lonely people

I grew up listening to the Beatles on my parents’ reel-to-reel stereo system. The thing was huge – the size of a carry-on suitcase. It looked like the classic movie projectors in old theaters. Of course they also had a record player and a pile of vinyl albums and, eventually, an 8-track, but for some reason my dad played the Beatles on that old reel-to-reel.

One of the songs I remember most was “Eleanor Rigby.” Though I was only 7 or 8 I remember the distinct sadness of the song’s story. At that age I missed most of the symbolism of the verses, but the opening line was clear and haunting:

Ah, look at all the lonely people.

And the chorus asked two profound questions in a way that was plain enough to stir the curiosity of a child:
All the lonely people/Where do they all come from? All the lonely people/Where do they all belong?
I had no idea why Eleanor Rigby “lived in a dream” or what it meant that Father McKenzie was “darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there…” But I did know what “lonely” meant and the image of “all the lonely people” made me feel very sad.

And it still does. It’s been more than 25 years since I first heard that song but my sadness over loneliness has only deepened. And as a Christian pastor there are few things that disturb me more than loneliness – especially loneliness in the Church.

I understand that a big part of the problem of loneliness is probably the result of living in our highly individualized culture. Many of us live 12 feet from our neighbors but the six-foot, “good neighbor” fence keeps us from seeing each other. More of us have automatic garage doors and fewer of us have front porches. I can hear my neighbor’s TV but I can go weeks without talking to him. We’ve isolated ourselves.

But the part of the loneliness problem that’s truly tragic to me is the way the Church has actually contributed to the segregation of people. Yes, as Billy Graham observed in the 1950s, America is still most segregated racially and economically on Sunday mornings. But we’ve taken it to another level: now the church segregates members of the same family.

It’s truly sad to me when a whole family drives to church on a Sunday morning, piles out of the minivan, and then scatters to their own corners of the campus for their personally customized (or should we just say “segregated?”) worship experiences.

Clearly, there are benefits to creating age-specific learning environments. A four-year-old is obviously different than a 44- or an 84-year-old. Their needs are different. Their learning styles, their cognitive abilities, their challenges – all different. But at the core, aren’t they also a lot alike? And couldn’t their common faith in God and need for practical spiritual guidance be better nurtured together than apart? I wonder if the church should be asking, “What’s truly defining our community – the ways in which we’re different (like age, education, financial situation) or how we are the same (creations of God, made to love Him and serve others)?”

There’s a solid church in Southern California which has several “life stage” pastors – one for each decade. The church is, essentially, a collection of churches: one for 20-somethings, one for 30-somethings, and so on. And I get that. My life at 30-something is very different than it was 10 years ago. And in my early 20s I had no interest in talking to guys about minivans, potty-training, and t-ball – which now characterize my 30-something life. So “doing church” with people just like me makes sense (from a very individualized point of view). I personally customize just about every other part of my life, so why not worship God in a way that precisely fits me? Why not go to church with people who are just like me?

One good answer (there are lots!) is this: We’re better together – not just kids and parents, but parents and grandparents, single and married, men and women, spiritual seeker and life-long Christ-follower. This is part of the genius of the Church: it’s all different kinds of people becoming one family. We neuter the church by breaking it into little homogeneous pieces. Transformation happens in community, when all the lonely people from different life stages gather together as a multigenerational family and share real life. Personal customization (which might just be a cool or acceptable way of saying “segregation”) may sell coffee and ring tones but it doesn’t fit with Christ’s view of church. It can’t fix society’s increasing sense of isolation.

All the lonely people/Where do they all belong?

Even as a kid I knew the answer: Together. Then they won’t be lonely anymore.