OUR COMMUNITY SERIES: Being Lonely in a Group of People

by | Mar 2, 2020 | Life | 28 comments

Why We Need Community--And Why we may not have it at church

You can be in a huge group of people, even a busy group of people, and not have any community.

You may go to a huge church, and know a ton of people. You may even be active in that church. But if, in that group of people, you don’t have anyone that you can call in a pinch or anyone that you can just hang out with, or you feel as if you’re always imposing or you’re always out of place, then you can feel even lonelier than if you were alone.

And community matters in marriage. 

We weren’t meant to live on our own. Your spouse cannot be your only social support, and when your spouse is your only one to rely on, then your marriage has to bear a weight it was never meant to.

We need mentors, to help us through hard times and give us good examples. As Joanna was saying to me last week, in her old church in Saskatoon, she could look to other couples who had walked through infertility and get encouragement there, but she could also look to people who had never had children and still had full lives, and get encouragement there, too.

We need people with whom we can laugh, have fun and create memories, because life was not meant to exist only in front of a screen. We need people to rely on, to ask for help from, and to help ourselves. And that’s what community is:

Community is having a group of people (even if they don’t all know each other) that you can be authentic with and who can be authentic with you. It’s having people that you know will be there for you if you need them, but that you are also there for when they need you. It’s caring for others, and being cared for yourself. It’s having people that you mentor, and also people who mentor you (and sometimes it’s the same people, with you switching roles, because you each have your own strengths!). It’s having friends who you can laugh with and have fun with, but also people who will hold you accountable and spur you on to love and good deeds.

Why wouldn’t you have real community?

Sometimes you’re surrounded by toxic people, or the group you’re in is unsafe

Community is not something you can force. You can’t tell people, “okay, now it’s time to confess your sins to each other and share your secrets with each other, and now it’s time to sacrifice financially for each other and support one another” and expect this to happen automatically.

And yet, far too often, churches confuse form with substance. We know that community grows best in smaller groups, so we tell the church to break up into small groups and then expect that these small groups will automatically be this rich, deep community.

When churches take this to an extreme, it can even get abusive. You should not be forced to reveal your salary or net worth, or to confess your sins, in order to join a small group. You should not be forced to let strangers into your life in a boundary-less existence to have community.

That’s because real community is something organic that comes from people spending time together, feeling cared for, and being able to open up more. You can’t force authenticity and vulnerability; it has to be natural, that comes from feeling safe with others. 

Here’s a great example of unsafe “community groups” which verge on cults. (I share this not to be super-negative, but just because this practice is far too common in some churches, and when you’re in the middle of it, you may not know it’s wrong. So I just want to raise awareness for those who may be being hurt).

Many churches mean well, but when they require people become completely vulnerable without providing any safety or protection, it isn’t real community.

Community can also be toxic if you feel as if sharing what you’re really feeling or struggling with will cause you to be ostracized. There’s more on that in this post:

10 Signs You’re in a Legalistic Church

Sometimes there’s no community because there’s a mismatch

You may be an introverted, deep thinker, and you’re attending a highly charismatic church which focuses on emotion and worship. Or maybe you’re someone deep in the arts who loves authentic and expressive worship, and you’re attending a church which focuses only on intellectual Bible studies.

I wish that there were even more expressions of church rather than the traditional “meet in a building once a week to listen to music and hear a sermon”, because I think many of us experience a significant mismatch. Rebecca and I will be talking about this more on the podcast this week!

or Sometimes you need to make more of an effort

I know a couple who went to three different churches in the space of a year and always left in a huff, because nobody really reached out to them. However, they never made any effort to join a group or volunteer or get involved. Another woman I know was in a huff because no one from church visited her when she was in recovery from surgery, but she had also not been attending regularly, she hadn’t been volunteering, and she hadn’t let anyone know she had had surgery.

Community is not about people serving you; it’s about a mutual relationship. And many times, those who really understand that sentiment end up fitting in even with very cliquey groups.

My daughter’s church, for instance, recently gained a new young couple to the congregation. The “young people” group is quite close-knit, and as a result it can be tricky to break into because everyone is so close that even if they try to invite people in, it seems to fizzle out.

