Isolation Is Bad. Community Is Good.

Isolation Is Bad. Community Is Good.

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Next week Boundless is launching its ROCK THE BODY challenge. The whole idea of this challenge is to recognize the importance of being in Christian community through the local church. There’s been a lot of chatter in the blogosphere about why young adults are leaving the church (Boundless had weighed in here), but for better or worse, we need the church. And to be a complete picture of the body of Christ, the church needs us.

I didn’t recognize just how vital the church is until I experienced a lack of community. And I became convinced that one of Satan’s most effective tools in drawing us away from God is isolation. When we think we’re all on our own and we don’t live our lives in the midst of community, no matter how messy or imperfect it is, we are way more vulnerable to the attacks of the enemy.

A few years ago I was in a slump. I was a year into a new job, and I found the learning curve to be crazy-high. I was still grieving the loss of my old job, and this new job was hard. My group of friends, which had felt stable for a long time, was changing, and the security that provided was gone. I had walked away from an unhealthy friendlationship, and I was grieving the loss of what could have been. I sensed God preparing me for something new, and I thought that meant moving to a new city and starting a new job. So I started preparing to leave, even though nothing was confirmed.

So I didn’t commit to a ministry opportunity at my church. Rather than pursue new friendships, I told myself it didn’t matter because I’d be moving anyway. There were days when I was mentally checked out at work because I assumed I’d be starting a new job. I had even made several trips to Goodwill after I started purging all the junk in my house I didn’t want to pack and move. In short, I had started isolating myself from my community.

But the move didn’t happen. God closed the door, and then I was in the same place, but without being plugged into a church, without a strong community of friends, and without much of an investment in my job. I was in no-man’s land; I wasn’t going someplace new, but I wasn’t invested in where I was. And I felt that isolation. Deeply.

It took a while, but I knew I had to decide to be all in wherever I was. Maybe the new adventure I was sensing God had for me was going to happen without going someplace new. It wasn’t an overnight transformation, but I knew I needed to actually pursue community. I tried out a new small group and committed to it. I switched back to a church I had previously attended and got involved by serving in the nursery. I prayed for God to help me have the right attitude at work. I told my friends I was open to being set-up if they knew of any single guys.

There were days when it was easier to stay isolated and not let other people in, but I fought that tendency. And where there had once been the empty space of isolation, there was now community, accountability and life.

Have you experienced a lack of community? Or the benefits of being part of a local church body?

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  • --The title says it all, and it is so true. And yes, I know what it is like to be on both sides. Speaking from experience, I know that it is far better to be in community than to isolate oneself. Also, it is possible to be isolated within the church. I know, because I have been there. But it does not have to stay that way. I left the congregation that shunned me for another in which I experienced great community, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

  • --Been experienceing a lack in church community since we got here nearly a year ago, doesn't mean we're not attending a church, we're just not experiencing community.

    Can I just express irritation for a moment? I totally get this whole "Rock the Body" thing, and honestly, I think it's great to try and get young adults to be active in their local church, but Ashley, this whole post (and most of my year here in a new town where I knew no one and nothing when I arrived) is about how YOU didn't do enough.

    Can I just throw it out there that maybe, sometimes, the church doesn't do enough to engage young adults (married AND single)?

    Even as a young married, it often feels like there is no place for me in the church. I don't have kids, and although we found and have been attending the same church for nearly six months now, and have tried out bible studies, and tried to be friendly and approachable but no one has asked for my phone number or to get coffee outside of a formal church gathering. We really tried to be all in, and we tried to get engaged, but "getting engaged" in church often means "what can you do for us??"

    Whenever you start to ask "Is this church right for me?" or "Do I feel like a loved, valued part of the community here?" Then you, the "millenial" (whatever that means) are being selfish and self-interested and you probably need to repent. Here's my thing: There ARE people who are too self-involved, but I think that church (corporate) has also become WAY too self-involved.

