How do we encourage people who are in the midst of deep loneliness?
As someone who disciples teenage girls, I have certainly been asking myself this question.
Faith communities at large have been feeling the impact of loneliness and isolation in a whole new way in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is a temptation to think that we are so well connected through online platforms that there is no way we could possibly feel truly alone. However, the cries from members of our churches tell another story.
As I talk with pastors and church members, listen to podcasts and read the newspapers, it seems many people are desperate to get back to in-person worship after the pandemic so they can connect with each other.
A recent Pew Research Center survey revealed an increase in the number of U.S. adults attending in-person worship services over the past month, as well as a strong majority (76%) who feel they could now safely attend such gatherings.
The 21st century seems to be a time when we should be more connected than ever, but it sometimes seems we are feeling more isolated than ever.
It has been a gift to gather together through Zoom and Facebook Live. Even so, it still feels like something is missing when we are not face to face.
Holding sacred space together is essential in the Christian tradition.
When we are at church, we are looking for people with whom we can share our stories. We seek out a community that will bear burdens with us and help us on the pilgrimage that is our life.
Christians through the centuries have made a point to meet together – even if they have to be creative and imaginative to do it. However, in these strange times, sharing physical space with our friends is a privilege in which not everyone can participate.
The good news for our high-risk friends who cannot join the faith community in person for a little while longer is that we can foster deep community even when we are not in the same room.
Sacred space does not necessarily require physical presence. I want to suggest three practical habits we can build into our lives to help people feel seen and visible in our communities.
- Make space for others.
When I fill my schedule to the brim with meetings and projects that I need to work on at all times, I unintentionally communicate to the people I love that I do not have time for them.
The spiritual discipline of slowing our lives down to create space for sacred moments is an essential habit to recover in this time of distance.
Creating intentional space in our calendars for other people is the first step in training ourselves to see the people around us not as obstacles to avoid but as divine gifts.
It is often more comfortable to fill a space with words than it is to sit in silence or allow space for someone else to voice concerns or grievances.
It is a meaningful spiritual discipline to do more listening than speaking / advice-giving.
Jesus’ encounters with the people he healed were not filled with many words. There was a strange simplicity in which he heard the needs of the people and responded with the actions of giving what they needed.
Healings were not events used for long discourses or sermons.
May we be a people who are perceptive to the needs of those around us. May we be quick to listen and slow to speak.
- Reach out.
There may be more people than we think in our churches who are shy about voicing their loneliness.
One of the most painful moments for me at my church was when I finally built up the courage to share that I was struggling to find deep friendships in our community.
The church leader I spoke with told me I could not complain about something if I did not put forth an effort to reach out to people myself. Needless to say, the response was off-putting.
What they failed to see is that I had tried to reach out to people in the community but so many events were not accessible to me.
I was really just asking for someone to hear me and help me get connected. Instead, the leader made me feel like it was my fault for not having made any friends yet.
An alternative approach would be for a church leader to let some people know about me and help facilitate opportunities for them to reach out to me.
Many people in our churches likely share that same feeling of wanting to connect but not quite knowing how. They are shy or embarrassed and would greatly benefit by having someone in the church take the first step.
So, make a phone call, send a text, mail a letter even. Be the initiator in letting people in your community know you are available to them.
Even when sharing physical space is challenging, many ways exist in which we can open our lives up to each other to create sacred space. We do not have to be alone or consumed by loneliness.
Slowing down our lives, making an effort to listen before we speak and initiating contact with others goes a long way in bringing life-giving nourishment of friendship to people who are experiencing loneliness.
Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. If you know anyone who might be interested, encourage them to submit their article for consideration to email@example.com.