How Gospel Community Can Overcome Loneliness

By Dr. Rebecca McLaughlin

“We know the cure for loneliness. So why do we suffer?”

Journalist Nicholas Kristof posed this question in a recent New York Times op ed. Citing warnings from the US surgeon general, Kristof reports that, “Loneliness is as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day…more lethal than consuming six alcoholic drinks a day” and “more dangerous for health than obesity.” [] [1] We Know the Cure for Loneliness. So Why Do We Suffer? The scourge of loneliness is not only severe. It’s also widespread. Kristof points out that most Americans say they experience loneliness, while in the UK (my homeland) the government has gone so far as to appoint a Minister for Loneliness.

Unlike other pandemics, we don’t need scientists to throw themselves into developing a vaccine. As Kristof observes, the cure for loneliness lies well within our grasp. He celebrates the positive effects of anti-loneliness initiatives: “programs like nature walks, songwriting workshops and community litter pickups.” But as a follower of Jesus, I read Kristof’s article and felt a tension. We Christians, of all people, know the cure for loneliness. But we not only let our neighbors suffer it, we all too often suffer loneliness ourselves.

So, what is to be done?

In light of scripture, and with the night of painful isolation all around, I want to argue that we need to reimagine three things: First, how we operate at church; second, how we conceive of family; and third, how we relate to singleness. The loneliness pandemic is severe. We Christians know the cure. And we are disobeying Jesus if we fail to administer it.

1. We must reimagine church

Don’t worry, when I say that we must reimagine church I’m not proposing that we ditch the vital elements of Sunday services. I have no new and cool proposal for how the church should meet the needs of our contemporary culture. But the more I read the Bible and the further I continue in the Christian life, the more I am convinced that how we tend to act on Sundays undermines the gospel, fails to banish loneliness, and keeps us feeling hamstrung in our mission to share Jesus with the world. We don’t need new solutions to our modern problems. We just need to let God’s word disrupt our deeply-seated norms. Let’s start with one subversive verse.

In Romans 15, Paul writes, “Therefore, welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). I’ve breezed past these words so many times. Paul’s letter to the Romans overflows with verses jostling for our attention. But when we stop and let Paul’s call sink in, we’ll find how devastating to so many of our norms it is. How did Christ welcome us? By taking on our human flesh, by living with a bunch of sinners, and most stunningly of all, by dying on a Roman cross, so you and I could live with him forever. Christ’s welcome is the most dramatic and proactive in all human history. We did not ask for it. It was not cheap. It did not sort between the more and less desirable. It was a welcome that was ready for rejection, even to the point of death. And this extraordinary welcome with which Christ reached out to us now sets the terms for how the followers of Jesus must reach out to each other. This gospel-centered welcome is not limited to Sundays. But it must surely shape how we behave within our weekly gatherings.  

How did Christ welcome us? By taking on our human flesh, by living with a bunch of sinners, and most stunningly of all, by dying on a Roman cross, so you and I could live with him forever.

Too often we leave people feeling lonely even as they sit in church. We fall at the first hurdle as we fail to truly welcome those who walk into our church alone—whether they’re mature believers, brand new Christians, or non-Christians who have simply wandered in. We hear sermon after sermon about reaching non-believers with the gospel. But when non-Christians walk right in, we all too often fail to welcome them. We wring our hands about how hard it is to share the gospel in the modern world. But when non-Christians walk into our gatherings—some driven by the painful prod of loneliness—we miss the opportunity to welcome them as Christ has welcomed us. But we can change this with small steps.

One month ago, I walked into church and looked around for someone sitting by themselves. I noticed a new MIT student, who was worshiping with us for the second time, so I sat with her. In the row in front of us, one of my closest friends (who only came to Christ herself quite recently) was sitting with a new student from Harvard. Our church is working to get better at proactively including those who come to church alone, so more of us are mobilizing to identify and welcome people. But moments later, I noticed another woman sitting right behind me. I wished that I could welcome her as well, but I was talking with the student next to me and the service was starting.

