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Going to Church Alone

How to stop doing church in a way that fosters individualism and isolation.
Going to Church Alone

About 10 years ago, I grew disillusioned with the church I had attended all my life. I continued to attend, but I avoided the people there. I kept greetings brief and conversations superficial. I came late and left quickly after the service. It surprised me how easy it was to hide in plain sight in church, especially when I had been active there my whole life.

What has surprised me even more since then is how common this experience is. This Sunday thousands of people will arrive at church right as the music starts, find a seat in increasingly dim auditoriums, sing music that touches an array of emotions, listen to an interesting sermon, and leave having never really spoken to anyone.

These reclusive congregants neither give nor receive hospitality, share no burdens, do not assist the weak, receive no prayer for discernment over major life decisions, no repentance for grudges or grievances, no healing of estranged relationships, no rejoicing with another's joy, no sorrow in another's tears.

You cannot have intimacy with Christ and remain aloof from his body.

Sermon and songs will conspire to give the worshiping consumer an experience of having connected with Christ even while they ignore the very real members of Christ's body sitting right next to them.

For many this has become normal. In my case, this was a phase of anonymity and alienation (wasted months that still grieve me). For many, however, anonymous attendance is all they know of church. It is perpetual and permanent.

These days it is far too easy to go to church alone.

Dangerous Isolation

Now I'm a pastor, and this phenomenon is no surprise to those of us in ministry. It is, in fact, the result of our calculated efforts to never ever make anyone feel uncomfortable or pressured at church. Trying not to be intrusive, we dim the lights to make it feel like it's just me and Jesus. We plan out every moment of the service so there are no awkward moments where someone might feel obligated to make conversation with someone next to them.

And don't dream of asking folks to pray for one another! Leave no space for an uncouth congregant to burden anyone with their needs (we have proper channels for that anyway).

In short, we alleviate our congregants of the awkward impression that they might be obliged to engage another human being. Our format communicates that as long as you and Jesus are alright, you can go to church alone.

This is a dangerous game for churches to play. Dangerous because we pretend that people can connect with Christ even while remaining disconnected from his body.

At its ugliest, we teach congregants not only to ignore those who worship beside them, but to resent those who might distract from our well produced worship presentation—the elderly man oblivious to his squealing hearing aid, the mother and her fussy baby, the malodorous transient.

All these become hindrances to communion with God rather than opportunities to serve God. It's not long before everyone is an interruption to my consumption of a worship experience.

Whatever this amounts to, it is not church.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained it well: "It is the fellowship of the Cross to experience the burden of the other. If one does not experience it, the fellowship he belongs to is not Christian." You cannot have intimacy with Christ and remain aloof from his body. We cannot worship God the Father and still assert—in word or deed—"I am not my brother's keeper."

This isolation, individualism, and consumerism are not unique to the church, of course. They describe American culture in general.

Just think of the common scene of a family driving in a minivan (perhaps headed to church) with the father listening to sports radio, the mother talking on the phone, a teenage daughter texting, an older son listening to his iPod, and a child watching a Disney movie on the back of his mother's seat. All of them together, but alone. Alone together.

In movie theaters, concert venues, and sports stadiums we sing, laugh, cry, and cheer powerfully together, and then leave without so much as a goodbye.

The outcome of this individualistic ethos: a society where intimate friendships are becoming rarer all the time.

Studies indicate nearly a quarter of all Americans (twice as many as two decades ago) have no one with whom they can discuss things they consider important.

This trend is not improving. Boomers are more relationally isolated than their parents, and the children of Boomers more isolated still.

It does not surprise us when congregants find their iPhones more interesting than the person beside them.

Are we content with this? Isolation and individualism are trends of the larger culture. Do we really want to mimic these trends in church?

Those of us who lead cannot resign even a portion of our flock to this perpetual disconnectedness. Instead, we can begin to subvert the prevailing culture, making it difficult for members of our flock to wander alone.

Fortunately Christ has given his church a host of practices that underscore the truth that Christianity is always something we do together.

