By The Right Rev. Winfield Mott
Note: This guest post also appears in The Line Issue 10.6 (June 2023).
We humans are social animals. When that instinct is thwarted, we generally experience the affliction of loneliness. Today, the patterns of community many of our forefathers—and mothers—had, which sustained them and assigned them a sense of place, belonging and destiny, have been distorted or destroyed.
There are multiple causes. In my lifetime alone, the world has gone from 2 billion to 8 billion inhabitants, an alarming explosion with an equally alarming choice of ends in sight. Consequent urbanization has swollen cities, erasing the former ethnic or religious neighborhood communities where people bonded, and creating random places where people exist but do not relate. People are grouped in large impersonal categories, without heritage or meaning (“whites” have replaced “Irish, Italian, German, Poles, etc.,”“Asians” have replaced “Chinese, Indians, Pakistani, Japanese, etc.,” for example). Rural communities, where life was personal and anchored, have gone from the predominant demographic to a small remnant of the population. Extended families, full of grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins living nearby have morphed into small nuclear families living on their own. These developments and more have caused a significant and wrenching shift in how we live our life, see ourselves and relate to those around us.
Among the impacts of this demographic revolution is loneliness. Perhaps the loneliest places in the world are the middle of large cities, where individuals live surrounded by crowds of people, but who they do not know, and in fact often fear, or see simply as obstacles. Church, in a former day, was at the center of the village, within easy distance and where you knew everyone in multiple contexts. Church today is a consumer choice. It is likely to be at a distance and it may or may not have genuine community, or even be a size where that is possible. Even if it is a community, you are likely to see the people only on Sundays, outside of any other circle of friends or of a lonely weekday existence.
As with all dysfunction, the first step is to acknowledge we have a problem. The Church as she was meant to be, and was in large part for many centuries, exists in only a few places today in America. The predominant model is of an institution intent on self-survival as such in the face of significant decline. It is dominated by a professional career clergy, who need a living income, and real estate which needs upkeep, insurance, utilities and the like. Evangelism is driven by the awareness that more members are required in order to meet the budget to maintain all this, although it may be described in “religious” terms. Various programs are employed to boost attendance and entice new members, who have many consumer choices of what church to attend. While churches strive to be “friendly,” and have assigned greeters and welcome signs out front, achieving authentic oneness in the sacramental Body of Christ is considerably less common.
Yet that was exactly what the Church is, and always has been. The day of Pentecost, when the Church was founded, and when we celebrate her “birthday,” was the promised arrival of the Holy Spirit among us. The action of the Holy Spirit on that day simultaneously defined the universality of the Church, the fire of enthusiastic joy that the community breathed, and the bonding of the disciples, new and old, into a seamless community of love in Christ. There is little mention in the account of Pentecost in Acts about the budget, tithing, providing for the clergy, or building upkeep. They had no programs designed to motivate them to become more involved and giving. Instead, the disciples were immersed in a loving, close fellowship transcending all human barriers and overflowing with the dynamic joy and gratitude of people whose lives have been saved. They didn’t have to be motivated by programs because they could not contain their joy and enthusiasm.
Loneliness was absent. When you have been drawn into a loving community where all human barriers have been removed, the causes of loneliness are removed. The point of the miraculous ability of the disciples to speak in a large number of languages recognized by those present was to bring home the universal nature of the community, a radical inclusion before it was politically correct. For the Jews, this was a difficult concept. No longer was the Chosen People to be defined by an ethnic and religious exclusiveness. Now it was to be for all people, just as the Savior came to raise all people with himself, in his Body. “For you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy,” says Peter (1 Peter 2:10).
Is this your experience in being part of the Body of Christ, the People of God? It can be a painful question, because much that is “church” is far from this picture. And if your church does not resemble the Church on the day of Pentecost, what can be done?
Start with the sacraments. We all enter the Body of Christ through baptism. We all are bonded in the loving Body of Christ through Eucharist. These are not extraneous, optional extras. These are the irreplaceable heart of the Church.
Stop worrying about the needs of the institution. You can be fully the Body of Christ without a building or a budget. Such things follow and serve the existence of a community. The community can thrive without them, without being handicapped.
All the human barriers of ethnicity, race, economic status, nationalism, language, politics, style, gender, and anything else are irrelevant, meaningless and counterproductive in the Body of Christ. Do not allow them to intrude into the community.
Share the vision and invite participation. Many do not want community in their church life, but a lot of folks do. Start with the latter group. Be sure to base it in Eucharistic celebration.
There is no such thing as a lone Christian. Jesus promises his presence “where two or three are gathered in my name.” There is no such thing as a Christian outside the Body of Christ. Pentecost gathers us all in that Body. If you are baptized, you are never going to be alone again. It is our Pentecostal mandate to make sure our Christian community is fully absorbed into the Church, the Body of Christ. “Synod” comes from two Greek words, “syn,” meaning “together” and “odos,” meaning “road.” In a synod, we are meant to walk together, the very essence of pilgrimage. To walk the road alone is to miss what it is to be in the Body of Christ, together. When we say we are a synodical church, it is that we are doing life’s pilgrimage in community, together.
May you be privileged this Pentecost, and the Pentecost season following, to walk together in the Eucharistic communion with all those walking the Way.
The Right Rev. Winfield Mott is a retired diocesan bishop.
Book: "The Earth is the Lord's"
Background: RR CEO, healthcare administrator, asst to cabinet minister, HR, campus pastor. newspaper columnist, city councilman Academics: M.Div, M.A. (history), grad study U of Lund, Sweden.