    When I was back home, and I noticed someone I didn't know I introduced myself, got to know a little bit about them, and tried to put them in touch with someone who could relate to their circumstance. I engaged them, I wanted to know a little bit about them so I could know who they were and what they were looking for in a church: Why? So the church could better serve them, because that's what the church is FOR! To love on and build community for fellow believers -- but all the churches we encounted when we got here were more interested in how we could serve *them*. How we could "plug in" to whatever they had going on by helping out before anyone so much as embraced us as people or individuals. It feels like being an interchangeable cog. "Oh! You're new here? Well! We totally need somebody on our welcome ministry/prayer team/parking lot brigade/usher committee!". Futher, everything was about getting people inside the doors of the church, and once there, getting them "plugged in" to some kind of self-serving church ministry. Like somehow, if you could just get somebody out in the parking lot waving at cars on Sunday Morning that was going to grow their relationship with God more than having an actual conversation about what was going on in their life, or  how they felt about spiritual topics and issues. We don't engage people anymore, we just assign them jobs and then back up that stance with fancy phrases about sevant leadership. Did Jesus serve people? Yes. Did he also engage people? Yes.

    All I can say is, thank goodness for the Air Force, for meeting some other displaced Christian friends struggling to find the place to fit down here, and for people back home being an anchor to my sanity, because without those things we would be seriously treading water.

    While I'm hoping to learn from this series (because this experience has been profoundly frustrating for me, epecially after coming out of such a GREAT community back home), It would be nice to see someone admit that maybe sometimes people get isolated even when *attending* a local body and community and honestly trying to fit in. People want to slam "Nominal" Christians for not getting engaged, but if you're in a position of leadership in your own church, when was the last time you took a long, hard look at how easy it is for people to engage you? Are you expecting your visitors to do 90% of the legwork? To really meet you, do they *have* to come to you bible study, bring their kids to Awanas (and what if they don't have kids?), and be on at least one ministry team no less than once a month? Do they have to penetrate a force field of like-minded folks in your small group who are always shutting down ideas and suggestions from outsiders? Do you value new people, new talent and new ideas? How big are your small groups? Is a group of 30 couples *really* small enough to foster a good conversation? Does your welcome staff really try to welcome people or are they more interested in chatting it up with their buds -- worse, do they prioritize guests who "look" like church-people over those who might look less like your typical church goer? Does a family with kids get higher priority than a new couple starting out?

    Does your church pidgeonhole people into "targeted" ministries? Do you throw thirty-something couples in the "newlywed" small group with the 19 year old high school sweethearts? Are the only married small group you offer for newlyweds or for married couples experiencing trouble? Are you "singles" small groups entirely directed at getting people married? Do your men's and women's small groups meet on different nights, in separate locations halfway across town from each other? Is it even possible for singles and married people in your church to meet and have a conversation or are you constantly sheltering them from one another? Are your women's bible studies in the middle of the work day?

    All of these are frustrations we've encountered (among other things, like churches that want to dabble in politics from the pulpit or on their websites, drama and fissures between different flavors of denominations) searching for a new community. I have a WHOLE new appreciation for Christians who have what it takes to break through the beauracratic rigamarole in most congregations to connect with something meaningful about God. I've been churched my whole life, and I'm coming to find that "church people" are some of the most difficult people in the world to get to know. We've made lasting friendships with co-workers and students that have come to our home for dinner than anyone we've met at church... I know more about my beautician than I could tell you about any single person I've met at church the entire time I've been here; and seriously, we TRIED. We WANTED to get engaged in a small group, we tried LOTS of different churches with several different styles of worship, but trying to engage people on most occasions was met with "Oh, well, here's how you can fit into OUR program" -- and now we're getting ready to leave and it hardly feels worth it anymore. I'm so excited to go back to the community I know and love back home, one that nutured and grew my faith and knew me as an individual. If anything this experience has soldified in my mind how extremely special and precious that is.

