Isolation in Christian communities
I became a Christian as a result of going to a church youth camp when I was fourteen. None of my family or friends practised Christian faith. The only Christians I knew were a few teenagers from the church youth group, which was especially difficult during school holidays when the youth group didn’t meet.
While my parents didn’t object to me going to church and would drive me to activities, they weren’t interested in my newfound faith. At the time there was a popular Helen Reddy’s song on the radio called, You and me against the world. I resonated with the loneliness expressed in the song as if my whole world was just me and God.
Some years later I married. My husband had been brought up in a Christian family. I was surprised at how different his experience of Christian community was to mine. He knew lots of Christians, not only in his church but in other churches too. He had played in church tennis and cricket teams and seemed to know all the Christians in our town.
The isolation of Christian ministry
Not long after we married, we moved to Gippsland for my husband to take up the position of bank accountant. After two weeks, he said, “Is this how missionaries feel?”
I laughed. I was accustomed to the feeling of not knowing other Christians where I lived. Soon, we became involved in the life of our local church and made many new friends.
Years later, my husband became a pastor. By this time, we had moved many times. I was familiar with the process of moving to new towns and making new friends. However, becoming a pastor’s wife was more challenging than I expected. The strategies I had learnt as a bank manager’s wife didn’t work when I was a pastor’s wife. People didn’t organically choose to be my friend like they did when my husband worked for a bank, (except those with ulterior motives!) I found it an isolating experience.
Lydia lived in a Roman colony and became a Christian without the support of a Christian family, church or community. Yet God provided for her and her faith flourished in this isolated setting.
Following Lydia and her friend’s acceptance of Paul’s message, there are two more stories of conversions in Philippi. Probably other people came to faith, but these are the only ones recorded.
First, there is a slave girl who Paul delivered from an evil spirit. This causes an uproar because her owners can no longer make money from her. Paul and his companion, Silas, are thrown into jail. There’s an earthquake, all the prisoners’ chains fall off, but rather than escape Paul and Silas lead the jail-keeper to faith in Jesus.
These three people, Lydia, the slave girl and the jailer come from three different social standings. Lydia is wealthy and mixed with the social elite. The slave girl is on the bottom rung of the social scale and the jailer is middle-class. The Gospel is for everyone, regardless of their social standings. However, what happens when these three groups of people start attending church together?
These people don’t normally socialise or do anything together, but now they are worshipping God and fellowshipping with one another. Probably the only thing they have in common is their faith in Jesus.
The church is made up of people who aren’t like-minded. This is both the church’s biggest weakness and greatest strength.
The church’s biggest weakness is that it attracts people who aren’t like-minded and getting along with people who aren’t like us is a challenge. Generally, we make friends with people who share our socioeconomic status. Furthermore, making connections with people who have different priorities and opinions from ours is difficult. It can make us feel isolated even within a church community.
After I was able to drive, I started attending a church with more young adults but in this church community, I sensed everyone was well-known to each other. I noticed that many of the people were related to one another. Young families were attending alongside grandparents. Adult siblings were attending with their own families. I also realised that many had been friends for decades. It struck me as odd and I felt like an outsider. However, I enjoyed the worship style and teaching of the church, so I kept attending. Eventually, I became friendly with some of the other young adults but it was a long time before I came to know any of the adults.
Conversely, the church being made up of people who aren’t like-minded is the church’s greatest strength. When the watching world sees Christians from vastly different backgrounds able to fellowship together it causes them to take notice.
Jesus said Christians would be known for their love. “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35).
Churches that experience strong connections with one another are also more likely to pray and study God’s Word together regularly. This further strengthens the connections within the church community and heightens people’s sense of belonging.
The church has a unique opportunity to be the place where people experience acceptance, friendship and a sense of belonging that overcomes isolation.