Pastoral Perspectives

Do you feel lonely in church?

On May 16, 2023, the Opinion Page in the Straits Times carried an article entitled “Old and lonely after a successful career, and even when living with family”.

A sixty-eight-year-old Madam Aminah lives in a multi-generational household with her son, daughter-in-law and four grandchildren, and yet she feels extremely lonely. She doesn’t feel needed; she feels useless. Her family thinks that she should just relax, sit at home and take care of herself.

Mr Liu took great pride in providing a comfortable life for his wife and two sons throughout his career in the finance sector but when he retired at seventy six, he was unable to connect with his family members. He too became extremely lonely. On hindsight, he lamented that he had neglected them for too long while he was busy at work.

After reading their accounts, it started me thinking whether if they were Christians, it would make any difference. Would the church community provide the friendship and companionship they lack on the home front?

The article went on to say that three key tenets are critical to healthy ageing – care, contribution and connectedness. All these factors should be present in a church community too.

We can provide care in the form of practical help when our senior members are not feeling well. We can provide care in offering a pair of listening ears. I know of a team of sisters who make their rounds to visit those who are not so mobile, spending time with them, attending to their social and spiritual needs. We can have the younger people caring for the older ones. We can also have the older people caring for the even older ones.

Our seniors have ample opportunities to serve and contribute to the life of the church. I know some of them are involved in the ukulele ministry, providing music accompaniment at some of the events organised for the elderly in Esther AAC (Active Ageing Centre); others are involved in “Meals on Wheels”, delivering food to those who are homebound; still others are running DGs and serving in various leadership capacities.

What brings great encouragement to me is to see them still actively serving the Lord even in their silver years. They may not be as energetic as our younger folks, but their wisdom, passion and zeal more than make up for the lack in vigour. Some may even beg to differ on the vigour part!

I recently met a lady who spends much time in prayer not only for her own church but also churches that her children are ministering in, and some of her children are stationed overseas. She is on one hand communing with the Lord in prayer, cultivating her relationship with God, and on the other hand being involved in a very important part of kingdom’s work for we do our best work on our knees.

These elderly are an inspiration, a model for all of us to emulate!

If they are being cared for lovingly and if they are contributing fruitfully to the life of the community, surely they are well connected, and they’d less likely experience chronic loneliness.

This is ideal, but why is it that even in church when we are surrounded by people, we can still feel lonely? How can the church do better in embracing one another, not just the elderly since the young in our midst also feel left out? Does the lonely person need to do some self-reflection as well?

Have we been too judgmental when we relate with church members? Are we very selective in accepting newcomers into our circle of friendship? Do we complain a lot when we are in the company of people? Do we emit negative energy through our body language? Are we overly sensitive? Do we get angry easily? Are we too proud to receive feedback from others?

If so, overtime people either shun us or we’d choose to shun others, resulting in loneliness, subtly but surely.

As a local church, we are still the best antidote to loneliness. We must continue to provide platforms for everyone to have meaningful engagements – from corporate worship to small groups, from being involved in ministries within the church to those that serve the community outside the church, from going on an outing to taking a holiday together.

Time and effort are needed if we want to cultivate friendships among church mates. We must overcome the inertia of being part of a community however negative the previous experiences might be.

It is with a keen sense of hearing and a very compassionate heart that we are able to discern the struggles of the lonely, which can include low self-esteem, depression, exhibitionist behaviour that attracts attention, the use of pornography, substance abuse and physical symptoms.

Do we have the patience and love to come alongside them, bear their burdens and be their friends?

St. Paul’s exhortation to the Colossians is also relevant for us: 12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3)

We must learn to be transparent, genuine, without pretense, and sincerely accepting. Leaders should be setting the pace.  Let us welcome and receive new people including those whom we deem as social misfits while still looking out for the good old faithful ones.

All of us who are seated in the pews must do our part. We cannot just relinquish this important responsibility to only a group of specialists – pastors, leaders, welcome team, newcomers ministry team!

All of us are after all members of one body with Christ as our head, living stones of one temple with Christ as the Cornerstone, and brothers and sisters in one family with Christ being our eldest brother.    

Let us spur one another to build an intimate relationship with this one God whom we worship. Helping people grow spiritually is one of the most significant ways of preventing loneliness. Whenever God’s people gather, let’s be intentional in encouraging each other to worship, pray and study his Word.

Engaging in the practice of silence and solitude can also help us overcome loneliness and free us from the deep pain of feeling alone.

“Loneliness is not the same as solitude. Loneliness is a negative experience that comes when a person is forced to be alone. Solitude is a voluntary withdrawal from others that most often is positive.” (Gary Collins)

Thomas Merton the Trappist monk wrote: “It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brother. The more solitary I am, the more affection I have for them.” It is healthy to develop a good rhythm between being alone with God and being in community with people.

Regardless old or young, no one is spared of loneliness. Yet may our church community be a place where there can be mutual openness, acceptance and respect for each other’s uniqueness as created by God so that we shall never need to walk alone.