But this couple wanted friends, and they wanted to make a great community fast. So they volunteered. They even started helping to run the young adults group and were at every single event.

And you know what? They found their place, and it feels like they’ve been there forever now, because they made themselves an integral part of the larger community as a whole. You know you can count on them, they took initiative, they offered their help and their time, and through serving together and simply spending time together they have become really great friends to lots of people in the church and it keeps getting stronger.

On the other hand, there are often people who show up at young adults events but then don’t become involved in any deeper way. They don’t show up 20 minutes early to help set up, they don’t stick around to chat afterwards. And it’s really, really hard to get to know those people. It’s really easy for those people to slip through the cracks because they simply haven’t given people a chance to get to know them.

Community happens when we go above and beyond, even in small ways. It happens when we stop seeing church as a way to get what we need and instead as a relational experience. That mindset shift changes us, and it makes us  more likely to show up a bit early or stay a bit later. And it’s by becoming someone that others can count on or serve together with that community is often found.

Living a life of community

We need to live a lifestyle that’s conducive with community, which means that we need to be able to drop anything and go. If you live a lifestyle where you’re not accessible to other people, it’s perhaps no wonder that you feel lonely! You can’t be in real community if you have no margins, because community requires some sacrifice. If you’re only able to take, and never to give, then you’re not a contributing member of a community, and you’ll never feel truly connected.

This is why long-term community is so important, because there are times when margins are not possible, and you have seasons where you need to rely on others. But that’s okay–if you have invested in others already.

Where can you find community?

Your community does not need to all be from the same place. When I think of my community, I think of my cousins, my sisters-in-law, my daughters and sons-in-law, and the young women who work on my blog. I think of my friends, none of whom go to my church, and who know each other only tangentially–Susan, Tammy, Donna, Lisa, Mollie, Jill. I think of some women whom I don’t see very often and whom I’ve never spent a ton of time with, but whom I’ve always clicked with and I’d love to see more of: Susie in Ottawa; Bonnie in Wingham; Elizabeth in Pittsburgh. Each of these women I could call at the drop of a hat to ask for help from or advice from, and each of these women I have helped in various ways over the years as well.

One of my best friends is actually my hairdresser. Yes, we also went to church together eons ago, but our friendship really formed in the chair in her shop.

And your community doesn’t have to be all people your age, either! It’s not necessarily about finding traditional friends, but about finding people who matter in your life.

I love talking to Joanna, one of my co-authors for The Great Sex rescue, but she’s 20 years younger than me. When I was 29, and I moved to the small town I’m in now, I joined a women’s Bible study, and one of my favourite aspects was the older women I met who encouraged me and gave me a perspective I didn’t know. Think of getting to know the younger people in your circle. Volunteer at youth group or help bring food to the college & career groups. Baby-sit for those younger than you.

My mom has “adopted” several grandchildren, whose moms don’t have parents at all or parents in the area. Every week she gets together with Samantha; with Mari (Joanna’s daughter); with Rachel and Elizabeth (who is named after my mom). There may be older women or older couples in your circle who would love to be surrogate grandparents!

I have often felt lonely, but sometimes it’s because I’m expecting too much.

I’ve had a hard time getting plugged in to a good church locally, mostly because I travel so much speaking, and when I am home on weekends, I really like to visit my daughters (and my grandson). So sometimes I go to church and get upset that people don’t seem to know me, or that I’m not more involved.

And yet I know that I have community–it’s just not at church.

This weekend I wasn’t in church because Keith and my mom and I flew out to Halifax. Tammy, my good friend and my main assistant on the blog, had her daughter getting married, and Keith and I were honoured to be the MCs. Two years ago this week, when Katie got married, Tammy’s husband Steeve officiated (and he officiated at our 25th anniversary renewal of the vows, too). I’ve got community, even if it’s not in the traditional church sense. And that’s really what matters.

This month, on our Monday series, we’re going to look at how to build the community we need.

What do you think? Where do you find community? Let’s talk in the comments!