Thankfully, another friend sought this young woman out and welcomed her before I had the opportunity. When I did get to talk to her after the service, I discovered that she wasn’t just a newcomer to our church. She was pretty much a newcomer to church entirely. Raised in a non-Christian home, she’d first heard the gospel randomly on YouTube when she was studying abroad in Spain. She’d been so moved that she had started going to a local church. But all her family and friends thought she was crazy, and she started wondering if they were right, so she gave up. When she moved back to Boston, she was still embarrassingly interested in Christianity, but she was not convinced. After some bad experiences with guys, she started dating girls and threw herself into the local LGBT community. But Jesus kept on pulling at her heart. She binged on Christian podcasts and read books that helped her see that Jesus was the answer to her deepest longings after all. When she showed up at our church just a month ago, she was ready for a new life: a life with Jesus at the center and God’s people all around her.

A year ago, this precious new believer would have checked all of the boxes for “least-likely-to-walk-into-church.” And yet, God called her to himself and to our church. Now, it’s our privilege to welcome her as Christ has welcomed us and weave her into our community—not just on Sundays, but throughout the week in formal and informal ways. When I asked this brand new sister if she was okay with me mentioning her story in this article, she texted back: “You absolutely can! I know I wouldn’t have gotten involved in a community group or discipleship (who knows if I would even have come back to church more than one time) without everyone’s incredible welcome.” It wasn’t only down to me to welcome her. It was down to us: the family of followers of Jesus in our little corner of the world.

My guess is that, if you are reading this, you care about the gospel going out into the world. My guess is that you’ve wondered how you might be part of reaching those who wouldn’t think of walking into church. But chances are, you’re also at a church where people do walk in for a whole host of reasons: non-Christians, or new Christians, or people who would once have said that they were Christians but have drifted off. A recent study of dechurching showed that in America, millions of people who no longer go to church have done so casually, because they stopped attending during the pandemic and never quite came back, or because they moved and didn’t settle into a new church. [] [2] What Is Casual Dechurching and Is There Hope? If any of those people wander in, how we respond could make the difference between them coming back again or not. Those of us who see church as our home must welcome anyone who walks in off the street as Christ has welcomed us. But in order to do this, we must reimagine church, not first-and-foremost as our chance to hear a helpful sermon and connect with friends, but first-and-foremost as an opportunity to welcome others as the Lord has welcomed us.

2. We must reimagine family

One day, as Jesus was teaching, he got a message that his mother and his brothers were outside and wanted to see him. We might expect Jesus to leave at once saying, “Family first!” But he does not. Instead, he answers in a way that cuts against the grain of so much Christian culture in the modern West:

Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.

Matthew 12:48-50

We might think, “Oh, that’s just Jesus’s family of origin. If he’d been married and had kids, his response would have been different.” But in first-century, middle eastern culture, your family of origin was where your primary loyalty lay. Jesus’s teaching here is radical. He isn’t undervaluing the family. He’s redefining it. And as his followers today, we need to redefine it too. When we come to church on Sunday, we come primarily not with (or painfully without) our family, but to our family. If we are to welcome one another as Christ welcomes us, we must be ready to act like we believe that those we meet with week-on-week are truly family. [] [3] For more on this, see chapter 2, “Nontraditional Family” in No Greater Love: A Biblical Vision for Friendship (Chicago, Il: Moody Publishers, 2023).

When we come to church on Sunday, we come primarily not with our family, but to our family.

One way in which my husband Bryan and I try to live this out is by not sitting next to one another when we go to church. This cuts against the grain of Christian culture. I’m deeply thankful that I’m married to a man who loves the Lord and comes to church with me each week. But I feel close to Bryan at church because we don’t sit next to one another. Instead, we both seek out the newcomers, or those who haven’t come to church with spouses at their side. This gives us opportunities to welcome and connect with other siblings in the Lord. If you were raised in church, the chances are that you were raised with the strong expectation that a husband and a wife would sit with one another in the service. Most likely, if you grew up in a single parent family, or in a household where only one parent went to church, your churchgoing parent felt the weight of this as she or he walked into church each week and looked around at all the married couples.

