I have the privilege of teaching some courses at various seminaries. Often, at the end of a course, we would invite the students over to our home for dinner. We did this recently. This class was a small one and we could fit everyone around our dining table. At such gatherings, great food and conversation are a given. We also did our usual relational check-in — everyone shares one joy and one struggle in their lives. Everyone did and the connection around the table immediately deepened. Private conversations broke out with folks volunteering to help or at least to listen with empathy and care. At the end of the meal people were reluctant to leave. I believe most, if not all, were blessed by the evening. It was life giving.

I despair that the above gathering is more the exception rather than the norm in Christian circles. The standard Christian gathering goes like this: The event begins with worship in song. Usually a talented worship team will lead the people in a time of corporate worship. It is usually a given that the music will be emotionally engaging and people will feel the presence of the Lord. Then a speaker will come on and, if he/she is a good speaker, will engage, educate, and enthral the congregation with his/her speech. After the talk/sermon, the meeting will end in various ways, usually Q&A and/or ministry time where people are prayed for. There may be refreshments either provided by the organisers or people go out and find their own. Then folks go home. Many go home alone carrying with them many of the same issues and struggles they came with. The more extrovert will seek out conversations and some of those conversations may have some life-giving depth. Many will just be alone and lonely.

Our need for friends and the destructive effects of loneliness is well documented. Here are excerpts from an article in Time:

Studies have shown that social support—whether it comes from friends, family members or a spouse—is strongly associated with better mental and physical health. A robust social life, these studies suggest, can lower stress levels; improve mood; encourage positive health behaviors and discourage damaging ones; boost cardiovascular health; improve illness recovery rates; and aid virtually everything in between. (Jamie Ducharme, “Why Spending Time With Friends Is One of the Best Things You Can Do for Your Health”, TIME, June 25, 2019.)

Social isolation, meanwhile, is linked to higher rates of chronic diseases and mental health conditions, and may even catalyze cellular-level changes that promote chronic inflammation and suppress immunity. The detrimental health effects of loneliness have been likened to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s a significant problem, especially since loneliness is emerging as a public health epidemic in the U.S. According to recent surveys, almost half of Americans, including large numbers of the country’s youngest and oldest adults, are lonely.

As usual, the world finally comes to realise the truth of what is already in Scripture — “It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18 NIV)

As our ministry, Graceworks, looks to another year, we feel fresh conviction to return to our basic mission, to see lives transformed through spiritual friendship. Or, in the words of our more recent motto: “promoting human flourishing through life-giving relationships.” We commit ourselves to doing this through publishing, teaching, training and modelling. Our primary burden is to improve the relational health of the Christian community and we hope, of course, that life-giving friendship will overflow through God’s people to a lonely world.

With spiritual friendship as our basic DNA, we also do other stuff, including:

Spiritual Mentoring — seeing lives changed through folks walking together

Marketplace Mentoring — relationally developing followers of Jesus to follow Him in their lives in the marketplace

Millennial Mentoring — relationally helping emerging adults grow into maturity in Christ

We will also be exploring the question of whether there are ways of doing church that better reflect the relational nature of our God and His people. The church did meet around meals in the first few hundred years of her life.

Often, we are daunted by the mission before us. We are a small team and we often struggle with inadequate human and financial resources. And I am sure there is an element of spiritual warfare here, too. But as Bernice and I have long decided, we will do what the Lord has called us to do. And since it is His show, we expect that He will bring it to pass. We only need to be faithful.