Lonely at Church: How to Rethink Community and Find Fellowship
I wake up and I know that I have been like the prophet Jonah. Reluctant and angry.
In my secret heart of hearts, I’ve bought into the idea that middle-class, “westside” living is all there is to wish for. That a husband, a nice house, a nice dog and 2 children with nice clothes are the pinnacle of my existence. And nice means hip. Nice means all things moneyed, with its signature tasteful cool.
This was my heart. And it was idolatrous.
The Holy Spirit had to show me. Because for years, I was blind to my own misguided values. Little did I realize that my secret roiling discontent with our small church community had been driven by a hidden disdain for the immigrants who lived on the eastside of the city. I shudder to admit it now, but I had a Jonah-like brand of class snobbery. I needed to rethink community in order to find fellowship.
My husband had been pastoring in a congregation of 150 in this humbler, east side of our city for several years. I, like Jonah, had been clawing at the walls to get out. I had been lonely because I chose to be alone.
But I woke up one morning. God showed me. And I saw.
It was shocking. I clearly saw my own addiction to image—my frantic love of middle-class comfort. Yet it was also a cathartic relief to have my own dark motives exposed. God was cleansing my motives in the midst of my exile.
Eugene Peterson says “Exile forces a decision: Will I focus my attention on what is wrong with the world and feel sorry for myself? Or will I focus my energies on how I can live at my best in this place I find myself?”
Peterson’s words end with a secret that encompass all that I learned in six years of serving as a pastor’s wife in a small, diverse, east-side church: “I will do my best with what is here.” So I repented of my shallow snobbery. I stopped guarding my heart. I stopped isolating myself. And it all became sheer loveliness.
I began to reject my silly, self-imposed aloneness. I began to open up my heart to church folks who were different from me. I urged myself and others around me to lay down our interests, to love one another, to be in committed community. I began to devote hours of imagination and hope to this humble little eastside community. It was an exercise in patience, commitment and loyalty—the slow forging of bonds. Loose threads wove together. And more than anything, it refined my vision of God. I began to love the people—young or old, immigrant or native-born, male or female. I loved them all. I loved the privilege of seeing them grow in God.
But in six short years, my so-called “exile” came to an end.
I stood back, shocked at what God had done, and incredulous that I had wasted so much time kicking and screaming and hating the context in which God had placed me. “Exile” ended up being so good for my soul.
Then it was over. God began to lead our family down another path. This was the path I had dreamed of more than a decade ago—toward the “promised land” of a large, established church, smack dab in the middle of a hip neighborhood.
My so-called promised land, I find out, is not that clear and easy after all. Because what I thought would be a walk in the park is actually still a hike through the forest.
This new forest is a large, more affluent church; ten times the size of our previous church home. Suddenly, I find that I am lost in a crowd every Sunday. I rarely see familiar faces. Anonymity—that which I thought would be a gift (with its wondrous freedom from responsibility)—is actually a curse of sorts.
No one says hi to me. No one says “are you new here?” Because we all might be new. You can participate here for five years, and you’ll meet a John or a Judy—someone else who has attended for five years too—and your John or your Judy will be completely unknown to you, simply because their usual pew is just a few rows removed from your own.
Here, nobody even knows that I’m the pastor’s wife. I am, I find, lonely again.
But more than lonely, I discover something else unexpected. There’s something really special about being part of a larger whole every Sunday, about hearing the voices of hundreds of people hemming me in behind and before. During worship I close my eyes, and instead of listening to the band, I listen to the throng of voices beside me, above me. And I am strangely moved.
Author Erin Lane describes my feeling of awe. “It’s a holy smallness,” she says, “—that holy feeling of smallness that can make you feel like you are part of something so big, and makes you feel so small in a good way. In a ‘the whole world does not rest on my shoulders’ kind of a way.”
She’s right. It’s okay that I’m unknown here. It’s okay that I don’t appear to be needed. It’s so ironic—this place that I envisioned as my own promised land has turned out to be yet another wilderness—but again, in the wilderness, God meets me.
I am learning again to shake off the isolation and the loneliness, to embrace community in a new way and to throw myself into relationships and into service where there may be a risk of rejection. I’m learning to love, all over again.
Because this, too, is the people of God.
God is here, in the midst of this community, in the middle of a crowd. So I direct my vision to Him and ask Him to show me His work in this place—another place of exile, yet another exile that will open up my vision of God in my everyday.
Julia Cheung is a cultural analyst and journalist of relationships, always on the lookout for stories of beautiful misfits. She lives in Vancouver BC with the loveable motley crew of her pastor husband and two preteen children. She is a bundle of antitheses, a lover of truth, a teller of tales, a too often emotional egoist and a fervently curious anti-narcissist. You can find her online at wifeinredemption.com.