Isn't this one of our biggest fears? To be alone? It's one of the things I have heard people talk about as they prepare for the inevitable; I just don't want to be alone. Maybe you know someone whose one wish is to not get "stuck" in a nursing home - alone. I know that our church has several elderly people who are shut-in, and one of their sorrows is that they often feel like the church has forgotten them. We are working to reverse this trend, but it's a real issue. This is a struggle for me as the pastor as well. Pastors are already stretched to wear many hats; we wear some of them well and struggle with others. I received word (second-hand) that I didn't care about someone in a congregation I've served (because I didn't visit them enough). The truth is that due to the size of the congregation, I myself cannot personally care for everyone like God does (and to be fair, I had visited them multiple times). I've chewed on that word for a while, however, and this is one of the reasons why I am hoping our visitation team succeeds; that they remake (or build new) connections with those who are shut-in.
I wrote an article for our newsletter about loneliness and focused on these elderly (and mentioned our visitation team) and I got an e-mail from someone who isn't elderly but who is still lonely. She is an active participant in our church, but she's had a hard time - in spite of being active, she is still all alone.
We did implement (bring back?) a "meet and greet" time in our morning worship services, and one complaint I heard was "we already greet each other; why do we have to have this greeting time?" But the unfortunate thing is that lonely people often aren't greeted in "informal" before-and-after service greeting times. And then they are the worst kind of lonely: lonely in a crowd.
Being alone isn't by itself a bad thing - we should always take the time to be alone. Even Jesus did this regularly. But all of us (even introverts) were made for relationship (as an aside, this is partially why Trinitarian theology is important - God is always a relational God, Father, Son, and Spirit, sacrificially loving one another).
There is a balance, because each of us can only be fully engaged in relationship with so many people. I read a blog post last week and an article today that say that we can only be friends with 150 people (Dunbar's Number - popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, who we saw at Catalyst, in his book, The Tipping Point). When we try to stretch this, it just doesn't work.
This has a big effect on church - there will be people who are on the fringes (for various reasons) - and part of the challenge is to integrate them into the regular life of the church. So they won't stay alone. Certainly there are some who come in and want to remain on the fringes; they want to come in and check things out with no commitment (you see this a lot in large churches - you can't "hide" in a small church), but for most, it's difficult to be noticed and accepted.
And then, in the community in which they should be most loved and accepted, they end up alone.
My sister once lamented the reality of having to "break into" a church. No, she's not a criminal (though her brother's nom de plume is "the Thief). Her point was that it's often difficult for someone who is new to a church to establish themselves as gifted and available. Her experience came in the drama group in a church she joined shortly after college; though she's always been an excellent thespian (I was going to say "drama queen" but I didn't want her to take it the wrong way), but she couldn't get a part in their church plays.
Involvement is one of the cures for being alone in a church setting, but what happens when involvement is eschewed?
And what happens when groups reach their threshold? Though Dunbar's Number is 150, there are groups in which the maximum is 10 or 12. We believe that cell groups are this kind of group, and when they grow beyond the threshold, they need to birth a new group. But other groups can reach their threshold: I was in a praise band and when we got new members, we had a hard time accommodating them. You can only have so many guitars playing on stage at once. The church where I was accommodated the larger numbers (a couple years later) by forming multiple bands, each of which would play perhaps every third week. I don't know how this works for practice - would all groups practice together? Would they practice separately? What about space and time issues? Etc. There are definite growing pains.
And churches, by our nature, are supposed to grow. And when we grow, we reach thresholds. Some have addressed this issue by coming up with satellite, video, and internet campuses. Others have added services to their existing locations. Others have planted new congregations. But all of these require sacrifice and change, which are difficult, especially because we often develop close bonds with people with whom we have been praying and praising, whom we have been supporting and encouraging.
The truth is that Jesus promised that he would never leave us alone; the Holy Spirit is always with us. But sometimes this world can seem empty and lonely.