  • --I don't know...I always thought married with kids would be a great time in church, but if it weren't for my husband and kids, I probably wouldn't want to go to church.  I feel like it's just too many guilt trips about how we need to be more involved, give more money, etc.  

  • --I've always believed strongly in getting involved in church and focusing on how you can give, not just receive--but honestly, I will say that people in general nowadays, not just at church but nearly anywhere I've been, just don't know how to really build up and initiate a friendship or community. Or RETURN the initiation, when you, as the newby, make it a point to initiate. The art of conversation seems to be so LOST these days, it's hard to really get to know anyone.

    I'm still learning too, small talk is not something that comes naturally to me, but I made up my mind I wanted to get good at it, and prayed for help to learn it. And I'm getting better and better through practice. It's actually fun once you get the hang of it, haha.

    I think people tend to forget that engaging others  and building community is something you CAN learn, it's not just something that happens.  Yes, absolutely we need to come as newbies ready to give, and not just expect every one to come after us. BUT, waaaaaaaay too often in the church, we who are NOT new, sit back and just wait for newcomers to get themselves plugged in instead of going after them in friendship and community. Greeting newcomers can be intimidating, but most people feel as lost as you do, and even as a newby yourself you can initiate. And when you see other newbies, make it a point to go initiate. I've been to one church in particular where after a year of going there, I knew very few people because it felt like you had to break through a wall to get inside the circles (and yes, I did try). I am all for choosing to be engaged in your church, choosing to step out and keep initiating. But there comes a point the church has to meet you half way at least, and SHOW you you're being accepted. Not just expect you to keep showing up and listening to everyone who has known each other since preschool talk about that trip they took with the youth group ten years ago.

    I love the church I'm going to, I think they are really trying, but I feel like they don't really know what to do with you if you're single or a young married without kids. I WANT to get involved and give of my time to ministry and service, I love doing that, it was one of things I begged God for when I started attending because I hadn't been in a church for so long where I really got to do that. Praise be to Him He has opened those doors and I'm helping with homeless ministry and kids ministry, which I love. But honestly, chatting with some of the passing-through homeless people, I feel more connected with than with  some of the people at my church. And I do wish churches in general would be more willing to say you're both in your late twenties, even though she has kids and you don't, why don't you BOTH come to our Sunday school, and learn to relate to each other and build friendships, rather than nearly hiding the singles from the married folk. It's fine with me if you have kids, or are married without them, I'm totally game to make friends with you. I don't ONLY want single girlfriends. But sometimes the church (corporate) can make it seem like even though we're the same age, I, the single woman in her lat twenties, cannot possibly relate to the married woman in her late twenties. Hey, if nothing else, we'll chat about the funny thing your kid did yesterday. And maybe find something else we DO have in common in the middle of the conversation. Can't do that if we're never around each other.

    And of course, I love making single girlfriends. Just saying I'm not at all adverse to married besties too! I get that your life will make it harder for us to hang out sometimes. No prob, I'll come over and chat while we do laundry. I can fold a mean towel, LOL.

  • --Coffeebee: Trust me, married women in their late 20s need girlfriends, too. The single/married divide in churches is incredibly frustrating, because, yes, most married women in their late 20s have children! I probably have more in common with you than I do with most other married 28 year olds! Super irritating that the single girls have their own insular bible study on snagging a man on a completely different night in a totally different place than the more matronly-focused women's study for married women. urf.

    Kellie: Amen. I can't wait to get back to my old church and get elbows deep again, because I really do feel like they care about their members and their community and that they want to give back in ways that don't involve getting new people through their front doors. Two things I deffinitely won't miss about the churches down here are the weekly "Make sure you're a faithful giver!" second sermon and the awkward five minutes of hand-shaking with a stranger mid-service -- whoever thought that was a good "welcoming" idea needs to get their people-meter adjusted. Do you ever remember who you shook hands with at church last sunday? Anybody?

