A Gospel-Centered Framework for Ministering to Lonely People
I meet regularly with an unmarried Christian man (let’s call him Martin) in his mid-forties who was for years a full-time drug addict, with its attendant life of theft, unhealthiness, and untrustworthiness. Since he came to Christ, he’s undergone a gospel-driven metamorphosis, and reaped the spiritual and material blessings of sobriety. Martin now has his own apartment, food, healthcare, and transportation, all paid for via public assistance (he cannot physically work). For a once-hellbound man who subsisted on whatever petty cash the occasional shoeshine would produce, Martin’s relative bounty would seem to preclude him complaining about, well, anything. So it surprised me when, a few weeks ago, Martin confessed to me how lonely he was, and how there seemed to be no escape from it. In spite of all he now had, he still felt a tremendous emptiness and lack of human relationships.
This moment clarified something for me: other good things in life cannot fill a human being’s need for companionship.
But the world seems to be paying less and less heed to Genesis 2’s maxim that it is not good to be alone. In our age, one of the creeping and relatively new features (some might say pathologies) of American life has been a rise in relational detachment. Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent. In the Washington, DC area, where I live, 81 percent of individuals age 20-34 are unmarried, and the statistics are virtually the same for other urban centers that have proven to be an irresistible draw for the millennial generation.
The trend line of growing isolation and singleness is clear. So, how will the local church minister to growing numbers of people who remain single? How will pastors and elders serve congregations of believers for whom being single doesn’t just mean being unmarried, but being alone?
Ministering to those who are single starts with a recognition of Jesus’ special, intimate, eternal relationship with the believer. Believers struggling with a sense of being unloved, abandoned, or isolated can rest on the Bible’s promises of being intimately loved and known by the God of all creation. He will never leave us or forsake us. He abides in us. He calls his sheep out by name. He is with us until the end of the age. And one day, we will be with him face to face for all eternity, in a way so satisfying that there will be no marriage.
But we must exercise a great degree of pastoral wisdom in knowing when and how to use this bit of theology as encouragement. To someone who might be hurting in loneliness, these words may come off as patronizing, a hollow remedy for the greyscale moments of absence and unhappiness.
Single people living in The Now know all too well Jesus cannot be the “plus one” to the office Christmas party. He can’t go pick up your prescription when you’re bedridden. And he won’t softly lean his head into your shoulder while watching a movie on the couch. Sometimes, acknowledging and empathizing with the pain an individual may be feeling is the best relational balm for sorrow, and often offers a foundation of trust for future pastoral interactions. Use discretion when mitigating the hurt of loneliness, so that your well-intentioned concern doesn’t come off as a facile platitude in response to practical sorrows and frustrations.
Moreover, your theology must be accompanied by ministerial action. Here are some tips:
First, make sure you are spending time listening to single people.
The single person’s surplus of quiet moments is sometimes used to unhealthily ruminate on aspects of life he or she isn’t fond of. This feedback loop of self-focused negativity can undermine a single Christian’s recognition of what the Lord has provided in their life, creating a too-deep focus on what he or she doesn’t have. Make sure you can hear what your single congregants are thinking and feeling so that you can pastorally correct an inner monologue, which, if left unchecked, can turn dark and sinful.
Your pastoral correction should begin with making sure single people are responding to despair over loneliness by communicating with God, as David does in Psalm 142. In verses 1 and 2, David confesses a deep need for God to be merciful in his affliction. In verse 4, he shows the utter despair and loneliness he is feeling. In verse 5, he doesn’t give in to despair, but rather he communicates trust to God in the midst of his despair. He concludes in verse 7 with confidence that God will eventually deliver him.
Second, help discouraged single Christians focus on how God can and does use single believers to accomplish ministry that married Christians would otherwise not have the capacity to do.
Urge them to take comfort in the fact God is using our time of singleness to complete his eternally significant work, as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 7. We belong to the Lord anyway, and he is fit to use our life in any way he chooses. In my life, if that has meant spending time in a dingy apartment with a former drug addict rather than taking a vacation with a wife, to him be the glory.
Third, single out singles.
Elvis Presley once remarked, “I get lonesome occasionally. Sometimes I get lonely in the middle of a crowd.” A common experience for lonely people is to feel at their most unknown and forgotten amidst swarms of people. Single out people who are on the periphery of your church and build a real relationship with them in one-on-one settings.
I realize it may be more expedient for, say, a family to have several single people over at one time for dinner. This is perfectly fine, but a better tactic, where possible, might be to have one individual over at a time. Consistently spending time exclusively with a single individual will reinforce to them that they are a distinct, valuable person in the local body of Christ, not just one among many in a herd of singles.
Fourth, check your own pride in your associations.
The world can regard the individual past prime marrying age who is single as a “loser,” “spinster,” “weirdo,” “one who never came out of the closet,” etc. But just as we’re all born as outcasts, separated from God, we must image Christ in calling to ourselves those who the world looks down upon. Paul writes in Romans 12:16: “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.” So does James plainly exhort us: “do not show favoritism” (Jam. 2:1).
The sad reality of life in a fallen world is that many single, lonely people may indeed have behavioral patterns, unflattering physical characteristics, or personality quirks that have repelled potential spouses or other people generally. All the more reason we should actively pursue their spiritual good.
Pray for the single and lonely in your congregation from the pulpit (though not by name!). Pray for singles who are feeling cold would be warmed by the love of Christ. Pray they would find wonderful spouses to marry. And pray that your church and its members would have a framework for ministering to those for whom life can routinely feel just a little bit harder.