Full-Bodied Worship

The Communion meal is a perfect antidote for individualism. Unfortunately, it is in vogue to serve Communion on an unattended table at the front of the sanctuary and have individuals come to take the bread and cup for themselves. Or to pass plates through the rows for people to serve themselves.

Until recently such a practice would have been unthinkable. The body and blood of Christ are food and drink we desperately require, but they are sustenance we cannot feed ourselves. They must be received. Someone must give them to us.

Historically congregants have come forward with open mouths and outstretched hands to receive the elements from their priest or pastor. Each week at Grace and Peace Church, where I serve, my co-pastor or I pray over the bread and the cup and then serve them to the Christian nearest us. Thereafter each person receives it from the person beside them and, in turn, serves the person on their other side. It takes some time, but it's time well spent. This little act of giving and receiving rehearses the truth that God's grace is not something we can take for ourselves. It must be received and shared in turn (John 20:23; Matt. 6:14-15).

The Lord's Supper also rehearses the fact that we are "the family of God" (1 Peter 4:17; Eph. 2:19). At Grace and Peace, we decided one remedy for going to church alone would be to eat together as a part of our Sunday worship (we had shared enough post-church potlucks to know this wasn't as impractical as you'd first imagine). Now the Communion meal extends seamlessly into an actual meal that is as much a part of the service as sermon and song.

We modeled this after the early church's practice of serving the Eucharist in the context of a larger meal (1 Cor. 11:20-34). It enacted a new reality found in Christ: the church is a family, and families eat together because families share resources. And that is what happened. As church father John Chrysostom explained, this meal becomes "a foundation of love, and a comfort to poverty, and a corrective of riches, and an occasion of the highest philosophy, and an instruction of humility."

This is what happened in our church. Around the table we made friends with strangers. We were forced to ask, "Would you please pass … " and receive "Thank you for the …"

Around the table we learned how to share. We were humbled and instructed when we brought nothing and someone with much less used up what little they had. At the table, proximity prevents us from averting our eyes to the needs of those who lack. Likewise, proximity prevents those in need from hiding their burdens. We find out which children ask, "What's for dinner?" and which ask, "Do we have anything for dinner?"

Because of this meal the routine question, "Who should we have over for dinner?" has taken on a whole new meaning in our church.

Prayer and Peace

Prayer is another corporate practice that guards against individualism. In some churches, congregants share their concerns with one another and then pray in groups. At other churches, needs are named publicly and the whole church prays together.

The trouble with prayer is God has a way of involving us in his answer. Halfway through our eloquent, emotive petitions we realize God has already provided the solution, and we are it. I've seen the simple practice of praying together result in housing, carpooling, loans, tutoring, childcare, jobs, and cars given and received.

Besides prayer, many churches have a time for greeting one another built into their service. Some churches do it casually. More liturgical churches "pass the peace of Christ" and one congregant greets another with the phrase, "The peace of Christ be with you," while the other completes the sentence, "and also with you."

For some this is little more than a ritual. Done right, however, this is time set apart for congregational care. It is a preparation for properly hearing the word and receiving the Eucharist (Matt. 5:23-24, 1 Cor. 11:27-28).

At Grace and Peace Church, sharing Christ's peace begins with seeking out anyone with whom we have unreconciled offenses. This has resulted in some intense and tearful conversations—no one said it was easy. Other conversations, at least in retrospect, now seem silly (imagined slights, misunderstood jokes, disparaging comments about cats). However they now appear, these sins and slights are deadly serious.

Consider the alternative to resolving them: ongoing resentment, estranged congregants, members leaving abruptly for seemingly inexplicable reasons. Done rightly and with the Spirit's help, passing the peace of Christ is more than a ritual. In these moments of vulnerability and grace, our veneer of peace and quiet is stripped bare and transformed into the peace of Christ.

