In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge penned this famous stanza:
“Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”
In this poem, Coleridge imagines a situation in which the thirsty are unable to quench their thirst. Even though there is water everywhere, it’s not fresh water, and none of it is suitable to drink.
This part of Coleridge’s poem is often used to say that more isn’t always better. If the more you are surrounded with isn’t suitable for what you need, it is as though you had nothing at all.
Lately, I’ve been wondering if this expression could be applied to our encounters with other people. Is it possible that sometimes we find ourselves in a sea of people, but still find ourselves feeling isolated? Could we be in a church and still not feel a part of one? Could it be that sometimes there are people, people everywhere…but we still feel all alone?
As I’ve been wondering this, I happened upon a post by Laura Droege that addressed this very thing. Laura wrote about feeling invisible in the church. She bravely posted about her own experiences of isolation and loneliness in the church, and found herself overwhelmed by the number of people who commented to her: “Me, too.”
These are people who have started Bible Studies, attended small groups, and made efforts to find community within the church, only to be left feeling frustrated…and still very much alone.
As a pastor, this is deeply concerning to me. If the church is not a community, where can community be found?
On a personal level, I can relate to those feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Why is it that so many people in the church feel alone? Why is it that despite our efforts to find community within the church, we still feel frustrated and find ourselves lacking deep connections?
While I think the answer to these questions may be as many and varied as the number of people experiencing these struggles, I have begun to wonder if part of the problem is that we have come to realize that more isn’t always better.
More time in the office doesn’t always yield more productivity. More acquaintances doesn’t always mean more friends. More meetings doesn’t always mean more gets accomplished. Being involved in more ministries and activities does not always lead to deeper fulfillment and belonging.
A greater amount is not a substitute for greater depth.
The problem – for me at least – is that I don’t know what it looks like to give up the quantity in favor of the quality. And, as I work through what it means to give up that quantity in pursuit of greater quality, I have come to realize that this is a problem that extends far wider than the church.
On the one hand, that makes me feel a lot better. It’s not that the church is struggling to be a community while every other aspect of the world is filled with thriving relationships. On the other hand, it makes the whole thing seem more impossible. In our society, isolationism and loneliness are rampant. How can the church be a place where things function differently than they do elsewhere?
How can the church form a people who seek after quality rather than quantity?
While I don’t have all of this figured out, I do have a couple of things that I find myself coming back to as I think about what the church can do to work against loneliness and isolationism.
1. Churches Need to Downsize
The answer to decline in church attendance is not more services and more programs. I know it is tempting to start a new committee for every situation the church faces. It seems like a good idea to begin more Bible Studies, more classes, and more ministries in an effort to appeal to a wider number of people.
The problem is: if people in the church (and community) are lonely, giving them more stuff to do is not going to automatically foster deeper relationships. Sure, people might see each other more, but the busier we make ourselves, the less time and space we are allowing for meaningful connection to take place. Perhaps we need to meet less so that we can connect more.
2. Churches Need to Turn off the Background Noise
A couple of weeks ago, I woke up before everyone else in my family. The house was almost silent. I sat at the table and sipped my coffee, and I suddenly realized that the television was off. The television is almost always on in the background at my house. I had grown so accustomed to that background noise that when it wasn’t there, I started hearing things I hadn’t heard before.
I could hear the ice machine in the freezer refilling itself. I could hear dogs barking outside. I could hear my own thoughts.
In the quiet, it was like I could even see better. Isn’t that strange?
Living life in a distracted and scattered way can make it so that I miss what’s right in front of me. When I shut all of that off, I can hear more clearly and I don’t miss nearly as many things.
What things in our churches are creating background noise and distracting us? What things are diverting our attention away from listening to each other?
I wonder if, by downsizing the quantity and by shutting off whatever is distracting us, we might begin to find our relationships deepening and a sense of community growing.
Perhaps, then, we can begin to feel a bit less like one person in a sea of people who don’t see us, and more like a member of a community – where we are seen and heard, known and loved.