(Artwork: “Loneliness” by Rudolf Brink)
During a recent conversation, a man who is not connected to any faith community but who knows that I am a clergy person asked a question for which I did not have an immediate response.
“After this pandemic, why would anyone want to return to church buildings? I mean, since so many churches are doing online stuff, why would there be a need for people to be in a building together?”
He was asking the question out of curiosity, not cynicism. The look on my face probably communicated to him that I did not have an exhaustive, or even adequate, response. Together, though, we found our way into what felt like a weighty exploration of some of the issues that were pertinent to his inquiry—issues such as the risks and merits of physical assembly; the unique energy of unison singing and praying; the simultaneous vulnerability and veneration represented by an in-person gathering of worshipers; and the differences between online connection and corporeal (bodily) interaction.
We did not come to definitive conclusions in our conversation. I walked away, however, feeling as through I had been unexpectedly ushered into a deeper contemplation of the complexities surrounding the sheer physicality of the regathered church. More importantly, I felt powerfully confronted by the “why” of my friend’s inquiry. “Why would anyone want to return to church buildings?”
I believe that part of the answer to this “why” has to do with the profound sense of isolation that our nation has been experiencing for many years and that COVID-19 has both illuminated and intensified. In a recent article entitled, “The Price of Isolation” (which appeared in the July 2020 issue of “Rolling Stone”), writer Alex Morris describes what many are calling the national “loneliness epidemic” plaguing America:
As individual as the experience of isolation may be, America as a nation entered this pandemic particularly ill-equipped to handle it. For years, we have been engaged in what former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called a ‘loneliness epidemic’…According to Steve Cole, the director of the UCLA Social Genomics Core Laboratory, this ‘loneliness epidemic’ is actually a public health issue.
In the same article, Morris gives compelling statistical support for the widespread loneliness that he names:
According to the most recent census, more than a quarter of Americans live alone (the highest percentage on record) and more than half are unmarried (with marriage rates at historic lows). People are having fewer children, volunteering less, and reporting lower levels of religious and other forms of affiliation. These markers may all seem too anachronistic to say much about our modern age, but Americans also ‘feel’ more lonely: The percentage who say they are [lonely] has doubled since the 1980s, from 20 percent to 40.
Jamil Zaki, director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory, offers this additional statistic obtained via a large-scale survey in which participants were asked how many people they have in their lives with whom they would feel comfortable experiencing a deep, personal, and vulnerable conversation:
“In the Eighties, the average was three, but the most common response was also three. In the 2000s, the average was two, but the most common response was zero.”
One of the ironies in this documented loneliness is that online communication is thriving. According to market research, US adults will spend, on average, 82 minutes per day engaged in online social networks. It inspires a question: How can we possibly feel isolated and lonely when we have so many Facebook friends?
Therein may lie a portion of the struggle. A connection on social media, after all, is certainly no guarantee of relational intimacy or authentic vulnerability. The instantaneous posting of strong opinions about controversial subjects (without the mitigating dynamics of body language, eye contact, and vocal inflection) can often lead to a greater sense of isolation, especially if people are inclined to treat social media as an opportunity to weaponize their perspectives, intensify philosophical battle lines, or belittle opposing views. As one person said to me recently, “it seemed like it was a whole lot easier for me to like people when I didn’t know all of their opinions.”
Another factor to consider is personal temperament and, in particular, the introvert/extrovert dynamic. Both introverts and extroverts need community, but they experience it in different ways. Introverts will often expend emotional energy in the very same moments that extroverts are gaining it. This fact has led many introverts to celebrate their introversion during the recent quarantine. “Are you kidding me,” an introvert exclaimed to me the other day. “I was built for quarantine! My whole life has been a preparation for social distancing.” As a strong introvert myself, I smiled at her observation. Over the years, however, I have learned how dangerously easy it is for me to hide behind my introversion, utilizing it as emotional fuel for pushing away relationships, even in those moments when I desperately need and crave them. What I am describing is complicated, to be certain, but important not to overlook: Extroverts may feel isolated and lonely in their lack of opportunity for authentic interaction. Introverts, by contrast, may feel isolated and lonely within a temperament in which their solitude can become as confining as it is necessary.
All of this brings me back to the question my friend asked: “Why would anyone want to return to church buildings?” If returning to church buildings were solely a matter of institutional maintenance or resuming familiar habits and routines, then the question itself would be wholly rhetorical. But the heart of the “why” is more spiritual and ontological than that.
We gather in-person as the church to remember in our very bodies the truth that is at the center of our Gospel—the truth of a God who became flesh; a God who would settle for nothing less than an in-person relationship with humankind; a God who ate with us, drank with us, broke and bled with us, and invited us to touch his scars; a God whose incarnation transforms the corporeality of a weekly in-person worship service into a renewed experience of the redemption of one’s very flesh.
We gather in-person as the church to hear the sounds and experience the movements of the people around us, thereby remembering that our physicality is part of an embodied community.
We gather in-person as the church to encounter afresh the mysterious yet palpable vitality produced by unison laughter and weeping, congregational singing and praying, and the shared acknowledgement of one another’s physical uniqueness and its communion with the physical uniqueness of others.
Most of all, we gather in-person as the church to declare that the nation’s loneliness epidemic is neither the governor of the human spirit nor the end of the human story.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not calling for a lessening of COVID-19-related protocols and security measures. Quite the contrary, the in-person community we experience in the church must be the safest environment that we can possibly create, thereby ensuring both the doing of no harm and the protection of the most vulnerable in our midst. (Which is to say, please where a mask, keep your distance, and honor the church’s safety protocols!) This post is not a call for an irresponsible regathering or an abandonment of our precautions. Rather, it is a call to remember why we are inclined to regather in the first place—not to keep our buildings open and to perpetuate the institution, but to reengage a communal physicality that reminds us of our shared humanity, even as that same communal physicality groans for redemption.
Personally, I want to come back to the regathered church with a greater attentiveness to the profound loneliness that many of us (including this writer) are experiencing. I want my awareness of the loneliness epidemic to make me more intentional about the nurturing of relationships, the initiation of personal conversations (even at a distance and through masks), and the giving and receiving of love. Most of all, I want churches, most of which are inclined to describe themselves as “friendly” even when they are not, to recognize and affirm with new energy that every soul that ventures through the doors of the building (and every soul that does not) matters deeply to the heart of God and should therefore matter deeply to the church’s people.
In short, I long for the church to manifest its creed in gatherings where people feel known and not ignored, valued and not dismissed, honored and not mistreated, relationally pursued but not accosted, loved and not manipulated.
There are no quick fixes for widespread loneliness or a prevailing sense of isolation, and the last thing I wish to offer is a shallow response to a profound struggle. At the same time, I believe that a safely regathered church—and safely regathered faith communities in general—can become instruments of healing in what must be treated as a long national journey toward the rediscovery of embodied community. A regathered church, if approached and maintained rightly, can become for an isolated people a sacred ground on which to stand with other journeyers and a holy space in which to engage with them in the urgent work of seeing and being seen, hearing and being heard, and (eventually) touching and being touched.
Billy Joel, in his most famous song, wrote about the eccentric patrons who would gather at a bar to hear him play: “They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.” It was a creative way of describing the strange and mystical dynamics of in-person community. Even when we feel lonely in a gathered crowd (which is the case for many in the church, I think), the physical presence of other people, the language of their bodies, and the very cadence of their breathing can become a tangible and comforting reminder that we are not unaccompanied in the journey.
To put it simply, the drink we share in the church is nothing less than the cup of salvation. And we do not drink it alone.