December 5, 2016
Despite the ubiquity of smartphones, the near-universal usage of diverse social media and the ease of finding common interest groups on the web, reported levels of loneliness in most developed western societies continue to rise. It used to be that we associated loneliness and social isolation mostly with elderly widows and widowers living out their final years alone. Most surveys in recent decades show that, increasingly, younger people also feel disconnected, and have few or no close friends. And partly as a consequence, suicide rates, especially among young males, are extraordinarily high. Teens and twenties spend more time and effort than ever before building an identity and connection with peers; but they, like the rest of us, are finding it harder and harder to form committed, sacrificial and enduring friendships which go deep, and which last through life’s tougher circumstances.
In this context, it is surely helpful for us to remember that the very first problem God identified with creation – before there was any rebellion, or sin – was that of loneliness. It is not good for man to be alone.
It’s easy to read the Genesis account and think primarily of marriage as the cure. Adam had no partner; and God provided Eve. Sexually, emotionally, temperamentally and biologically complementary, so that the two together were much more than merely the sum of the two apart. But the arrival of Eve isn’t just the introduction of marriage; it’s the introduction of reproduction entire, so that Adam’s loneliness is not merely remedied by her, but soon by sons, and daughters, and grandchildren. In time there is family, and there is community, to fulfil our longing for relationship. The answer is far, far bigger than just romantic love.
And it’s obvious in scripture that God has made us to be connected on these many different kinds of levels. We are to love parents, and our own close family; we are to love our more distant family; we are to honour our grandparents and great grandparents; we are to love our community, our neighbours, those who live near us; we are to give due respect and allegiance to tribal and national and imperial authorities, and identities, too. And we are to love those who are nothing like us, with whom we have nothing in common, or even a history of mutual hatred.
And when we live in community as God prescribes for us, we are meeting regularly with folks of different ages and interests and social status. Church is almost unique in the way it brings together such diversity – and this, of course, reflects the deep truth that there is, in Christ, no Lord and no commoner, no young and no old, no rich and no poor, no CEO and no job seeker. We are all one in Christ Jesus. But just how much relating do we do through church? How much connection do you get from being in a room with someone every Sunday morning? You chat to a few folks before and after – probably mostly the same people each week, a small set of selected people you might well be friends with anyway.
By contrast, small groups – like home groups, and similar gatherings – are a vital part of the whole body of Christ actually being family, because they put us in regular contact with a more varied group; not just the ones we like and get on with, but a small selection of God’s people that we haven’t chosen ourselves. They give us more intimate connection – you can’t keep up with the details of family life for everyone in the local church, but you can, and should, for your home group. You can pray for them often, and in a very informed way – and pray with them, weekly. You can learn to know and love God together with them.
Because of the way our society functions, we expect that this won’t be as satisfying in relationship terms as time with people like us, close to our own age, similar in interests – and we can think of it as a hardship, or an unwanted duty, to extend our love and our care in already busy lives to a bunch of random people. But that is precisely God’s plan for family; you don’t get to chose, he does. And you get more like Jesus by learning from those (sometimes spectacularly) different than you, and by sharing your heart, your sorrows and your joys, your needs and your gifts, with people you may never have chosen. If anything, that’s even more true of your spiritual family, in Christ, than it is of your biological family. How do we learn to forgive, compromise, apologise, and get along with difficult characters? God forces us to share our home, or our life, with them.
If you regularly head to church on a Sunday morning or evening, but you’re not part of a home group or something like it, you’re missing out. You’re passing up on part of God’s gracious and kind provision for love, relationship and meaning in your life. You’re missing out on some of the blessings of being part of God’s family. You’re less likely to learn some of the important lessons of sanctification, because you’re picking who you spend time with. You’re probably less connected, and less committed, to the body of your Lord than he wants you to be.
There’s a wonderful and inescapable consequence of calling God your Father; he tells you to consider his other children your brothers and sisters, and love them accordingly. Small groups are, here and now, for us, one of the best ways of doing that. Smartphones are not in the bible, and neither is Facebook, WhatsApp or the internet; but you are free to use them as God’s means for doing God’s work. Home groups, cell groups, fellowship groups, whatever you call them – they are not in the bible either. But they are a wonderful antidote to the ways in which technology and the web can unwittingly serve to disconnect us. They are a gift from God. They are for your good. Give them a try, and you may be surprised to find what a good gift they are.