[By Tara Jane]
She sat third row from 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 the 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 has someone to talk to. Everyone—except me.
I have talked to people in multiple churches and contexts1 who feel they don’t fit in and are disconnected. Very often this is the result of some kind of change. Perhaps people have recently moved church and are now trying to settle into a new and still unfamiliar gathering. Or perhaps their regular Bible study groups have shifted, their ministry teams are restructuring or they’ve farewelled close friends from their fellowship. For others, this loneliness is what motivates them to seek out a new church, looking for people who they hope will love and include them in ways they are lacking. 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’. People have told me I can’t possibly feel like this because I am outgoing and always with people. Sometimes it’s because of changes in church, other times there are other reasons. But there are days when I too think: “I’m always initiating, but never invited”, “I’m in and alone, and they’re all out together” and “I 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—because “be loved by your neighbour” is not a quote from Jesus. Sometimes I need to give myself a good talking to. 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 I am on the outskirts or scared, I must be brave and look for ways to love and 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. If I know how hard it can be, why wouldn’t I do everything I could to make sure no-one else has to feel like that? I need to look out for people like me, who want to be included and belong. Even an awkward interaction is more loving than no conversation at all. It’s not about whether I have friends, but it’s about who I am being a friend to. And then hopefully, on the days when life is hard and it takes all my energy to even just show up at church, there will be someone brave who cares for me.
2. Check the facts. I don’t know what you’re like, but I know that my emotions can easily take over my ability to think rationally. When I start feeling unsettled, I need to check myself before I wreck myself.
If I determine how connected I am by comparing myself to others, I will only ever feel disconnected. I need to be careful with my social media and FOMO (fear of missing out), because nothing makes me feel left out more than seeing others from church having fun without me. I cannot realistically be in every group or invited to every event. But it’s so easy to assume someone else somewhere else is being loved and included more than I am when I’m comparing my situation to what’s on social media.
I try not to rely on vibes and gut feelings, but challenge my thoughts with hard data. Keeping a diary of times I’ve been loved and cared for has really helped me. I also 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 the opportunities to connect with people when I have them? (such as going out for lunch after church, going to church events, belonging to a Bible study/home 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 (Ephesians 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 (Romans 8), because Christ purchased me (1 Corinthians 6) and I belong to him (Colossians 1). No truth is greater than these.
3. 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. The reality is that 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 that Christ does. I will also hurt others, so I need to be humble and seek forgiveness for the times I do.
Just as Jesus lavishes his grace on us, I need to show grace to all. I need to be patient and gentle with people. I need to assume the best of others. It’s hard work, especially when I’m hurting and just want to throw my own pity-party. 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.
4. You are not alone. Everyone feels lonely—even the person who I assume doesn’t. There is no such thing as an “in crowd”. (Nobody in the “in crowd” realises they are the “in crowd” anyway, they’re all busy trying to be in the “in crowd” too).
I’m sure you can relate to how I felt at Bible college during my time there. I often felt intimidated during morning tea and lunch, for no logical reason. There are so many wonderful people at College, so many friendly and lovely people who genuinely care and want 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 at College, I still couldn’t tell which groups at morning tea were approachable and which were people about to pray! Even when surrounded by amazing people (I seriously love my College year group), it’s possible to feel insecure. Even the people we assume are fine and have it all together socially sometimes just don’t feel it. I’m sure there are others who can relate. Everyone feels lonely or disconnected or insecure at some point. It’s not just me. It’s not just you. It’s all of us.
Everyone feels these things at times. If you feel them too, know that you’re not alone in your loneliness. Let’s remind each other of these truths and encourage each other to love and serve as we wait for Christ to return.
*In 2013 I wrote a feature article for Southern Cross titled ‘The Welcome Mat’ and interviewed many Christians on their experiences of being welcomed at churches.