Is the church breeding loneliness? Rosaria Butterfield answers yes.
She believes we have declared independence from each other in our culture and, sadly, in our churches. Once upon a time, the church was “of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). Shared time, shared food, shared possessions. Shared identity. They were the early church — a family bound together by the blood of Jesus.
Many of our churches today have left behind that picture of the family of God, though. The contemporary Western church’s “absolutely low or nonexistent culture of family of God” has fostered an unparalleled depth of loneliness, with single women in particular buried at the bottom.
The Crisis of Loneliness
I interviewed Rosaria Butterfield, author of The Gospel Comes with a House Key, on the topic of codependency. As we talked about friendship and boundaries, we narrowed in on loneliness, especially among single women.
“Single women,” she says, “are doing a kind of deep-sea diving that married women are not. When you are married, you have somebody holding your ankles when you’re dangling over the cliff. We’ve got these single women, and nobody is there. Who’s going to hold their ankles?” This is a powerful illustration of what Rosaria calls the “crisis of loneliness.” “We [the church] have created the problem, and now we are asking singles to come up with the solution,” says Rosaria. “To tell a single woman who is already lonely to make it her responsibility to set boundaries in relationships” misses the issue.
“We need to do something about this culture of loneliness and lack of family of God in the church.” She says, “Desperate people make idols.” If we defeat the desperation, perhaps the church can be in the business not only of idol destruction, but idol prevention.
Cultivating the Family of God
How, then, do we practically cultivate the Acts 4 “one heart and soul” culture in our present-day family of God? Can the church shift from operating often alone and occasionally together to often together and occasionally alone?
“One heart and soul” may start with one home. Rosaria makes a bold call: “Most families should be living communally with singles in the church.” She continues, “Its purpose, like with parenting, is not to create dependence, but to help people launch. Communal living is a short-term arrangement, for seasons of life when there is a need for a faithful presence.” Discipling, in her mind, ought to grow out of how the Christian family functions.
Rosaria describes several benefits to the covenant family opening its doors: (1) others in the church can have safe intimacy and relationality; (2) it reduces the need for church intervention or counseling because more issues are dealt with organically in community; (3) it places healthy pressure on a marriage to be a godly marriage and not resort to “living together like roommates”; and (4) it visually marks the family of God.
We can weep together. We can rejoice together. We can bear burdens together. We can live life together — because we are already together. You can’t get more of having “everything in common” (Acts 4:32) than by sharing living space and all in it with brothers and sisters in Christ. After all, one day, as the collective bride of Christ, we will all have one dwelling place with our God. Forever (Revelation 21:3).
But Rosaria encourages us to operate as the family of God even when we don’t live under one roof. “At our table, we have many singles in the church that don’t live in our home. They come, they have dinner, we have devotions, and [we] have an understanding of where people are [spiritually].” Scripture anticipates this very togetherness in the body marked by “day by day” gathering, church attendance, prayer, and breaking bread in our homes (Acts 2:42–47). Our homes can and should be open to a regular rhythm of feeding hungry souls and bodies.
For Your Small Group
“One heart and soul” requires an active remembrance that we share one identity. When we celebrated my oldest daughter’s fourth birthday, we threw a party for kids and their parents. Nearly every person in our small group came — and none of them had children. They were all single.
For most of our small group’s life, we have been the only married couple. Our kids have modeled for us what the family of God looks like as they welcome and interact with our brothers and sisters when they walk in the door — from our youngest twenty-something to our oldest seventy-something. To them, each person has a name, identity, gifts, and personality. To them, as it should be for us, we have everything in common: Jesus.
So, what should our small group communities look like? Rosaria points us to the Psalms of Ascent:
Think about what it would have been like to make that pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This is a communal effort, and in that community are people that are very little and very old. There are people that can’t walk themselves and people who have to be carried. There are people who carry other people. There are friendships across ages and all kinds of other differences, and yet we are all looking up to Jerusalem. And that needs to be our model for our Christian family of God, that we are all looking up to this New Jerusalem.
Rosaria strongly warns against homogeneous small groups, particularly those that separate by age, sex, season of life, or common sin struggles. “What single women need are not more single women. What young families need are not more young families.” Why? Rosaria continues, “Small groups that are organized by a sociological category really weaken relationships across differences in a church. And it weakens our ability to really serve one another.”
Rosaria encourages us to “leave room for real, organic friendships.” Christ is our commonality, and we are members of his body. And when we exhibit our unity by blood as we interact across our differences, we not only serve each other; we give the world a picture of genuine fellowship and the One who enables it.
Practical Ideas for Churches
“One heart and soul” must be a church-wide, united mission. For smaller churches, Rosaria says cultivating a culture of family of God can happen more naturally. But for those of us at bigger churches, the elders will have to lead in determining how the right kinds of relationships are established and nurtured. Here are some ideas Rosaria offers to pastors, elders, and church leaders as we grow our family-of-God lifestyle.
1. Provide go-to homes for holidays.
Rosaria recommends, “Some houses in the church are go-to places for holidays — no questions asked; no invitation necessary.” At bigger churches, this initiative may require church leaders to compile a list of members with doors open on holidays throughout the year and have people sign up to join them — a formal start to an organic rhythm down the road.
2. Encourage small groups to act as a family.
Small groups break down the walls of big churches into family homes. They are often the means through which we experience fellowship, meet ministry needs within the church, and brainstorm and execute outreach in our neighborhoods and cities. Rosaria reminds us why all three are necessary:
Let’s ask them to be brothers and sisters in the Lord. Let’s make sure that as we serve the Lord together, and we go out there, and we have hard conversations, we’ve got plenty of time to play cards with one another or assemble a puzzle together on the dining room table — that we actually know one another on that level.
We lay down our plans and time at the foot of the cross not only for the sake of outward ministry in the community, but for the sake of knowing each other well. We have game nights, eat less-preferred foods, and surrender kids’ bedtimes (and ours) for the sake of fellowship, like we do for the sake of studying God’s word and engaging the unbelieving world around us.
3. Foster neighborhood-based intimacy.
No matter how foreign Rosaria’s vision for church families feels, we can all take steps forward, especially if we start dreaming and praying with church members in our neighborhood. Much of her counsel assumes that we don’t live far from each other. Regular meal sharing, speaking the word to one another, recreational activities, and missional living in community typically requires proximity.
One practical way forward, then, is simply to figure out who goes to your church and lives close to you. Do you know?
Family Now and Forever
Is the church breeding loneliness? Perhaps. Either way, there is a call here for all of us: through our faithful prayers, listening, and obedience, our day-to-day lives and ministry depict the “one heart and soul” reality of the church, the true family of God. And for those of us who feel like family of God is an unattainable reality, Rosaria sums up our path forward: “Do what you do, and open your arms wider.”