When I’ve suggested publicly that other married Christians might rethink their default setting, it’s provoked two strong reactions. On the one hand, I’ve seen blistering critiques from those who think I am undermining marriage and the Christian family. On the other, I’ve received a host of messages from single Christians saying that they feel profoundly lonely when they come to church. The most recent example was this text from a friend who used to attend our church before she moved: “I just read your post about why you don’t sit with your husband at church. It brought me to tears, because as a single woman, I have struggled with feeling alone/excluded in church my entire adult life.” This beloved sister-in-Christ is in her mid-forties and described herself as “never married, wants to be married but beginning to believe that singleness is God’s cross for me.” She’s a highly educated, socially skilled, spiritually mature believer. In other words, she has far fewer barriers to inclusion in most churches in our area than many showing up to church alone might have. And yet, when she comes to church, she feels lonely and excluded.

This challenge isn’t just for single women. My friend Sam Allberry, who is also single, once told me about a time when he was preaching in Australia. Before the service, he sat down by himself. But then a couple asked if they could join him. Sam said, “Yes, of course!” To his surprise, instead of sitting to one side of him, they each sat next to him on either side. Sam noticed quite how different this felt. He wasn’t being tacked on to their family. He was being enfolded in it. Small things like this can make a massive difference.

I’ve heard about the loneliness of church from people who have never been “in a relationship,” as our culture often puts it.

I’ve heard about the loneliness of church from people who have been to church throughout their adult lives with their spouse at their side. But then their husband or their wife has died, and suddenly they feel like they don’t belong. I’ve heard about the loneliness of church from single parents, who feel excluded. One friend told me that her mother, who had raised her as a single mother, went to church for years. But in the end, she was ground down by the loneliness she felt as couples all around her made their social plans together and did not include her. My friend said that her mother loves the Lord, but that she’s given up on church because she hated how alone she felt.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m very much pro-marriage. Christian marriage is designed to point the world to Jesus’s relationship with us. “Husbands, love your wives,” Paul writes, “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). The faithfulness, commitment, care, and sacrificial love of Christian husbands for their wives must be a blessing to the church and a beacon to the world. In healthy, Christian marriages, we see a scale model of the kind of love that Jesus has for us. We see how we together are one body in the Lord, and how the followers of Jesus get to be “one flesh” with Him by faith (Ephesians 5:28-33).

Our culture thinks of Christian marriage as oppressive and unjust, because the Bible specifies it must be male-female and calls the husband and the wife to different roles. Tragically, too many would-be Christian marriages have truly been oppressive and unjust, as husbands have demanded that their wives bend to their selfish preferences, instead of recognizing that they’re called to love their wives in ways that echo Jesus’s self-sacrificing love for us. But Christian marriage, rightly understood, is a great blessing to the church. And yet, we sometimes fall into the trap of elevating marriage to the point where it enables us in sinful disobedience as we turn inward and forget to welcome people other than our spouse as Christ has welcomed us.

Likewise, children born to Christian parents are a blessing to the gathered church. Last Sunday, we were singing a song with a verse that drew from Revelation 5:

Is anyone worthy?
Is anyone whole?
Is anyone able to break the seal
And open the scroll?

As we sang these words, a two-year-old in his father’s arms started clapping. Tears sprang to my eyes as I realized this small child was doing what the rest of us should really have been doing in response to the wild truth that Jesus is the only worthy One. Week after week, a group of somewhat older children sit at the front of our church and belt out the songs with all their hearts, inspiring the rest of us. And even when the babies and small kids are noisy in less obviously edifying ways, they’re a reminder to us all that God loves us more than any parent could. “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has born?” the Lord asks through Isaiah, “Though she may forget, I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15). But while marriage and children are a blessing to the church, they can also be an obstacle to Christians welcoming each other, because if families default to sitting together on Sundays, our single siblings often end up visibly left out.

Would it undermine the family if we shifted our culture to a norm of Christian families not sitting all together in church? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it would communicate that we believe in Jesus’s disruptive definition of the family: not first and foremost as a husband and a wife and their biological kids, but first and foremost as the ones who do the will of God. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul called Christians to be family for one another—brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, knit together in love, one body in the Lord (1 Timothy 5:1-3; Colossians 2:2; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13). Our modern, Western concept of the family is not aligned with the New Testament. So, we must work to make our lives more shaped by scripture in this area.