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Courtney

    I LOVE this! It took me quite a while to find community. We left s church that I felt that my God given gifts were being stifled and I was not ‘allowed’ to use them. Community lacked and I really dreaded going to church.
    I felt God stirring my heart and we changed churches. I feel alive and healthy again. The pastor asked me soon after we started coming where my passions were. I was given the blessing to start a ‘moms’ care group and a church key very soon after. Being involved has allowed me to get to know so many people and this is just the start. My passion for serving has been reignited.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s wonderful, Courtney! I think sometimes the best thing we can do is to leave a certain congregation and find a healthy one.
      I want to talk about this more on the podcast (likely next week), but we’re not supposed to leave churches only because of simple interpersonal issues. Iron should sharpen iron; there will always be personal clashes, and in real community you work it out.
      But toxic systems are something else entirely. That’s not a personal clash; that’s a systemic problem. And it’s very hard for one person to change a system. Some may feel called to it, and then they should stay. But I think if more of us left toxic systems and went to healthy churches, then the toxic ones would fold and the healthy would grow. Because the same people, in a different system, will be different. Toxic systems tend to stress authority above all else, and tend to make it difficult to question leaders. They want you to fall into line. They stress appearance over substance. And they try to control. That’s not safe. Everyone needs accountability, and everyone needs to be valued. If your church isn’t like that, it’s okay to find one where that is true.
      I used to believe that you should stick it out and try to make it work, but what I’ve realized is that not all churches are the same. Some seriously are toxic or unhealthy. And then you’re only making yourself sick fighting it. Better to go somewhere where you can use your gifts and passions, as you found.

    • Jennifer

      This post was an eye-opener for me. I left a church for the same reason, because no one seemed to reach out to me, I felt invisible. We were let by Good to another ministry and they have opened up and embraced us (my family) but I am introverted and can be social to a fault then I feel akward and lose confidence and often have a mental shut down. I don’t know how to reach out after the initial pleasentries.

  2. MHMC

    When I was married, my husband hated community. So we stayed pretty much to ourselves. I got my community at work and church, but in very small amounts. He got his community from me. It was exhausting. Now, I’m not married. And my community is my community (the town and all its events and organizations), my church, my work, and all my volunteer activities. I have thrived more in the last four years getting involved in my community, then I did the 16 years I was married. I think it shows how important community is, and how much a part of our health and well-being it is.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s very true. You can’t be someone’s total community.
      And thank you for also pointing out that we can find community in other places–in community volunteer activities, at gyms, at work, all kinds of things! We just need people.

  3. Cara

    This is a hard one for us. We are definitely introverted. And we have recently moved to a new state in a small town. I honestly don’t care too much for myself-I have a couple of girlfriends that I message with and my grown daughter (although she has a husband so I try to keep good boundaries there)-but we have kids who lost a HUGE community. And are at an age where friendships are or are becoming more important. And people in general (myself included) are very self centered and often just don’t notice that person that’s new and feels awkward. We don’t notice and know how to genuinely reach out and draw a new person in!
    This article resonates so much with me tho. I have chosen to pull inward more and more as life has beat me down and people have let me down. I’m willing to give for sure, but no longer to the detriment of my family.

  4. Lea

    One thing I’ve had to realize as an adult, is if you want to form real friendships, you have to show up and reach out, even if it scares you. Ask somebody to have a drink, or meet you for coffee, or attend an event. If you get along, just invite them. Show up when invited. Say yes to invitations. Eventually things feel natural even if they didn’t initially.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Very, very true!

    • Ashley

      I’m really looking forward to the rest of this series. Community is so important, and it’s lacking in my life right now. The church I attend with the rest of my family has changed over the last few years. The atmosphere has become toxic as pastors have come and gone. It’s really sad. It just doesn’t feel like a safe place anymore. I think we will be making a change over the next few months. We are all adults, and want to wait if we can until we are all ready to leave, so there aren’t any family members that stay that have to deal with church gossip relating to our leaving.
      I would be interested in any pointers in finding other community in the meantime. Hopefully you’ll be covering some of that!