  • --Thanks Ashley for writing this post! I myself have struggled with isolation and lack of community.  Some of the time I would wonder if it was my fault that I wasn't developing good authentic community which I knew I wanted but wasn't sure how to get it.  I attended my previous church for several years worked in the preschool/nursery and served in my church.  However, I was always on the older side of the College ministry and now graduated and out of that age bracket I floated from one Bible Study to the next (marrieds, family, and the senior saints).  At that church there wasn't a Singles group or even church wide small groups.  So I thought I would visit other churches--  I have been at this new church for 6 weeks now and they have small groups and I've signed up.  But now I find that I am eager to get plugged in and be apart of community but don't want to be the weird girl who's pushing her way in. Haha! I did learn that I do have some work to do and be intentional about becoming apart of community and for me who is not very aggressive and a bit shy around new people and hesitant to join in. Plus the new church I am attending makes it easier to plug in and feel comfortable-- they talk to me and engage with me! :-) So I am very excited for the Rock the Body challenge (which I have already signed up). Plus its encouraging to hear others struggling with community and finding their way to it.  

  • --Ashley and Kellie,

    I hear where you're coming from. For real. I'm going through a lot of this right now as I help launch a church plant here in Colorado Springs. I left the safe nest of my Big Church with its familiar faces and programs, and am now in a somewhat rag-tag assembly of folks who are trying to find their place in this new community of believers. There are a LOT of young families in my new church, and it's easy for me to feel that if I'm not organizing a play date or brainstorming back-to-school shopping, there's no reason for anyone to get to know me.

    And if you think most churches try to funnel you into service, try a church plant. If you're not setting up chairs, making coffee, handing out bulletins or plugging in sound equipment, the worship service may not happen. It's "all hands on deck," and can at times set me up for feeling used. I've actually voiced this in a couple settings, and it's helped. Being honest has been freeing for me, and (I think) eye-opening for others.

    But as I've wrestled with the inherent challenges of church and the things it must accomplish (because, yes, most churches have accountability from boards, denominations or whatever to gather funds, bring in new names, do outreach and missions, etc.), I've also realized that behind the "What have you done for me lately?" vibe that we're sometimes delivered, there are a LOT of people out there that want to connect -- deeply. They want to come to your house for lunch, or watch "The Biggest Loser" with you, or go hiking. They'd be up for a Bible study if they can make it work with their schedule. They may eventually be open to accountability and life-on-life fellowship.

    I agree that the church has great gains to make when it comes to advocating for transparency and connection among its people. But many churches are just starting to understand the problem. Some will still take a few years to catch on. In the meantime, we need to fight tooth and nail to make the church real -- to emphasize the importance of community within and without its walls.

    With ROCK THE BODY, we realize that we can only control what we can control. We can't control pastors, elder boards or committees. But we can control our own attitudes and actions. That's what the challenge is about. We're not trying to guilt-trip anyone. On the contrary, we want you Boundless peeps to say that you won't let the church's missteps get you down, but you'll dig in. You'll look for great preaching, then find good friends. You'll do your part and trust God for the rest. And it won't always look pretty. But you'll be doing it.

    So be encouraged. Yeah, the church has some stuff to learn. But God knows our needs, and wants to use the church to meet them. Let Him do it. And trust me, you'll have to be ready with a lot of grace to get there. Giving and getting grace and repentance will be eye-opening for you. And yes, you may have to be the first to go there. Do it. God will honor that.

  • --Lisa, I get that, and like I said, I'm looking forward to this series, but I think here:

    "We can't control pastors, elder boards or committees. But we can control our own attitudes and actions. That's what the challenge is about."

