In our second article on the holy habit of fellowship, Matthew Prior of St Mellitus College explores the challenge to Christians to care for the lost, the outsider and the estranged, just as Jesus the good shepherd did.
The good shepherd
The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish. Matthew 18:11–14 (NIV)
In Matthew 18, a chapter concerned with healthy relationships within the fellowship of faith, Jesus tells a famous parable about a solitary, stranded sheep, who when found brings great joy to the shepherd. The challenge for Jesus’ hearers is to care about the ‘little ones’ estranged from the congregation as much as that shepherd does.
This parable comes to mind as I think about recent reports of rising feelings of loneliness in the UK. Last month saw a week designated as Loneliness Awareness Week, and the helpful resources on the website note that, while loneliness is natural and nothing to be ashamed of, it can also be a warning sign alerting us to the need to find company before a deeper isolation sets in.
As churches we are rightly concerned that older people may be at risk of loneliness, but research interestingly shows that it’s people aged 16–24 who are now the most likely group to be affected.
Let’s reflect for a moment on the experiences of younger people who report themselves as lonely. Maybe there are some known to you. What might be the reasons for those experiences? Have you asked them? And how can we respond?
Positives and negatives
There has in recent years been some interesting research on the potentially isolating impacts of digital media upon us, but before we consider those, let’s celebrate the invaluable contribution of social media and online community over the past few years. Most recently, Zoom enabled our 16-year-old son to enjoy GCSE revision sessions with an old family friend and retired maths teacher whom he’d never met in person, thereby striking up a great rapport across the generations.
And yet the downsides and dangers are real. The convenience of online community can easily be used as a substitute for more demanding forms of living and working together. The great flexibility of working or studying from home makes it harder for organisations and education providers to forge a shared culture, and churches have faced similar challenges re-gathering their congregations after the pandemic.
I am all too aware of the potential for hypocrisy as I write this. As a self-confessed introvert, there are times when I warm to the idea of engaging online instead of in-person – even when I am perfectly capable of making a journey to meet with others face to face. My argument recently has tended to move from the ‘face to face is better’ variety towards a focus on the fact that in-person fellowship is harder and more demanding of us. It is inevitably more frustrating, but for that reason spiritually richer and more morally formative.
I can’t mute the worship band or ignore the awkward encounter, and as a well-known member of the fellowship who sometimes exercises leadership up front, I can’t disappear the second after the service finishes – at least not without seeming a little bit rude!
But there is more to this debate than the well-documented concern about people opting out of in-person fellowship. There are profound questions too about the degree to which being constantly connected can serve to make us more isolated, and more anxious, than previous generations have been. Could this paradoxical underside of digital connection go some way to explaining the rising rates of loneliness reported by younger people?
MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle famously raised the alarm over ten years ago in her book Alone Together. And in a demanding but important recent book, Tomorrow’s Troubles, the American Roman Catholic moral theologian Paul Scherz argues that the smartphone can all too easily make individuals coping alone the default social setting.
In the distant past, we were not exposed to the pressure of so much information or so many apparent options, and as a result we had less reason to believe we might be able to manage future risks. Where the task of risk management once fell more squarely on institutions, like schools and workplaces, and communities, like families, churches and local voluntary groups, today, Scherz argues, more and more of us are becoming individual risk managers, evaluating probabilities, seeking predictability and control, stalked by FOMO, the fear of missing out.
The goodness of God
The future now more than ever appears to us as a large number of options, different forking branches in a tree of probability. There appears at first to be an increasing freedom that comes with this, but with this also come both a sense of overwhelming and a longing for certainty. For as Scherz notes, the paths not taken don’t cease to exist in our minds once we have chosen another way. As he perceptively puts it, one can even see them, one can almost feel their presence. And we can, of course, compare ourselves to how everyone else is faring.
For Scherz, the pandemic turbo-charged some of these trends. But he ends with a helpful and hopeful reminder of God’s providence. Providence doesn’t guarantee good outcomes for us all, but reminds us that the only fixed point and certainty in a world of constant change is the goodness of God.
This goodness is made real to us in God’s provision of good things day by day, but also in the way that as believers we are instructed to seek the kingdom of God and put in place tangible signs of God’s care by sharing those good things with one another.
Providence in other words is not a call to an individual heroic faith in the face of difficult circumstances but a call to trust those others whom God has given us, as we create together buffers against the inevitable risks of this life.
Most interpreters have seen in the shepherd a figure of Jesus himself, who has come to seek and save each one of us, estranged from God and ‘lost’ as we are (Luke 19:10, which some manuscripts include as Matthew 18:11). Alone, we cannot solve the problem of loneliness, and these verses remind us of our total dependence on God’s overarching care.
Yet there is a challenge to those who have found the comfort of community to follow Jesus’ example. Each one of us could perhaps ask this week: is there a person I can look out for, offering practical help if appropriate, reconnecting them with the fellowship of faith in some tangible way?
Our church has a community café every Wednesday, linked to our midweek communion, which draws people from across the generations but perhaps mainly those who are older. But we’ve also started up a weekly Friday night football to connect younger people for the first time, and like many other churches in the summer months, we’re investing in a Love Our Parish week designed to encourage us beyond the comfort of our homes – and screens – to show God’s care in tangible ways on our high street, at our train station and in local schools and businesses.
How might you and your church respond?
Matt has been ordained since 2005 and been tutor and lecturer in ethics at St Mellitus College since 2019. He is married to Esther, a vicar in Surrey, and they have two teenage children. His main research interest is in thinking theologically about technology, and especially the work of the late French theologian and sociologist Jacques Ellul. He is one of the contributors to our Holy Habits resources on Fellowship.