      • Ashley

        Oops, I didn’t mean to respond to someone else! Sometimes I get confused when I’m doing this from my phone. 😉

  5. Ina

    For years we’ve made it a New Year’s goal to try to reach out to members of our community and we’ve always just petered out. My husband and I are extremely introverted.
    This year, though, we’ve followed through and stretched ourselves. There have been several occasions where before the company comes we both gripe about it and dread it but when they left, we’d look at eachother and marvel at how life giving it was. Then we go to bed as soon as we can!
    As an introvert, I’ve tried so hard to avoid hosting and even accepting invitations. I’m steadily being encouraged by our success and meaningful times to say yes more often!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yay! I love this. I may put this as a standalone comment on Facebook to encourage others!

      • Lydia purple

        I moved twice in my life all by myself to a far away place where I didn’t know anybody. I am an introvert too, but somehow I ended up both times with a community that had lots of variety. I love to think back to my going away party before moving to a different continent and the people that were together that you wouldn’t usually find together…. Students from all different directions, believing friends from a variety of churches, a bunch of Homeless that we used to visit or buy coffee for or invite home for lunch, my best friends who were my roommates. Good times.
        I started to stretch myself regarding hospitality when I got married as my husband loves to invite people over and I love to cook for people. Now we have people over a lot (several times a week – mom friends for coffee, dinner guests, neighbors popping in, after church lunch with friends, weekly homeschool group gathering…) i found my rhythm in keeping the house in acceptable shape and still keeping breaks for my introvert sanity even though many people come and go … it is second nature now. Some people even say that they feel super relaxed and comfortable to come to my house and enjoy the community they experience here. It is fruit of faithful planted seeds, because I was not a natural at this whole hospitality thing…

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          That’s beautiful, Lydia! And I love how you can say that you weren’t a natural, but you learned. Your point about how you had to keep the house in acceptable shape was one we were going to add, but we kept taking it out because the post was too long already and it sounded kind of like I was scolding people. But we’re hoping to talk about it in a podcast so it’s more personable, but Rebecca definitely found that a huge part of them having community was people feeling free to drop by on a moment’s notice. And that can’t happen unless you do keep a basic level of tidiness. Rebecca had to learn that (she’s not naturally gifted!), but it’s really helped.

          • Lydia purple

            Yes, it is kind of important but sometimes life happens and you have to let people see your mess…. I am seriously nervous when people who have no kids need to use the bathroom. We have still a little one who sometimes leaves a mess behind and that can happen even if you cleaned just before guests arrived… it’s sort of like a game of pot luck 😬

          • Ina

            Yes to this! We have 3 little ones so it’s never “perfect,” but we have really purged the clutter so I’m able to keep our home at a nice level of cleanliness in about 20 minutes a day rotating areas each day a week. Things happen, of course, like sickness, teething, etc… that throw things out of wack, but it doesn’t take much to get on track because our routine and rhythms are so smooth now!

  6. Hannah

    So glad you’re running this series, Sheila. My husband and I are really passionate about having a strong community. We’re getting a great chance to put our principles into practice, since we moved to a new city in a new state just this past summer. I’ve been steadily working on building up my community since I arrived, and it’s bearing fruit. It’s a hard thing to do, but very worth it. Can’t wait to hear what else you have to say about it, since it’s a slippery topic and hard to find help and/or resources about.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Good for you finding your community in a new place! It does take some energy and some perseverance, but it’s so worth it.

  7. Purplecandy

    Thank you for saying that community isn’t just church. With a full time job and a handful of young children, attending on sundays is the best I can do. I definitely cannot come early (not being late is hard enough) and do not stay after service (children usually start to meltdown by then). I have been stuck to the “babies” room for the last seven years and formed some friendships there at some point but other moms moved on while I had other babies.
    I ended up questioning going to church altogether… I haven’t heard more than a dozen messages in seven years. My church is nice but it just doesn’t seem to make sense at that stage in my lire. I do, however, have strong community outside of church.