    Is the rub. Pastors, elder boards and committees should be accountable to their congregations, not working at odds with them. I have done market studies for small businesses and for churches, when the demographic makeup of your church is very different from the demographic makeup of your geographic region, you need to figure out why your neighborhood is full of people who are not darkening your doors (and in some cases, why your neighbors won't come but folks who look just like everyone else in your church will drive two hours to get there...). The church needs to get out of the "They will darken our doors when they repent and seek out God, of course!" mindset and in to the "We need to reflect the love of Christ onto our neighbors so that they will be inspired to seek God and be a part of our community" mindset. The best way to *change* that mindset is to communicate with your pastoral staff, respectfully, appropriately, kindly and encouragingly. To build up the wise decision you see and (within reason) challenge the decisions that trouble you. I wouldn't really be suprised if there aren't some folks who post here regularly who DO have influential positions within their own churches (on committees or in pastoral roles themselves) -- it is good to be cognizant not just of those challenges YOU face fitting in at your church, but also of those challenges faced by those around you. Until this year, I knew about people struggling to fit in a church, but now I *know* that struggle... intimately.

    I agree with you, community is HUGE, inside the church and outside it. Throughout our struggle to find a church, we've still tried to live in community where we can. When we meet new people, or if we know someone's spouse is out of town and they're home alone, we do invite them to our home for dinner. When a coworker comes over with a issue, I'll take a pause to talk with them about it, or if they need to, schedule a day out to do a girly shopping trip with no kiddos. :) We might struggle to feel welcomed at church, but we can still make our home a welcoming place. We don't want to get rusty in the hospitality skills and giftings we have, but sometimes we have to get a little creative in how we apply them. I have had several good conversations about God and faith since I got here -- very few of them within the walls of a church.

    ;) Best of luck with your church plant! That is TOUGH work, and often thankless (but SO encouraging when it goes right ^-^ and crazy once the roots go down! Buildings? Parking! Second services!? Oh my! ;D ). I hope and pray you guys see solid, organic growth and get opportunities to welcome people in who will step up to lead and will push and press you into the right directions so that you reflect your neighborhood.

  • --"Pastors, elder boards and committees should be accountable to their congregations, not working at odds with them."

    I know it's not a popular opinion for people under 30 to hold, but I think this is why it's important that the pastor have formal checks on his power and for authority not to terminate with the church itself. I know we'd all like to believe that our pastor would never make a poor decision, take the church in the wrong direction, etc., but making the pastor the decider is asking for trouble down the road. Even if the pastor doesn't get the final say, the church leaders need to have some form of authority over them. Otherwise, what is a member to do if they feel like they've been mistreated? Suck it up? Leave? Gossip and start rumors in the hopes of tearing the church apart?

  • --Ashley, thanks for this, I can so relate to this post!  I've almost lived the exact same situation (down to hauling stuff off to the donation center), and I know how you feel about not wanting to commit to anything when you think you might be leaving.  But the effects definitely aren't good.  I am so excited for Labor Day to be over and "regular programming" to start at my church again, because this fall I'm jumping back in to a Sunday morning study and a mid-week women's study.  

    I feel the pain of some of the other commenters who mentioned how difficult it is to meet people outside your life stage within church programs.  That's one thing I really appreciate about my church; the Sunday morning "live groups" are based only on what book of the Bible is being studied, and anybody can join any group.  The result is a room full of old people, young people, married people and singles.  The mid-week women's study is a little more segregated (obviously), but is still open to married and single women of all ages.  The topic being studied is also a book of the Bible (rather than life-stage stuff), so it creates common ground for believers of all ages to connect over.  I have to admit, part of the reason I'm leaving my "young adult" Bible study and joining the women's study is because of how Boundless encourages mentoring relationships.  It's hard to find a good mentor, but a Bible study of all ages is probably the best place to start.  Anyway, sorry for the rambling post....thanks for the encouragement!