I’m not claiming I’m an expert here. I’m still in many ways constrained by modern, Western ways of being in the world. But step-by-step, I’m learning that the Bible’s vision of the church as family must impact every area of life. I’m married with three kids aged thirteen, eleven, and five, and I am privileged to have a large, extended family of people from our church (both single and married) who are regularly in and out of our house. These people raid the fridge, rearrange the bookshelves, and play vital roles in raising our kids. They say it takes a village to raise a child. But really, it takes a church. And as we get more serious about this definition of the family, we’ll start to think of Christian singleness quite differently as well.

3. We must reimagine singleness

“Do you not know,” writes Paul to the Corinthians, “that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24). In this chapter, Paul explains that the goal of his whole life is winning people for the Lord. “I have become all things to all people,” Paul declares, “that by any means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:22b-23). Like a runner whose goal is to win the race, Paul makes all his decisions on the basis of what will help or hinder him as he runs forward with the ministry that God has given him. Earlier in the chapter, Paul asks a series of questions, one of which is this: “Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” (1 Corinthians 9:5). The answer is “Yes.” But unlike the other apostles, Paul has chosen to stay single. Being a husband and a father would not help him move forward in his ministry.

So often, when we Christians talk about marriage and singleness, we seem to forget that we’re running a race. The things of this world are not our goal. We’re running toward an eternity with Christ and grabbing as many people as we can along the way to join us. For some of us, getting married to a fellow runner will help speed us up. For others, it would slow us down. Much will depend on the specific person we might marry, not just whether we marry or not. Marriage should not be the goal of life for any of us. Running after Jesus is the goal. And married or single, none of us should run alone. 

Last week, I got to talk and eat and pray with a dear, single friend who—after years of serving internationals in Boston—is moving to Japan. Whenever I spend time with this sister in Christ, I feel the effervescence of her faith. She loves the Lord with her whole heart and longs for people who don’t know him yet to hear the gospel. She’s moving to Japan because she’s leaning into Jesus’s call upon her life. This friend would love to marry and have children. But she loves Jesus more than anything and there is no doubt in my mind that in the New Creation, there will be many who praise God because it was through her humble, faithful ministry that they first heard the gospel.

Marriage should not be the goal of life for any of us. Running after Jesus is the goal. And married or single, none of us should run alone.

Too often, in our Christian circles, we have talked and acted as if singleness is fruitless. But this could not be further from the truth for someone like my friend. She’s running the race that Jesus has set before her and she’s bringing all the people she can grab along with her. For her, singleness is not an active choice. She desires marriage, but only if the Lord provides a husband who will help her in the race that Jesus has marked out for her. She would certainly not marry someone if she did not feel quite confident that he would speed her up, not slow her down. Not knowing I was writing about her right now, this friend just texted me to say, “I’m thankful for the adventures we are on. May we follow where He leads daily and grow to love, obey, delight in Him, and trust Him more each day!”

The same apostle Paul who taught that marriage was a living picture of the love that Jesus has for us commended faithful singleness even over marriage (1 Corinthians 7:6-8, 25-40). Paul’s aim was not to denigrate the married state, but to appropriately elevate the ways that single Christians can uniquely testify to Jesus’s unending love. As Sam Allberry puts it:

Both marriage and singleness testify to the gospel. Marriage shows us the shape of the gospel in that it models the covenant promises that God has made to us in Christ. Singleness shows us the sufficiency of the gospel because it shows us the reality of what marriage points to—which is our own relationship with Jesus. [] [4] How Both Singleness and Marriage Testify to the Gospel

Paul would be completely shocked to hear that we associate the single life with fruitlessness, and that we let so many faithful siblings in the Lord who are not married feel alone. Text after text in the New Testament calls us to radical togetherness as we run forward in our mission with our siblings by our side. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, we must “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

“We know the cure for loneliness,” Kristof points out. “So why do we suffer?” We suffer and let others suffer not because that’s life. It’s not. It’s death. Quite literally for some. We suffer because modern, Western Christian life is in some ways not well-aligned with scripture. So, let’s take the steps we can to change that in our churches, homes, and lives. Let’s all run forward to eternity together, lashing out at loneliness along the way. Are you with me?

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