The Eucharist, baptism, sharing the peace of Christ, prayer, potlucks, confession, accountability, weddings, wakes, Bible studies, house calls, and the meals provided in times of need, with the Spirit's help these and innumerable other Christian practices counter even the most determined attempts to go to church alone.

The Resistance

Be prepared. Not everyone will welcome these practices and what they require. A family who has always eaten takeout in front of the TV for dinner will find it awkward to turn off the TV and eat a meal around the family table. The conversation will be stilted. The food sniffed with suspicion. So it is in church. Eating something different, something homemade and nourishing, will not come naturally to many Christians. Some will even spit it out and return to their old eating habits.

My experience is that those who come and go like ghosts, leaving only a vague impression of their fleeting presence, will eventually leave for good. Unwilling to share themselves or the burden of the other, they will haunt the sanctuary no more. This is sad, but the truth is they were never really there in the first place.

It is far more heartbreaking when a brother or sister does the hard work of sharing burdens then leaves as a result. It is not easy to be known, to be known not as we aspire to be or as we present ourselves, but as we truly are. To be known like this is to be surrounded by mirrors that reflect both our strengths and our weaknesses. The truth is many would prefer not to see their true reflection, even when that reflection is illumined by grace. In the darkness we have no reflection.

Today many choose to sing in the dark with strangers rather than worship in the light alongside those who really know them and love them anyway.

The irony is that most churchgoers don't really want to be left alone. A few years back, my wife and I moved to a new city. Without friends there, we knew the best thing would be to join a church. We began attending a church of about 200 people. We were encouraged by the teaching, and we thought we could contribute and serve there. The only problem was no one would talk to us. The first week this felt normal, but as weeks piled up, we grew concerned. We tried. We lingered after services. We made obvious, even desperate attempts to engage anyone nearby in conversations. Still nothing.

After four Sundays of this, we walked home resigned that this must not be where God wants us.

Thankfully, on that walk home, a man stopped us on the street and said he recognized us from church. He invited us to a gathering at his house, introduced us to friends, and showed us around town. Later, having attended the church for years, we realized that this church was not unfriendly; they were extremely anxious not to make anyone feel uncomfortable.

Churches scared of making anyone feel uncomfortable will end up losing those searching for connection and discipleship. How many people have left churches because they didn't feel connected? These too are casualties of our leave-me-alone church culture.

Back to the Body

While some people want to be left alone on Sunday, many more do not. Unfortunately, like the family who has always known dinner as fast food and TV, many Christians can't imagine anything else. Our calling then is to help God's people find the imagination to turn off the TV, prepare a meal, and eat with one another around the table (and then do the dishes together).

Our church experienced just such a breakthrough of imagination not long ago during the baptism of a single mother. Before her baptism we explained, among other things, that in these waters she would be re-born into a new family, the family of God (Gal. 3:26-29; Eph. 4:4-6).

After her baptism we prayed for her and sat down together. Then one at a time different congregants described what gifts and resources they had, which were now, as her brothers and sisters in Christ, at her disposal (Mark 10:29-30). "I'm at home with my kids most days," said one woman, "I'd be happy to have your kids over to play if you ever need someone to watch them."

A brother spoke up, "I'm pretty handy. If you ever need something fixed around your house, let me know." One older mother said, "Me and my girls are good at cleaning. If you need a break, call us and we'll come over." A young mechanic said, "I'd be happy to take a look at your car if anything ever goes wrong." An older brother told her, "I've had some experience raising boys. If you need advice or even someone to take a hand in helping you raise them, you let me know." That day we all knew the family table is better than a TV dinner.

We are not meant to go to church alone. When we refuse our responsibility for those next to us, our gatherings become hollow rituals. But when, in Jesus name, we lay down our lives for one another, we become a powerful witness of God's love. So different from our consumer culture that uses people up and then excludes those no longer useful.

This will not be easy, nor popular, nor comfortable. The tide of culture is against us. What it will be is a revolution—a baptizing, praying, reconciling revolution. The quiet revolution of a family dinner.

Jason Johansen is a pastor at Grace and Peace Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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