  • --I know what it's like to go to church events but feel isolated. I felt this way growing up. I had a great church in college, but I'm currently trying to find one. I visited one on Sunday, and it was like I was invisible. A few people said "hi" to me during the "meet and greet" part of the service, but that was it, no conversations. I even went to the fellowship afterwards, but nothing. However, I am going to visit again in a couple of weeks when their Sunday school class starts up. Hopefully a smaller setting will help. I don't want to give up on this church yet because they seem great otherwise. I am going to visit a couple of others as well. There aren't a lot of liberal churches in the area, so I'm doing my best not to be picky.

  • --For a while, I was involved in a congregation with a man's group and a woman's group, no age barriers on either of them. I liked being part of a group that was very diverse in age, and I liked that it was all men. I feel safer being deep when we are all the same gender, and I believe that many others feel the same way.

  • --Lots of interesting points in this discussion! A few thoughts I’d like to add:

    Re: MrsAshleyTOF “Can I just throw it out there that maybe, sometimes, the church doesn't do enough to engage young adults (married AND single)?”

    I agree the problem goes both ways. My suggestion for Christians who feel this way at their church has usually been similar to what you said in a subsequent post: “The best way to *change* that mindset is to communicate with your pastoral staff, respectfully, appropriately, kindly and encouragingly.” I would also add “be willing to be part of the change.” Because I know many pastors who hear complaints all the time, but almost never hear anyone who shares a complaint also have a heart to work towards an improvement. Maybe the pastors I know are the exception, but I think they would welcome something like this with open arms.

    Re: the whole “plugging new people into areas of service”

    On some level, I get why some commentators here have complained about this, but I actually think in principle it is extremely biblical, assuming two things: (1) the new person is a Christian, and (2) the areas of service are actually ministry, and not just random social programs or whatever. Because true fellowship is rooted not simply in spending time together “engaging” but in Christ – literally the word for fellowship is “one spirit.” Our spirit is in Christ, and that’s the basis for our fellowship – and what better way to connect “spiritually” than through ministry related activities? This seems biblically accurate and consistent, and I’ve seen this happen to myself and many others – the best fellowship was achieved through witnessing to friends together, praying together, talking about what God’s doing in your life together, studying the Bible together, teaching a class together, helping set up for a service together, going on mission trips together, etc. So if there’s a new person looking to find a church and feel like they fit in, it makes a lot of sense to me to try to plug them into something. Obviously there is a right approach to this, but I don't think we should be too quick to criticize the notion of quickly getting involved serving at a church.

  • --"...for better or worse, we need the church. And to be a complete picture of the body of Christ, the church needs us."

    Ashley, I love, love, love this article!  It is so true.  We need community, especially when we are single and the local church is designed to be that community.  I would say that if you have tried and tried to make connections at your church to no avail, you should consider finding another church that preaches solid doctrine if you can and make connections there.

    God designed the church to provide encouragement, mentoring, admonishment when needed (I have needed that at times), accountability (we all need to be held accountable to the faith we profess), prayers, help and support.  I don't live near family and my church has become my family.  Since we share the same Holy Spirit and the same blood of Christ flows through our veins, I would even say they are closer to me than my blood relatives.

    I totally understand the dilemma of being single....especially an older single who has never married nor had a church with lots of young families.  That is the way my church is but it has not stopped me from making strong connections with them.  In some ways it's been a sanctification process for me because I have learned to get over my envy of what other couples around me have and appreciate the opportunities to glorify God as a single.....even though I often long to be married.  We are in different life stages at my church but we are united in our love of Christ and our desire to display Him to the world in our whatever life God has called us to live for the moment.  Being a part of such a church gives my life tremendous meaning and makes my Christianity real - much more than just intellectual musings over Bible passages.

    In the two links below, I wrote about some of the struggles I have had as a single woman and how involvement in the local church has helped me.  They are titled "How Will I Find Joy If I Never Become a Wife and Mother?" and "What Do I Do When Singleness Gets Me Down?".

  • --Very good article.

    I recommend an essay by a bishop:

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