The Sunday Morning Social Club

On Loneliness and Church

Todd Brewer / 3.30.23

There is a stereotype in our culture of a particularly despised person. The loner, usually male, who spends every waking day working a meaningless office job, only to return home to a life of microwave dinners, video games, and sad desperation. It is said that solitude leads to loneliness, depression, poorer physical health, and lower life expectancy. So much so that even a former surgeon general has weighed in on the subject, deeming it an epidemic and public health crisis. And that was in 2017, almost three years before the pandemic.

More broadly, with the adverse effects of our increasingly online presence and the loss of social ties, there is little left that binds modern culture together. In one recent survey, the number of people who considered religion, community involvement, or having children to be “very important” all declined, sometimes markedly. Even the once unassailable value of “tolerance for others” saw a thirty-point drop.

It’s no wonder that community has become such a point of emphasis, and nowhere is this more plainly true than in the church. One would be mistaken, however, to see it as a recent fad.

In response to waning beliefs in objectivity or the acceptance of metanarratives (cue postmodernism), the communal essence of Christianity has been a point of emphasis for decades now. Distinct from the world, the church practices counter-cultural values and confesses dogmas that sound like absurdity the moment one steps beyond the safe confines of the community. Whether your church has its own St. Arbucks or swings thuribles of incense, the church’s intelligibility is communally self-authenticating in the same way that it (somehow) makes sense to wear face paint at a football game.

What seems to be more of a fad, however, has been the degree to which the church views its community as the solution to the prevailing headwinds of loneliness and isolation. As other social spaces have constricted, the church has stepped in to fill the relational void (while creating further borders between itself and the world). The local church has become one stop shopping for the consumerist faithful. The apparent vibrancy of communal life becomes the church’s self-referential reason for being, a “third space” that promises to fulfill every need its attendees might have.

Within the infamously dysfunctional first century church of Corinth, it is often overlooked how the divisions of the community broke down according to separate affinity groups. The church had become more of a stratified social club than a worshipping community. Those whose education mirrored the well-spoken Apollos considered themselves followers of him. The wealthy had their own decadent Lord’s Supper, reclining at table with those of equal social standing as themselves. In response, Paul effectively admonishes them to hang out together on their own time.

Whatever social benefits one might receive in church, they are ancillary to why the community gathers. In Paul’s mind, turning the Lord’s Supper into a celebration of human love ceases to be the Lord’s Supper, trading a vertical encounter with heaven for the passing solace of horizontal companionship. It’s no wonder, Paul surmises, that some of the Corinthians have not-so-mysteriously died or fallen ill.

What should have been a ritual that commemorates Jesus’s salvific death on a cross — a meal in which Jesus himself is present — became nothing more than a bunch of friends yucking it up at a speakeasy. If there were church pews in Corinth, they most certainly faced each other. By the same token, a church that posits its own kindness as the solution to another’s well-being has lost its faith in a personal, salvific God. It’s also, I might add, a predominate trait of most cults.


In an interview with the Paris Review, essayist Leslie Jamison was asked to talk about grace, a predominate theme in her book Make It Scream, Make It Burn. She replied:

The vending machine of grace is vast and it never gives you exactly what you asked for … Sometimes the solution has nothing to do with the problem. I think surprise is an important part of grace. You thought you wanted cookies, but you really needed seltzer.

If grace is a kind of divine vending machine, it is not a consumerism that correlates inputs with outputs. Punch in the code for loneliness, and what drops through the chute isn’t a cadre of friends you’ve always hoped for. Which is to say that the solutions grace provides occur through chains of causation that might otherwise appear unrelated.

Within the stories and teachings of early Christianity, loneliness and solitude did not go hand in hand. Indeed, solitude was a noble calling that did not entail a pathological deficiency. For these many individuals, the call of Jesus to forsake familial and worldly ties was taken literally as steps toward holiness. What we might see as the benefits of friendship were, to them, impediments to a deeper fellowship with Jesus. The mutual support and affection of relationships were, at best, penultimate goods that prevented them from seeking the consolation of Jesus. It is said that St. Anthony, an Egyptian monk in the 3rd and 4th centuries, lived in complete solitude for twenty years, paying mind to his soul through self-denial.

