is more than a wall or a foundation or a roof, so there are many different facets to the church.
However, right at the heart of church is relationship. Jesus’ command to His disciples “ A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.“ (John 13.34) is a statement that should shape the whole of church life. These few words reveal so much about what Jesus had in mind for His church.
Firstly, as noted above, church is essentially about relationship. Relationship with God. And relationship with people. It’s about one another.
Secondly, love is the quality that is brought to that relationship. Church is not meant to be a loose connection of people. More a strongly connected company of people who have genuine care, concern and respect for each other.
Thirdly, that love has the love of Jesus for its example: “as I have loved you”.
Paul clearly grasped what Jesus was after and it shaped not only the churches he established but the way he ministered as well:
Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, 8 so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. 1 Thessalonians 2.7-8
God is looking for a church that will live in His love and manifest his love. Society is crying out for true community. Rediscovering church as Jesus intended it to be might just be one important key to reaching a lonely society and helping it to discover true acceptance and belonging.