Stack of books on a wooden table in a library.

Photo by kenishirotie

Why is my library beginning to feel like a church?

June 15, 2023

I confess I go to my public library more often than I go to church. In the last month, I went to a series of book discussions on aging, and I dropped off food, clothing, and diapers for some local agencies in the entranceway. When I walk in, I might see students being tutored and others practicing their English as a second language. There are weekly movie matinees for adults and school vacation events for children. I took a class on household electrical repair, completed a driver education class to reduce my insurance, and met a friend at the coffee bar.

Support groups meet at the library and my wife even got individualized help with her cell phone. She attends yoga classes there on Wednesdays. They have books, too. Everyone is welcome. It’s beginning to feel like mission and ministry to me. My library is beginning to feel like church, and along the way meeting the human need for community.

When the Surgeon General recently published his advisory on “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” it wasn’t the first time loneliness had been targeted as a national problem. Five years ago, Senator Ben Sasse declared it America’s biggest problem. Pastors have preached sermons and country musicians have voiced the problem of loneliness for decades.

Internationally, the United Kingdom even appointed a Minister for Loneliness in 2018. It’s not new, but just because it is a chronic human condition doesn’t mean we should be passive about it. My library isn’t.

Does the church have a role in a national response to loneliness? Yes, surely we can do some things, but it’s complicated. We already have a gathering problem as Sunday church attendance is in decline. Our in-person congregants have often been in decades-long relationships and can’t understand why someone new doesn’t feel the same oneness. And extending the time in worship to “Pass the Peace” is not the answer. Not surprisingly, trying to put more bodies in proximity does not necessarily address loneliness.

In many ways, meeting the needs of loneliness is different than meeting the needs of the poor. We can’t take a collection or assign a home missionary. What my library does is build community while I am learning something or accomplishing a task. My library avoids partisan divides. My library offers many onetime events, with no expectation of long-term commitments.

Everyone is welcome at my local library. It’s beginning to feel like mission and ministry to me. My library is beginning to feel like church, and along the way meeting the human need for community. Yet what might the church have to offer to overcome loneliness that my library does not?

There is no library doctrine that I am expected to adhere to other than to return my books. Can a church do that?

Sure. I’ve seen churches offer Christmas craft days for kids, conduct evening concerts on the church lawn, host a training event on the use of Narcan, provide online webinars for parents navigating the use of social media with their kids, and organize Earth Day cleanups appealing for community participation without requiring Sunday morning attendance. These types of events are both consistent with our kingdom calling and act as starting points for relationships that matter, but if that is all, the church will just be busy and become more like my library than a church. What does the church have to offer in a campaign to overcome loneliness that my library does not?

To begin with, loneliness is ultimately an existential problem. Feeling alone can quickly devolve to feeling alone in the universe. Christians know a God who will never leave us or forsake us. The Jesus who calls us friend, assures us, “I am with you always…” (Matthew 28:20). And those same Scriptures make it clear that the way to know that God is with love.

What can we do? First, hit the refresh button. It may be time for a sermon series on loneliness. A book study on the topic might help measure the pulse of your church family. If you haven’t done a post-COVID follow up on MIAs from your church rolls, now might be the time to find out who is lonely. Start something new, a one-time entry event, a fellowship group, or better yet, a yearlong strategy to respond to loneliness.

Second, get out of the church building. If you have a Bible study made up of seniors, start meeting in the social room of the Senior Housing facility in your community. Hold your monthly board meeting in a library community room just to bring your kingdom work perspective out of the church castle. Offer to teach a Survey of the Bible at a community location. Hold monthly community service projects in which families and unchurched can participate. Recruit someone who loves Facebook to help you make your online worship watchers into an online community of their own.

Stop measuring the proclamation of the gospel by involvement on Sundays. I filled in for a pastor on sabbatical leave once, and some of the church folks had been leading a children’s program on Wednesday nights in another building down the street. On Sundays, we were sad that those families didn’t come to worship, even to the point where we wondered if it should keep going. With a little work, we started to take photos of the Wednesday night activities and projected them during the Sunday morning announcements. It was like a light bulb went on. Apparently, God can do wonderful things on days other than Sunday.

And most of all, remember our theology. The priesthood of all believers means you and me. When the Surgeon General does interviews, the final question is always about government funding. Surprise, there is none. But money doesn’t make friends, people do. God has invested us with gifts to help lonely people. “We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives.” (2 Corinthians 4:7 The Message). There is a connection between loving others and loving God… “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35 NIV). We’ve always known that love is the path that ultimately leads to God. Let’s respond to loneliness with love.

Rev. Dr. Paul Bailey retired in 2021 from the Eastwood Baptist Church in Syracuse, NY. In addition to over 40 years of pastoral ministry, he was an adjunct instructor in Communications at Onondaga Community College for 15 years.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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