The ascetic life of Anthony and his fellow monks is likely be regarded today as fanatical, perhaps even unwell — visions of demons do seem to occur with startling regularity, and yet his desire for solitude for the sake of a higher calling nevertheless questions how readily we try to “get by with a little help from my friends.” It’s worth questioning how readily we use God and the church as an aid toward human flourishing. Perhaps well-being isn’t the chief end of one’s existence.

By all accounts, St. Anthony and his fellow monks weren’t lonely in their solitude. Anthony’s biographer recorded how “there was joy in the mountains, zeal for improvement and consolation through their mutual faith.” Of Anthony himself, it is said that “from the joy of his soul he possessed a cheerful countenance.” The joy of Anthony did not derive from his fellow monks dotting the distant caves of the Egyptian desert, but from the God whose grace abounded even in the desolation of the wilderness.

The weekly gathering of the faithful and the faithless that is Sunday morning should have little in common with a social club — no matter how loving the community might be.

Church is less like a circle of likeminded friends, and more the unchosen bonds of family. United by their common need, the young and old, rich and poor, come together in worship to hear again the old story of a crucified savior whose grace exceeds their frailty, failures, and loss. Because unlike anywhere else, church is a place where sinners find forgiveness, the downtrodden can find hope, and the lonely can find comfort in a God who never leaves them.

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11 responses to “The Sunday Morning Social Club”

  1. David Clay says:

    “Perhaps well-being isn’t the chief end of one’s existence.”

    I think you are right. Also, if you self-consciously pursue well-being you’ll never find it.

    I really liked this piece, Todd. Thanks for writing.

  2. Janell Downing says:

    AMEN. May it be so

  3. David Zahl says:

    Inspired piece!! thank you so much for writing it, Todd.

  4. Joshua Musser Gritter says:

    Great stuff, Todd. You’ve put your finger on something that’s now quite commonplace in church culture. Helpful and insightful.

  5. Kevin McGrane says:

    I puzzle over this essay as I think how Jesus spent some time in prayer but most of his time was spent deep in relation with communities of people, both friends and strangers. He did spend 20 years in the desert in a cave, as far as we know. His last act before his Passion was a communal meal. Apparently, he saw no dichotomy between relationship and worship. Perhaps true spiritual transformation does not take place in isolation, but in community, no matter how messy or lacking that community might be.

  6. Kevin McGrane says:

    typo…did not spend 20 years

  7. Pierre says:

    I think the main point of this piece is well-taken: church is not a ‘social club’, and to the extent that its focus is diverted from transcendent encounter, it misses the point. And yet… I struggle sometimes to read pieces like this with charity, because inexorably they are not written by authors who are single and living alone, as I am. It’s probably easier to dismiss the social benefits of worshiping in community when one has a spouse and family at home, but a lot of us don’t have that, much as we might like to. I don’t see how telling us unwittingly lonesome folks that we can simply “find comfort in a God who never leaves” us will do much to address our everyday need for other people, people in whom we encounter God face to face. [This seems especially true in an age when so much human interaction is increasingly mediated (or obliterated) by screens – cf. Freddie deBoer’s recent piece, “You Are You. We Live Here. This Is Now.”]

  8. Todd Brewer says:

    Kevin, thanks for the comment. I’m not advocating for the dissolution of community in favor of the ascetic life. The issue is much more about why the community gathers and what the purpose of community is, which I think has entirely to do with proclamation (i.e. mission).

  9. Todd Brewer says:

    Hey Pierre, there is only so much that can go into an online article, particularly in terms of anticipating how it might be received by various kinds of readers. I will say you’ve assumed a great deal about both single and non-single people. I’m less inclined to equate divine presence with human encounter, which strikes me as the tail wagging the dog. Church is a community that (ideally) loves one another within bonds of familial interdependence, but it is the vertical that creates the horizonal.

  10. Pierre says:

    @Todd, thanks for your reply – certainly you’re right, I’m making some assumptions that are probably coming from a place of pain that is altering my perception. It’s easy for me to distort “the church’s purpose isn’t to salve your loneliness” into “the church shouldn’t ever salve your loneliness, even incidentally”, which is not the argument you’re making, I don’t think. I just carry around a heightened sensitivity about such things – walking this journey of faith alone (thus far) has not always been easy.

  11. […] decline over the past quarter century in the percentage of American adults who view patriotism, religion, parenting, [tolerance!], and community involvement as “very important.” The only priority […]

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