On July 5th, the media relayed the findings of the 2018 National Happiness Survey for Belgium, conducted in collaboration with the University of Ghent. The headlines focussed on the most striking finding: “Belgians are suffering from loneliness more than ever before.” Nearly half the population feels lonely, suffers from isolation or a lack of real relationships with other people. Astonishingly, it’s the age groups between 20 and 34 years old (54.5%) and those between 35 and 50 years old (53%) who suffer the most! And the researchers encouraged decision makers to suggest spaces for meetings and interaction, saying that ‘someone with one good relationship has up to five times more chance of being happy.”
We read in Genesis 2 v.18 that the Creator had already declared ‘It’s not good for man to be alone’ before introducing man to his counterpart, woman. And all through Scripture, God seeks to bring together scattered men and women to be a people united around Him, a flock that He will lead, a family for whom He is the Father. He even sent His Son, Jesus, to gather in the sheep that have strayed away, to offer adoption to His rebellious children, to integrate living stones into the building He’s constructing, each of us becoming active members of His Body…
In our individualistic society, we tend to insist so much (perhaps too much) on the personal character of salvation, on “my decision for Jesus”, and as a result we can lose sight of the community dimension. Of course, there’s the church, but church is much more than a club for individual Christians, an institution that can count up its registered members, or those who are baptised. We’re the family of God (Ephesians 2 v.19). We cannot escape this. Our behaviour should show it, not only in our relationships with each other, but also as we interact with those who are outside the church. All of our activities, our structures, everything about our life should stimulate, facilitate, and encourage the life of the community. And this not only true of our organised programmes, but also of our spontaneous, improvised relationships. As for “those who do not belong to the family of God”, Jesus saw them as sheep in need of a shepherd, but also as sheep in need of a flock, as children astray in need of a family.
So here we have one of the great paradoxes of our time: our contemporaries are suffering more than ever before from loneliness and isolation, while at the same time massively rejecting the option of the church as the answer to their basic need. However, it really is the Christian community that God has designed as the ideal setting for growth and flourishing together. It’s up to us to rediscover, to live and to reflect this family dimension of our communal life, above and beyond the institutional character of church, with more simplicity, more authenticity, and fewer cumbersome structures. That is the call, both for ourselves and for the world.