    • Ina

      I understand what you’re saying! I’ve spent many a car ride home crying because it felt useless: I walked a baby in the back the whole time, or spent the majority of the day taking a disobedient toddler out, etc… It’s exhausting! We’ve definitely chosen to spend the morning at home reading Bible stories before and listening to worship music. I was encouraged about a year ago and maybe this will encourage you as well… I truly believe we’re sowing seeds in these days. When our children see us getting up, making the effort and prioritizing our church community they notice. They know that it’s a big enough deal that mommy and daddy make it happen. I pray that it will speak to my children and that it will reap in later years, when they are older and we can all be more involved.

  8. Michelle

    It’s funny how many of these comments are from people who are introverts. I’m right there with you all! My husband and I are both full-blown, introverted hermits, and it can be exhausting just going to Sunday morning service, even when your church is wonderful. It’s nice knowing there’s a band of people who feel the same way!
    And I love that you mentioned how you’re community doesn’t have to be the same age. As a 29 year old woman who can’t have kids, nearly all of the women my age are fully engrossed in activities with their children, and that’s wonderful! But it can be hard to find people my age who are able to have a community outside of the Mommy and Me type things. A lovely women at my church brought me into other ministries and most of the women are in their 60s and 70s, but it’s absolutely amazing to fellowship with them. And Sheila – several of the ladies follow your knitting escapades, it’s a blast!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, I should post more about what I knit on the cruise! Yesterday while we were out in Nova Scotia for a wedding we stopped into such a cute yarn store and I bought the buttons for the new purple sweater. I’ll be sewing them on tonight, and I”ll try to remember to post pictures! 🙂 And, yes, older women are wonderful in your life.

    • Lea

      I’m a little older than you but most of my friends are married (i’m single)…I’ve found that if you can find the people with no kids, and the ones who have grown kids they are a great source of non-kid related friendships even if the ages vary! (I have friends with kids too, but the friendships are different of a necessity, particularly when their kids are young. There is definitely a kid activity/school mom thing that I’m never a part of)

      • Cynthia

        We’ve been really lucky to find community in a few different places.
        We got married when my husband was in med school and he continued doing residency in Toronto as well. Many of his classmates and colleagues became close friends, and a lot lived in the same condo complex (the Liberties), so we were always visiting each other or just meeting in the rec area. We also made a few connections through public baby groups (community center and YMCA) and found a very friendly and funky congregation. You are right about helping out – I would help out in the kitchen toward the end of services to set up the food after services, and it was a chance to talk with whoever else was helping.
        It took a little while after we moved up here, but we do have a great group that has formed. Our close friends down the street don’t have family locally, so they truly view us and a few other friends as family. We are Jewish and observe the Sabbath, so we usually see them at services on Saturday and then get together. In the spring and summer, with nicer weather and longer days, we started a rotation where we get everything together at a different family’s home in late afternoon for a meal – basically a backyard party each week. I’ve noticed that as we and our children get older, the adults tend to socialize more. We started a book club, and several of my friends started playing mahjong weekly.
        One tip for anyone looking to organize help within a community – meal train.com is a great tool. We are using it for a friend going through chemo and it saves a lot of hassle.

  9. Nathan

    Sheila writes
    > > I used to believe that you should stick it out and try to make it work
    I believe in this, up to a point. On the one hand, you shouldn’t leave a situation as soon as the first imperfection shows up, but you also shouldn’t stay in a place/situation that’s definitely toxic or is hurtful to you or your family.

  10. Rosanna

    I rarely comment but I read often. We left a church just over a year ago. (I was a messy and toxic situation) It took us almost six months to decide where to go next. It isn’t easy to make new friends in a new church. Our new church is close knit and many have been there for years. Because of that, you can see how comfortable everyone is with each other, especially the kids. I often remind myself and my kids that they don’t truly mean to be cliquey, they just sometimes forget themselves. So, we have all worked to try, try again and are slowly seeing the fruits of those labors. I love how loving and kind people are, though. It has felt like such a safe place after coming from somewhere so toxic.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m glad you got out! That’s such a big step. And, yes, it can be hard to break in. I’ll do a post about the easiest ways next week!

  11. Becky

    I am so happy that you are talking about this!My two words for this year are health and community and that is my focus for 2020.Cant wait to hear more from you on this subject:)


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